02 June 2010

Luxury and the Flagship Store

The recent opening of the Louis Vuitton flagship store on Bond Street in London is symptomatic of a trend among fashion houses to establish a more permanent presence in influential cities around the world. Now a model that seems half brand marketing and half conceptual art, the idea of a “flagship” or large scale atélier has evolved significantly since the foundation of the first luxury fashion houses over 150 years ago.

Yet, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, what does the concept of a flagship store represent, particularly in the multi-country model that many companies adopt as well as in the face of an increasingly digital-oriented retail market for fashion?

It’s funny to think that the luxury goods giant Vuitton had its origins in humble suitcase design. Louis Vuitton was a licensed layetier, or travelling case manufacturer, who was hired by Napoleon III to design luggage for his wife, Empress Eugénie. From this base, Vuitton began marketing his label from his studio on Rue Neuve des Capucines in Paris in the mid-1850s and eventually opened his first store on Oxford Street in London in 1885. The Vuitton building on the Champs-Elysées, which was spectacularly renovated in 2005, did not open until 1913, by when the company had become the largest travel goods manufacturer in the world.

Vuitton, then, have come full circle, launching their “most luxurious store to date” on Bond Street in London, only a few streets away from their first retail space. But, what does this new store signify for the brand and for the luxury market in general? The 2005 refurbishment of the Champs-Elysées store established an updated presence, confirming the brand’s permanent position on the elite roster of luxury brand stores on what is arguably the most famous shopping street in the world.

A recent article from the BBC suggested that the depreciation of the Euro has decreased costs and increased sales for luxury goods manufacturers whose primary business is overseas in the United States and Asia. As the BBC points out, this trend suggests that part of the impetus behind the choice of London for Vuitton’s new flagship store is to target the tourist and ex-pat market, which continues to grow.

Yet, almost in contrast to any sensible market-driven purpose, the new Vuitton store has started a quiet media frenzy on its own simply because it’s new, gorgeous, and Vuitton. The name, not surprisingly, sells as much as its product, presentation, and store location. Why? It is luxury or haute couture, we say, which represents the culmination of money, power, beauty, and fame. In short, luxury is a tantalizing, unreachable, yet desirable aesthetic.

Jean Bergeron, former president of the Comité Colbert in France, defines luxury as “part dream, but its reality is excellence…. Yes, the superfluous is essential and luxury is the stuff of dreams. Dreams are what create all human adventures. It is not money, but dreams.” (Translated from a brochure from L'Agence Regionale d'Information Strategique et Techologique de Paris)

Of course, the popular conception of haute couture as representing all luxury fashion is a misnomer. In fact, the French actually own the rights to the term haute couture. Technically, it refers to custom-order fashion, as opposed to ready to wear (prêt-a-porter). In France, to qualify as haute couture, a fashion house has to meet a set of qualifications and then be approved by the Chambre de commerce et d'industrie de Paris in order to call themselves true artisans of haute couture.

Technicalities aside, then, the new Vuitton store is a further embellishment, in a way, in the fleurissance or flowering of its international brand. The concept of a flagship store is a living cultural artifact: a way for luxury brands to make their mark, setting up a type of cultural permanence. This seems comforting in the face of so much impermanence in the virtual world established by online media. Even the multiplicity of flagships, i.e. a company having “flagship” stores in select cities across the world, is arguably a quiet form of cultural diplomacy, even if from a profit-driven standpoint.

So, the next time you’re in airport duty-free or at a shopping mall or on the high street and spy the characteristic Vuitton “LV” logo, think of luxury and admire its sheer necessity.

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