Decline in Asian luxury sales points to maturing of consumer tastes in region

Next, Larger fashion houses are suffering a decline in sales in Asia after falling out of step with maturing consumer tastes, writes Abid Rahman

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 4:58am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 9:03am

Recent reports that retail sales in Hong Kong fell for a fifth consecutive month in June, down 6.9 per cent year on year, have cast a pall over the sector. Sales of watches, jewellery and valuable gifts in the city fared much worse, plunging 28.2 per cent in the same period.

Although it appears prestige brands are bearing the brunt of a sustained crackdown on luxury gifting on the mainland and a subsequent fall in tourist spending in Hong Kong, industry experts say that's only part of the story.

They point to a longer term trend of slowing Asian sales growth among leading brands, which suggests a shift in priorities among mainland consumers as tastes mature and a sense of "logo fatigue" sets in.

"Unlike in the West, where trends and consumer preferences take a long time to form and assimilate, in Asia-Pacific we are seeing consumer trends emerge, distribute and, in turn, be rejected very quickly," says Vilislava Petrova, head of content for Asia-Pacific of fashion trend forecasting service WGSN.

"In recent years we witnessed an explosion of demand for luxury goods and items that communicated wealth and status to all around. Now, we are seeing a general dissatisfaction with this 'borrowed' expression of self and a move towards a more unique and authentic image."

LVMH, the fashion conglomerate that owns a multitude of luxury brands, saw its stock price fall last month after announcing that demand in Hong Kong and China, the engine of spectacular growth over the past decade, declined in the second quarter.

Louis Vuitton, LVMH's biggest brand in terms of revenue, accounted for much of that fall. Industry watchers say that in recent years the brand has become ubiquitous, even in emerging markets such as China. They say this drift towards the "masstige" market (a portmanteau of mass and prestige) has caused Louis Vuitton to lose its lustre among consumers and contributed to the slowdown in sales growth.

It's a similar story at Kering Group, whose flagship brand Gucci is experiencing slower growth in Asia.

"The lack of creative leadership at Gucci and the ubiquity of the house are the main causes of its lacklustre performance. I can hardly remember the last time I saw a fellow editor or friend carrying a Gucci bag," says a Hong Kong fashion editor who wished to remain anonymous, reflecting criticism by industry insiders of Frida Giannini's tenure as creative director.

"Despite Gucci's recent attempts to aim higher, with fewer logo-branded bags and small leather goods, it hasn't been able to shed its image as a 'masstige' label that has lost its lustre - especially compared with its sister brand Bottega Veneta."

Gucci is by far Kering's biggest brand and largest revenue generator; however, the comparison between it and its smaller sister labels Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga and Saint Laurent suggests a template for the company to recover momentum. Kering is reaping the rewards of appointing Hedi Slimane as creative director of Saint Laurent, with the iconic French label now the fastest growing subsidiary in the group.

Slimane's early collections for Saint Laurent were mauled by the critics, but proved a huge hit commercially, largely due to its accessories business. Its success may be owing to Slimane's rock'n'roll reboot, which led to radical changes to advertising campaigns and store designs. Asian consumers seem to prefer his rebellious, youthful take on luxury and the more discreet way in which he has approached accessories, jewellery and leather goods.

Saint Laurent, like Bottega Veneta and Balenciaga, has joined the trend of less visible, discreet or even absent logos on luxury goods as many consumers, including those in Asia, eschew ostentatious shows of wealth or status.

Meanwhile, Burberry has succeeded in bucking the downturn in Asia through innovation. Its "click-and- collect" service, which allows shoppers to order online and pick up in-store, has been a global success, especially in Asia.

"Digital engagement with the Chinese consumer, however we touch them, is important and our point of differentiation," says Carol Fairweather, Burberry's chief financial officer.

The brand's youthful move away from the much copied "Burberry check" and establishment of a cool, hip identity under creative director and chief executive Christopher Bailey have increased its appeal. Collections are fashion-forward, quirkily British and easy to mix and match.

"Brands that don't get imitated as much have more consistent design language and rely less on celebrity endorsements and massive exposure are doing the best," says Petrova. "Brands like Burberry that maintain a certain level of exclusivity, or the impression of such, continue to be desirable and in demand."

In response to this shift in consumer tastes, LVMH has embarked on a strategy to increase the exclusivity of its most profitable and high-profile brand, spearheaded by French designer Nicolas Ghesquière. Since replacing Marc Jacobs as creative director of Louis Vuitton at the end of last year, Ghesquière has worked hard to recapture its sense of luxury. He has been tasked with making the brand look and feel exclusive once more, and the company is already removing logos and raising prices for its goods.

The positive results of this shift in strategy are still some way off, LVMH admits. Luxury industry analyst Luca Solca of Exane BNP Paribas was quoted by Reuters as saying: "Louis Vuitton has done a lot to innovate its products, but consumers - especially those in China - are still not embracing it in full."

Those like Petrova, who research trend shifts, are seeing "a general fatigue of oversized, in-your-face branding and symbol expressions across Tier 1 cities in China and all major Asian capitals".

Tastes are changing and the old tricks are no longer effective. "This affluent and informed consumer, who evolves and grows daily, is developing a very sophisticated and worldly taste level," she says. "Looking like everyone else and fitting the Asian consumer profile is no longer the norm."


Additional reporting by Jing Zhang