Carat and stick

Packaging for premium luxury products must be decadent or even elitist, but the line dividing prestigious and ostentatious can blur.

The sharp click of a lipstick lid is rather like the satisfying clunk of an expensive sports car door: it immediately conveys the notion of luxury. In the luxury market, packaging is an essential part of each purchase, and nowhere more so than for the beauty industry. ‘You can’t tell one blusher from another once it’s on someone’s cheek,’ points out Angela Creasy, cosmetics buyer at Liberty. ‘But when you open your evening bag you don’t want to be seen pulling out a supermarket brand lipstick.’

Packaging, beyond simply containing the product in question, offers a way of presenting it and communicating its brand’s values. But in a crowded marketplace, is luxury becoming harder to define?

‘It is no longer just about opulence, it’s about things that are scarce: purity, safety and space,’ explains Lewis Moberly strategic planning director Hilary Boys. ‘There is a sliding scale between two faces: “showy” and “knowy”. ‘We need to focus on where the brand we’re working with lies on that scale and design for it accordingly.’

Although graphics, colour and typography are critical, luxury is often best conveyed by more subtle means. Perfume is invisible, so the packaging (often designed before the fragrance has been created) takes on a supreme importance in an attempt to embody the smell within and sell the aspirational image the company hopes to project. Tactile elements are very powerful – the feel of the glass, the weight of the bottle and the whoosh of the atomiser all denote quality.

Bottle moulds are expensive to produce, but they can create a dramatic impact. Jean Paul Gaultier’s Classique fragrance is still as powerful an ambassador for the fashion house as it was when it was launched 14 years ago. The mould – a woman’s corseted torso – has been cleverly exploited: limited edition fragrances appear annually clothed in a different ‘dress’. Ultimately, the bottle is immediately recognisable, even though the fragrance it contains may not be. The bottle itself is sold in an aluminium can, a witty juxtaposition of luxury and utilitarian chic that reflects the designer’s work.

Alcohol bottles rely on similar principles to the beauty industry to attract our attention. When Wren & Rowe was approached to re-package Andresen port to appeal to a younger market (it launched last month), the group quickly realised that men are more excited by toiletries in duty free shops than alcohol.

Wren & Rowe managing director Paul Foulkes-Arellano admits, ‘We’re trying to use cosmetic language in the packaging and we’re looking to male toiletries brands like Hugo Boss and Calvin Klein for visual clues.’

The standard cheap wooden box with sliding Perspex lid has been replaced with a sleek, slick aluminium cylinder, and all the packaging is manufactured in Italy in a factory that – perhaps coincidentally – also makes cosmetics.

John Blackburn, executive creative director of Blackburns, is working with several Eastern European distillers, many of which are keen to give their products a sense of luxury and Western values. He has just completed designing a bottle for a premium Polish vodka Pravda, which launches this month.

‘The only thing to distinguish it from a perfume bottle is scale,’ he explains. The form is based on a stretched champagne bottle, designed to tower above competitors in a crowded bar and convey an image of elitism. The tall, frosted glass bottle has been given a crackle-look finish to express icy coldness, while banknotes and customs stamps are used as graphics on the glass and on the paper seal to give the product added authenticity.

Limiting the number of items produced is another way to achieve luxury status, and for its autumn/winter 2003/04 collection, Evisu has launched limited edition jeans. Originally conceived as mass-produced durable workwear, jeans have evolved to earn their place in the luxury goods market, and to prove it, these are priced at £350 per pair. The jeans are presented in heavily lacquered, one-off wooden boxes that are hand-crafted in Japan and traditionally used for wedding kimonos. The jeans come in four different styles, and each box has a picture on the front that corresponds to an embroidered picture on the garment’s back pocket, so fashionistas can choose from a tiger, a Buddha fishing, a crane and a bull.

With his reputation for va-va-voom clothes, Matthew Williamson turned to Sea Design in April for help re-vamping his packaging. ‘If you’re buying a dress for £2500, you want absolutely everything from the swing tag and the little pouch for the extra buttons to the carrier bag to be perfect. It’s all part of the experience,’ says Sea director Bryan Edmonson.

First to go were the embroidered bags, which Edmonson felt looked ‘too screamingly obvious and over-the-top’. The replacements are cool, pared back and restrained, but with a surprise splash of fluorescent pink inside. Each bag is a vanilla cream colour with the same pink used for the lettering (Sea redrew the font based on Williamson’s own signature – ‘he flicks the ‘M’ down, so we did the same’, Edmondson explains). Grosgrain ribbon handles in pale pistachio were Williamson’s touch. The design is intended to be flexible, so the next collection’s accent could be fluorescent orange.

Williamson originally wanted to economise and use thinner card for the bags, but Edmonson persuaded him against it. ‘It’s a walking ad for the brand. We want the snob value of people putting their stuff inside a Williamson bag and carrying it around. Apparently, people come into the shop off the street and say: “We love the bags – can we have one?”‘

The world of book publishers may seem too erudite to be openly trend-driven, but in an increasingly competitive market, publishers are forced to resort to every trick in the book to get the tills ringing. At 34kg Taschen’s new heavyweight tome Goat (Greatest Of All of Them ), chronicling the life of Muhammad Ali, could cause some to buckle. Published in June and available in two versions: the Champ’s Edition (limited to 1000 copies and containing an original art piece by Jeff Koons) retails at a whopping £5000; and the collector’s edition, limited to 9000 copies retails at £2000.

Each book is signed by Ali and Koons and bound by the Vatican’s official bindery in pink leather (the colour of Ali’s first Cadillac) and packaged in a white silk-covered box, screen-printed with Neil Leifer’s iconic 1966 photograph of the Ali vs Williams fight. The box is lined with gold paper and features Lloyd Wells’ quote: ‘I’m telling you, if someone cut Ali open, they’d find his heart was made of pure gold.’ Beyond simply protecting the book, the box creates an extra layer of interest and adds an element of mystery. ‘There is a sense of discovering a treasure lying within the golden case,’ says Goat editor Ovais Naqvi.

While inventive packaging helps distinguish a book from the crowd, if the results are too gimmicky they can detract from the seriousness of the contents within. According to Jamie Camplin, editorial director at Thames and Hudson, ‘A classic, strong design in a conventional book style can last for years and years, whereas something more radical can look stale very quickly.’ Another concern is cost: materials, production and time, as well as added distribution costs if there is extra weight, all add up.

Some may argue that with true luxury, however, money is no object. Bernard Arnault – chairman of the French conglomerate Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton – has predicted ‘a good year for luxury’, and perhaps the greatest expression of confidence in the market comes from one of his companies, Louis Vuitton. The Tourbillon watch arrives packaged in its own piece of personalised LV luggage – a perfectly detailed, miniaturised leather trunk – and retails at an eye-watering £110 000.

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