Luxury brands, struggling in the recession, woo customers with the promise of unique products and tailor-made experiences
There is a collective gasp as the pale, flaxen, seemingly innocuous stick yields under heat and arches its back to form the base of Gucci’s iconic Bamboo bag. At this workshop in Florence, Italy, without the tags running into thousands of Euros, the pieces being crafted by hand for customers the world over are lovingly being given an identity that defines much of the fashion world today: They go by the term bespoke or custom made. A similar story is unfolding in sleepy small towns across Europe as big luxury brands are inspired to create the finest products for whimsical customers, many of whom are not even sure what they want. At Asnieres, on the outskirts of Paris, energy crackles in sunlit rooms stacked with bales of exquisite leather waiting to be carved up by Louis Vuitton craftsmen. A special travel case for a chess board, another for knives; clearly no demand is too outrageous, no price too high to pay in this world of limited edition. Here, the customer is king and ultimate craftsman, creating his or her own piece out of spools of imagination that are then given shape at these luxury workshops.
Luxury is no longer what it once was. The high that came from picking expensive bags off shelves at Saks Fifth Avenue or a store in Champs Elysees has waned and the nouveau customer is hungry for more. Gone are the days when it was okay for two women in Hollywood to sport the same shoe or wear the same perfume. Everything has to have the stamp of individuality that money today can so readily buy. The digital tsunami has also meant that most consumers in the developed world have access to a mind-numbing range of customisations, most of them available at the click of a button—from cars and pens to tableware, linen, clothes and bags.
Everyone now wants to be able to boast of a custom-made pair of Tod’s loafers, that immaculate (read almost too expensive to wear) Savile Row shirt or a wow Hermes bag that’s tailored to their demands. Top brands recognise that in order to keep customers interested in their products, they have to make them feel unique. While Burberry has recently launched a special commissioned service, Gucci’s made-tomeasure campaign is a global hit as is Zegna’s customised suits service.
Although made-to-order is a trend that has been around for years, top luxury brands have taken ownership of the term and turned it on its head for customer convenience. As a designer with a top luxury brand reveals, some of the requests are downright quirky, like the one time a customer in UAE requested especially made loafers in every imaginable colour and leather. The result was over 40 pairs of shoes that had to be shipped to him, never mind the cost.
In India, custom-made items have never been viewed as luxury because we have grown up getting things made as per our fancy; from a pair of comfortable juttis that fit just right to mattresses that allow us to sleep well to clothes that are made by the local darzi, even sweaters and clothes for newborn babies. Does this feel like luxury? Most of the people offering these services have been home-grown creators who have typically charged a minimal amount for their services. Bespoke in that sense has never felt like a luxury; more a way of life, but Indian boutiques and designers are now wising up to its power.
The experience is tailored differently for different products. In Champagne, France, for instance, a well-known liquor brand took a high-net customer to its vineyards, where he got an opportunity to mix his own fermented produce to create that truly special glass of bubbly. A lot of it is gimmicky, but no one is complaining.
With an increasing number of individuals becoming curators of luxury, we pick some brands that connote custom-made chic, because of the time taken, craftsmanship involved, and the individuality they bring with them. Some are obscure, not terribly expensive, and provide highly specialised services, but isn’t that what the new luxury experience is all about?