While the downturn is proving good news for some cheap-as-chips brands like Primark and KFC, life is a little more confusing at the top end of the market.
Those brands operating in the realm of luxury are having to adapt as consumers reassess their relationship with their outgoings.
Trends analyst The Future Laboratory has dubbed this new phenomenon ‘the shame of luxury’.
‘Amid a global downturn, luxury consumers are starting to behave bashfully about their purchases, and so are shopping in a less conspicuous, almost covert manner,’ says the trend forecaster.
This is backed up by Richard Baker, chief executive of Premium Knowledge Group, a Dallas-based consultancy focusing on affluent consumers. ‘Only 30 per cent of luxury consumers are those with very visible consumption, but it is this percentage that will be the most affected and become more demure in their purchases,’ he says.
The brands themselves and their designers are responding to this. For some, like InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, this isn’t a new trend, and it’s something that they’ve actually been benefiting from.
‘Our last wave of consumer research showed that our core customers (affluent, aficionados of travel, on high incomes, 70 per cent of them male) do have an affinity for quality, and enough money to buy it. But there’s a preference for very discreet brands,’ says Anthony Ingham, global director of guest experience at hotel group InterContinental.
In design terms, this translates into practical luxury rather than bling or showiness, says Ingham. So architects and designers of InterContinental’s new hotels are consciously discouraged from flashy solutions, such as extravagant chandeliers and the like.
‘In Western markets, we’re quite forceful about that, while in China and the Middle East we have less shiny hotels than our competitors,’ says Ingham.
In the lobby of the InterContinental Dubai Festival City, which opened last year, GA Design International installed contemporary, souk-inspired lighting fixtures rather than the usual swathes of dangling crystal.
This contrasts with Dubai’s multi-starred hotel resort Madinat Jumeirah and its strapline: ‘Luxurious and ornate, combining the height of opulence with an overwhelming sense of tradition.’
Madinat Jumeirah’s manifold manifestations of its luxury status include animal figurines, fashioned origami-style from a fluffy white bath towel and complete with sticker eyes, which are placed on each guest’s bed every evening. The towelling offer changes nightly, the repertoire including birds, reptiles and mammals.
This was a perfectly acceptable interpretation of luxury for a ‘new’ market, and sums up much of what’s going on in the Middle East, Far East, Russia and the like to a tee – ostentatious, labour-intensive, superfluous and short-lived.
But it doesn’t sit well with The Future Laboratory’s ‘coy consumers’, and these are the people who InterContinental is starting to attract. ‘We are benefiting in a way, because our positioning fits well with customers having a mindset shift from upper luxury hotels like Ritz Carlton and Mandarin Oriental,’ says Ingham.
InterContinental isn’t the only brand steering away from overt opulence. Mulberry is another, as its new brand book shows. ‘It really illustrates a new attitude in luxury,’ says its designer, Georgia Fendley, founder of Construct London and consultant brand director of Mulberry. ‘It’s exquisitely crafted, the copy is economic, insightful and entertaining, and it’s printed on 100 per cent post-consumer waste.’
‘Some consumers may still want the reassurance and the signals of having achieved a certain status, but that’s not what Mulberry is about,’ says Fendley, who is responsible for its marketing, visual merchandising and PR. She and Emma Hill, creative director of product, started together at Mulberry last year, and have made some big changes, she says. ‘Emma has started to create product that’s practical and functional and more accessible in terms of price.’
Other brands, like Armani, have divided their offer into different price points – what Chris Dewar-Dixon at Four IV calls diffusion lines. The high end is Black Label, then there’s the couture collection Armani Privé, as well as Collectione, Emporio and the young and funky AX. ‘Each still carries the Armani aesthetic, but the cost differential comes through different sourcing,’ says Dewar-Dixon, who designed the Emporio Armani store on London’s Brompton Road.
Perhaps the real criminal here is the term luxury itself, which has become so devalued. ‘Luxury is such a difficult word. Real luxury is something that most people don’t know about,’ says Dewar-Dixon.
‘My obsession is authentic luxury, not flashy spending. People had become obsessed with status, and status and luxury are two different things,’ says Fendley.