Accessible luxury – Jack Yan

Jack Yan writes that luxury is about accessibility, design excellence, and quality, but it is not about exclusivity. This is the first in a series of guest blog posts from luxury brand marketers and owners...

Luxury can no longer be defined along the same lines as we grew up with, or whatever we learned at business school. Before the Rolls-Royce motor car brand fell into BMW hands, annual sales had dwindled: Bentley, once the poor brother of Rolls-Royce, was much more PC and less ostentatious. Even today, HM the Queen’s official car is a hand-made Bentley, an unforeseeable event at the time of her Silver Jubilee.

But in the travel market, I have noticed an opening up at the very top end. To date I still have not heard of a six-star hotel, but I have heard of seven-star ones.

So is this just the changing of the guard?

It can’t be that simple. Recessionary environments do cause a rejection of some luxury brands, but others preserve their niche, comfortably. Yet others extend downward in order to keep sales up.

But at the other end, what were everyday brands have acquired an air of luxury themselves. Levi’s was made for gold prospecting, not posing, at least not initially. Volkswagen was the People’s Car of the Third Reich, not the archetypal “quality” European automobile by which everyone, even Toyota, judges its small hatchbacks.

We have Hennes & Mauritz selling clothes in collaboration with Stella McCartney, then Viktor and Rolf, and now Madonna, just to make the old segments irrelevant, or at best, muddled.

Other forces at work have included the democratization of experiences: the James Bond lifestyle, once the stuff of fantasy, is no longer out of reach. Jet travel itself, indulged by millionaires once upon a time, can cost as little as £1 through some of Britain’s cheapest airlines.

It was in this world that Lucire branched into print in 2004, after seven years, having secured by the end of 2003 the position of the world’s leading online-only fashion magazine. The first problem was: if segmentation as we knew it was dead, then where on earth would this magazine fit?

And the second problem: even if we figured it out, and even if the customer knew, would the channels understand?

One reason I always felt at home in Scandinavia is the whole idea that luxury, or at least design excellence, should be available to all. It is a familiar principle to anyone who had studied the history of the Bauhaus Design School in Weimar; fortunately for the Swedes, they managed to keep those principles going in a fairly uninterrupted fashion through World War II.

Lucire was born in 1997, at a time when the notion of democratization was stronger than that of snobbery. It did not matter if a web site was made by a one-man band or if it were created under the auspices of Condé Nast; anyone, with the smoke-and-mirrors knowledge provided by design and typography, could play the luxury game. And so we did, with one eye remaining on the way consumers were changing.

And they were, rapidly. Luxury was about accessibility, not exclusivity. Premium is the new mainstream. Those words remained with us as 2003 became 2004, and Lucire’s future as a multi-media (the hyphen is intentional) property unfolded.

I still believe this. Quality can be had for $9.95 or $99.50, and in the fashion business, these sorts of differences are not unrealistic. We decided that Lucire’s price had to undercut some of the existing magazines, even though we were printing on a larger format page, based on the idea that consumers were moving away from the old divisions. We had to bring some of the internet principles into print.

We priced Lucire above the popular Australian-owned competitor, Fashion Quarterly, not to be confused with the same magazine from Canada. We would tread the middle of the road, for our own readers had told us that that was where their incomes lay. But we would spoil them with premium products, which many would buy, if some sales’ improvement figures of some of our clients are to be believed.

When the United States’ richest man, William Gates III, drove a Lexus, this strategy did not seem to be foolhardy. Rich people could buy us because rich people, as Mr Gates showed, like good value, too. Everyday people could buy us because we weren’t ripping them off.

Yet some channels in New Zealand, our first market, were still stuck in the marketing school world of the 1950s. Rich and poor. Premium and poverty. Hardly reflective of a nation that prides itself on being nationally middle-class, where tipping is unheard of and considered the province of less civilized nations that still looked at the world through master-and-servant eyes.

Lucire found itself in the nicest suburbs like Merivale, Christchurch, where it sold out in its first week; but equally, it would sell out in the student bookstores nationally. But we were not finding ourselves in the middle among retailers, where our readers were, and we were failing to crack the sales’ figures of our major competitors. That much I admit, publicly. Those middle-of-the-road retailers who stuck with us find we sell reasonably well and we were all rewarded.

My idea of luxury is probably in line with the consumers’. It is about accessibility, design excellence, and quality, but it is not about exclusivity. Everyone deserves to be spoiled from time to time. A luxury brand, and I do count Lucire as one, need not be so narrowly focused that only the rich buy into its world. Nor does it need to have every channel member indulging at the top end of the income spectrum. Luxury, ultimately, is a state of being, and that can be done at a variety of prices.

But try telling that to retailers, who have not branched out from their bimodal reckoning of the market-place.

The ideas of accessible luxury is not totally foreign in other regions, otherwise H&M would not even dare try its M by Madonna line. However, they do own their own stores, which should perhaps be our next move…

Jack Yan’s website is here.

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