Not as we knew it: a post-millennial, post-luxury world is being redefined from the bottom up, as epitomised by London Craft Week, writes STEPHEN SHORT
WE LIVE IN interesting times. Streetwear brand Supreme recently conducted a whopping five collaborations – with North Face, Undercover, Rimowa and Lacoste, and using images from American photographer Nan Goldin – in a little more than a month. Russian designer and go-to fashion hipster Gosha Rubchinskiy, who makes perfume for Comme des Garçons among a host of other accolades, announced via his Instagram on April 4 that he was done with his eponymous label and is moving out of fashion. And Virgil Abloh, a man who studied civil engineering and architecture but never had any formal training in fashion, has become the creative director of Louis Vuitton. It’s not that there aren’t conventional rules anymore; it’s just that a new – and temporary – set has sprung up in their place. Given the nowpermanent state of high/low or collaborative projects between high- end luxury and street, what’s down the road?
It’s a situation on the mind of Guy Salter, a man dubbed Mr Luxury by the UK press, who as well as being an OBE is a long-standing specialist investor and retailer. He started out at the Arcadia Group, gradually moving from fast fashion to luxury, with a spell working for the Prince of Wales. (The two set up the 100 per cent organic brand Duchy Originals with profits benefitting charities). Salter has been the director of British jeweller Asprey and champagne house Laurent-Perrier, as well as an investor in a range of retail and technology businesses such as Garrard and Monica Vinader (he invested in the latter a year before she opened her first store on South Molton Street). His pro bono work includes 15 years leading Walpole, which represents the British luxury industry. And in 2015, he founded London Craft Week, an annual “beyond luxury” showcase that launches its fourth show this month, with more than 230 events spread across the city. Former Prime Minister David Cameron made him vice-chairman of the Great Britain Campaign in 2012, and he’s also chairman of the Great Festival of Innovation, recently held in Hong Kong.
So, is luxury as we know it – or even luxury fast-forward, our #legend tagline – doomed? “If by that, do you mean are the luxury companies all going to disappear?” queries Salter. “Perhaps some brands will, yes, or they will if they don’t change.” Luxury has become too transactional and ubiquitous, he believes. A century ago, a very small group of people who could afford luxury made it a much more human thing. They were familyowned businesses, where the person who came into the shop had often commissioned something, which gave it much more value.
“It was like a partnership,” he says.
London Craft Week is Salter’s antidote to massed- out contemporary luxury. “London Craft Week is a response to a renaissance in the appreciation of creativity and craft, to the role of hand, head, unique skills and true talent,” he explains. “It is another example of what, at its best, the world’s creative capital does so well – mixing glamour with cutting edge, heritage with contemporary, and the commercial with the cultural.”
In matters of luxury, he thinks mass commercialism has affected everything.
“The level of knowledge and intimacy the industry had was then obliterated by the growth of baby boomers and the rest,” he explains. “It was a huge success for luxury brands, but also contained the seeds of some of their destruction, because they’ve then had to turn into marketing machines they could never have envisaged.”
All of which comes at a cost, both financial and reputational. “Once that happens, you spend huge amounts of capital transforming shops into temples and broadcasting a brand’s new wares as often as possible,” he explains. “But once they do that, standards start slipping in terms of quality, and creativity starts to suffer as things get churned around in collection after collection.” Ultimately, Salter sees little spark. “Consumers are bored, bored, bored out of our brains with seeing the same old brands and the same old shopping malls wherever we go. Plus, we’ve already got so much stuff – none of us needs to keep buying more and more clothes.”
Hence, he’s not entirely upbeat on immediate prospects. “I think potentially there are the seeds for a real devastation of some of these brands,” he says. Noticeable, too, is a sense of tension in the luxury industry. “I do sense a certain nervousness out there on the part of some purveyors. Several brands actually do play a classic luxury brand game, but it’s becoming harder and harder. And I think we’ll reach that awful moment when a brand has not been quite clever enough to keep up, and it wakes up one day and it’s gone. Once it starts to go, it’s gone. That’s where we are now.”
But Salter’s far from pessimistic about the long-term future of luxury. He just sees a more radical version of it emerging from the bottom up, rather than the top down.
“You have to completely turn it around and think about the massive talent bubbling up that you see everywhere now – in Korea,
“Consumers are bored, bored, bored out of our brains with seeing the same old brands and the same old shopping malls wherever we go. Plus, we’ve already got so much stuff – none of us needs to keep buying more and more clothes” GUY SALTER
Japan, France, Italy, the UK, China,” he says. “In some cases, these are family- owned businesses that, for whatever reason, never even had a store, or maybe just one shop.”
He elaborates that another amazing phenomenon is the number of new brands starting up each year that are doing interesting work. “There is so much talent out there doing things beyond what people think of as luxury now,” he explains. “If you redefine it that way, and say part of this is about meaning and specialness and culture, it’s much less transactional and much more varied. You hard- earned dollars buy things from real people. Even if you’re buying online, you can talk to the producer, designer or maker. That doesn’t mean all great brands will disappear. They will continue to do all kinds of stuff. I think the ecosystem will become more interesting.”
Who does he view as the new model for radical luxury? “The sort of people I love are the really small guys. A tiny shoe company called Carréducker, based in Bloomsbury, London making bespoke shoes – and doing so in the way John Lobb’s would have done maybe 200 years ago. I think this is what’s going to change the whole industry. It’s about those isolated talents.”
Who does Salter have his eye on in China? He mentions two entities; one is Shanghaibased couture designer Grace Chen. “The other I continue to really hold a candle for is [the Hermès-backed company based in Shanghai and Paris] Shang Xia. It’s funny, because in many ways, it hasn’t really worked. But that, for me, makes it all the more special. I think what they are actually doing is far and away the best expression of Chinese craftsmanship and luxury quality. All the things are beautifully made. But ironically, the reason it’s not working is because the Chinese aren’t buying. I still think most of what they do is unbelievably beautiful and incredibly clever; it’s one of those great, huge questions. When it first started, you thought, ‘It’s just a matter of time.’ It hasn’t happened yet, but you wonder when it will. Or maybe it won’t. I’m hoping we can invite them to London Craft Week and do something really cool, because I think London would love it.”
And from which geography can we expect new craft to emerge? “The city to watch, in my view, although slightly written off, is Bangkok. On all sorts of levels, it’s super interesting. Look at a name like Alexander Lamont; I went to see the factory. His R& D studio is in London and all his artisans are Thai. It’s this sheer unbelievable quality of what they make – furniture, lighting, accessories. It is just breathtaking. And it’s hidden away. Very few people have heard of him. For now, Lamont is distributed in Singapore, Tokyo, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, but not yet in Hong Kong.” Watch this space.
For those who do make their way to London Craft Week, be sure to look in on
The Flipside, until May 20 in the one- ofa-kind setting of the Old Selfridges Hotel.
It’s a multi-sensory exhibition that sees Google, Loewe, Mr Lyan, Thom Browne, Gareth Pugh, Louis Vuitton and Byredo all contribute to a thought-provoking journey into radical, altered states of luxury.
How can we redefine this word for the next generation? And how do we make luxury exciting and meaningful again? In search of the answers, the film – featuring footage shot on a Google Pixel 2 – explores the relationship that three radical creatives have with the concept of luxury. Featuring musician and activist Mykki Blanco, choreographer Holly Blakey and fashion designer Gareth Pugh, the film includes a poem written and performed by Lily Ashley and a performance by dancer Sophie Apollonia. Welcome to the future.
Clockwise from here: Danish ceramics by Malene Hartmann Rasmussen; London Craft Week founder Guy Salter; pieces from Couverture & The Garbstore
Clockwise from below:Brown bearskin by Eelko Moorer; Reiko Kaneko at SCP; vessels by Cockpit Arts; Cubitts horn glasses