“Twenty years ago, the easiest and cheapest way to buy into a luxury fashion brand was through their sunglasses or fragrance lines – you might not have been able to afford a thousand-pound suit, but maybe you could afford to spend £50 on a perfume or £100 on a pair of sunglasses,” so says Alasdair Lennox, executive creative director at retail design consultancy Fitch. “That’s all changing now.”
The change Lennox is referring to is the growing number of luxury fashion brands which are moving beyond the “wearable”, in favour of the experiential. To appeal to a generation that values doing over having, it appears more and more labels are turning to branded hospitality spaces.
Last month, the world was introduced to three such destinations: Gucci’s Gucci Osteria, located on Los Angeles’ high-fashion high street Rodeo Drive; Louis Vuitton’s Le Café V, housed inside its Osaka, Japan maison; and Tiffany’s Blue Box Café, in London’s Harrods department store. These examples follow in the footsteps of the likes of Burberry, Comme des Garçons, Prada and Dior.
“It’s not about walking into an advert”
There is, of course, more than just a tenuous link between haute couture and haute cuisine. Consumers who have the money to spend on the former, will often have the money to spend on the latter, and vice versa.
Gucci and Louis Vuitton have brought in three-Michelin starred Mossimo Bottura and protégé chef Yosuke Suga respectively, to ensure the restaurants stays true to a high fashion experience. But beyond the food, the spaces themselves similarly need to replicate the aesthetic of the brand.
Whether it’s the Blue Box Café accented in Tiffany’s unmistakeable shade of blue, or bespoke charger plates for Le Café V designed by one of the label’s accessory designers, Lennox says the goal of these spaces is to create a “shrine” to the brand, without being overt.
“These restaurants are essentially cathedrals to their label,” he says. “It’s not so much about walking into an advert as it is more about designing an experience that explores the nuances of its relationship with consumers.”
“An intangible experience”
While a highly-branded approach works with apparel – think big-buckle Gucci belts or Louis Vuitton monogram bags – a branded experience usually relies on a more subtle concept.
“We’re using materiality and light and form,” says Joshua Weiselberg, co-founder of TBD, the architecture and design studio which helped design the interiors for French-Japanese fashion label Maison Kitsuné’s New York-based Café Kitsuné.
“[It’s about] what the seats feel like, what the tables feel like, what draws your eyes around the space, what grabs attention, what establishes the background and so on – none of that is about signage.”
With the Maison Kitsuné label being known for its minimalist fusion of French and Japanese style, Weiselberg says the design of the space itself was intended to create “an intangible experience” of this union.
According to Maison Kitsuné, the space features “natural materials [which evoke] a Japanese Sensibility”, while furnishings include some distinctly French additions, like chairs created by France’s oldest rattan workshop, Maison Drucker.
Similarly, the café needed to provide a nod to Maison Kitsuné’s popular record label off shoot, Kitsuné Musique. Working in this vein, the space was created to both be a “coffee centric space”, and an evening venue, according to Weiselberg.
Designed for Instagram
But while Weiselberg says most of the brand experience is created without the use of signage, he does add that in some cases, it can be used “to have a little fun”.
On the café’s back bar, a gold leaf version of the Café Kitsuné wordmark plays on the aesthetic of the “classic bistro/café concept”, he says. Meanwhile in the bathrooms, a “field of graphic fox logos” (kitsuné is fox in Japanese) on the mirrors.
These sparingly used references to the brand can also be particularly useful in identifying the experience on social media. Having inherently shareable “reference points” is part of the success of these hospitality experiences, according to Sean McEvoy, director of Portview Fit-Out, the company behind the Tiffany Blue Box Café project in Harrods.
In McEvoy’s case with Tiffany, having the unmistakably “branded backdrop” of Tiffany Blue is invaluable in drumming up online attention, he says. Being able to bring to life the idea of “breakfast at Tiffany’s” was similarly useful.
“The social media generation really goes a long way to helping market a place like this,” says McEvoy. “It’s all about brand awareness – from any post online you could recognise if a picture had been taken here at the Blue Box Café.”
“Memories are valuable commodities”
This growing trend, both Lennox and McEvoy agree, marks a new point for retail.
“For my generation, people went to the shops to buy something, but now younger generations can get everything they need at home,” says McEvoy. “Now, companies need to give consumers a reason to come out, and a brand experience is really how they’re doing that – in a sense, retail is dying, but in another way, it is being reborn.”
Lennox echoes this, saying: “45% of millennials value experience over buying things – where once a young person might have bought Gucci, now they want to go to a Gucci restaurant to have a multi-sensory experience.”
Replacing sunglasses and perfume as the go-to “entry point” into luxury brands, Lennox says today’s branded restaurant experiences allow consumers to “spend time with the brand like they never have before”, while still retaining an “air of exclusivity” which can be found across the high fashion industry.
This trend for more “ownable experiences”, will only grow in popularity as consumers continue to distance themselves from traditional spending habits, he predicts.
“In an experience economy, memories are valuable commodities.”