As Fashion Editor for The International Herald Tribune Suzy Menkes is without doubt one of the most respected style experts and critics in the industry, demonstrated by the incredible range of speakers—including Karl Lagerfeld, Alber Elbaz, Christopher Bailey and, count 'em, three Missonis—she has enlisted for the 2010 IHT Luxury Conference in London. This year, the two-day event, which has been running annually since 2001, is themed around the idea of "Heritage"—a concept neatly mapped out in today's exclusive animated short, created for NOWNESS by Christian Borstlap. But it's not all so simple, according to Menkes, who below shares her thoughts about the idea of heritage and its importance to the luxury industry.
Is there a future in the past? That is the question being asked from R&B lyrics to boardroom discussions by luxury moguls. Everything that the millennial generation has embraced––smart phones, texting, digital photos, music downloads, Facebook, haul videos––is about the here and now. “Fast” fashion has made the entire concept of heritage––the idea of actual or emotional links with a brand’s past––seem as outdated as that once powerful symbol of Great Britain: a bowler hat. Reinterpreting tradition for a digital age is the challenge for luxury brands: how to link past and present in a more meaningful way than the concept of classic design and historic crests?
The design spirit since the start of the 21st century has been linked to a thread of modernism that started with streamlining in the 1920s. We have seen the futuristic vibe in the return of 90s minimalism and reinterpretations of Pierre Cardin’s 1960s space-age orbit. In the luxury world, brands have rushed to create a digital makeover. This can come in the form of a quickly assembled backstage video to post on the website. But at its best, it is deep-rooted and authentic, such as Burberry’s involvement in technology from its wired London headquarters, to its pro-active online initiatives; or the experimental live-stream filming and compulsive Twittering from the late Alexander McQueen.
Authenticity is at the heart of heritage. Most companies, from Louis Vuitton to Ermenegildo Zegna, are based on family stories and founding fathers (or, occasionally, mothers). Karl Lagerfeld’s relationship with Coco Chanel––although he would be the last to admit it––is like that of mother and son: warm embraces, spiky stand-offs, deliberate rejection followed by a return to comforting arms. But always the deep emotional link to the spirit and the skills of the house.
Craftsmanship is a vital part of luxury’s genetic makeup––but perhaps the most difficult to envisage digitally. Gucci has changed its advertising images from glamour pusses exuding sex and armed with handbags (part of the Tom Ford 90s legacy) to white-coated workers sewing by hand. Tod’s collaboration with La Scala produced a memorable mini-movie showing the stitching of a shoe in tandem with the magical lightness of dance. But most of the cyberspace energy of luxury brands goes into e-commerce, where, compared to bricks-and-mortar stores, the sensory pleasures of smell and touch are out of reach. If heritage is all about the physical artifacts and intangible attributes that connect the brand to its past, how does one break that down into codes that can be adapted for the Internet Age? And can any of that back-history be relevant to new markets in Brazil, China or India, where 30 percent of potential customers are under 30 and where European labels are an ocean and a world away?
Karl Lagerfeld often quotes a line from the German poet and writer Goethe: “Make a better future by developing elements from the past.” It is the designer’s mantra at Chanel and it looks like a smart take on how to handle history. Alber Elbaz says that he visits the Jeanne Lanvin archives briefly before each collection––but more to catch the spirit of the house’s founder than to find actual inspiration. That is the essence of heritage luxury: a quiver of emotion from the past in a thoroughly modern world.
Suzy Menkes is the Fashion and Style Editor of the International Herald Tribune
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