Guests who visited Chanel’s Mademoiselle Privé at PMQ last month got more than they bargained for. The luxury maison took its exhibition to the next level, blending augmented reality (AR) with physical experience. With the help of a virtual tour app on the smartphone, the many icons of the luxury maison, from the No.5 fragrance to the couture ateliers, were brought to life.

Apart from exhibits that highlighted the maison’s heritage and savoir-faire, exclusive workshops were held to allow guests to try their hands at Chanel’s prized know-how, such as embroidery and high jewellery making.

“Chanel is about more than a [mouse] click,” says Bruno Pavlovsky, the brand’s president of fashion. “Despite our investment in e-services for our customers, we still need to have the physical touch for them to understand the brand, to see and try the products. For us, all the digital developments and experiments are [designed to provide] better services for our customers in the boutiques.”

While luxury brands continue to invest in digital storytelling and services, they are not forgetting about the physical experience either, now even more so than ever. They are not only focusing on retail spaces but also institutions to promote heritage and savoir-faire.

 

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Chanel’s Mademoiselle Privé exhibition, which travelled from London’s Saatchi Gallery to D Museum in Seoul, is hardly the only example. The maison is launching a Gallery Gabrielle Chanel exhibition space in Paris’s prestigious Palais Galliera fashion museum as well as a permanent location that will bring the house’s metiers d’art ateliers from Maison Lesage to Lemarié under one roof, expected to open in 2020.

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Apart from Chanel, other heritage houses are preserving their legacy through permanent institutions to reach existing and potential customers.

Chloé, for instance, opened a cultural space on rue de La Baume in the heart of Paris last July, alongside its fashion archive on the top floor. Saint Laurent’s museums in Paris and Morocco both opened their doors last year. Prada’s restoration of the heritage Rong Zhai in Shanghai, unveiled last December, is also a vivid illustration of the extent to which physical institutions are still relevant for luxury maisons today.

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“Chloé’s message is intangible but at some point, you need to have a dedicated place to deliver the message to more people,” says Geoffroy de la Bourdonnaye, CEO of Chloé. “To understand Chloé from a distance is difficult because we are not flashy or in your face. It requires proximity and time.”

By having the La Baume space, de la Bourdonnaye says the brand can tell its story by engaging with exhibiting artists who express their views of femininity.

Pavlovsky agrees on the importance of physical experience when it comes to branding.

“We are not talking products but the values of Chanel and what makes the brand unique, which is more difficult than talking about the shoes or bags,” he says. “There’s nothing to buy at the exhibition. It’s for people to see, learn and better understand the brand. We believe that it’s quite important that in our key markets, we can share and offer that to our customers.”

Even in their new retail concepts, brands are integrating their heritage, DNA and patrimony into the designs. Louis Vuitton’s Place Vendôme flagship store – restored from a heritage building circa 1714 and designed by Peter Marino – features more than 30 works by 22 artists ,including a 2015 portrait of a young Louis Vuitton by Yan Pei-ming.

Despite our investment in e-services for our customers, we still need to have the physical touch for them to understand the brand, to see and try the products
Bruno Pavlovsky

The Boucheron flagship store, also in Place Vendôme and under renovation, will be paying tribute to the house’s rich heritage.

“We are renovating the full building in a patrimonial way,” says Hélène Poulit-Duquesne. “The objective is to redo it as if it was being built at the end of the 18th century. It’s our family house.”

The flagship store, which is set to open doors in September, will include a salon dedicated to hosting educational gatherings.

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The association between arts and fashion has been widely embraced by luxury maisons and many highlight the connection with permanent art spaces and cultural centres, such as the Fondation Louis Vuitton, which opened in Paris four years ago, as well as Fondazione Prada in Milan, which opened its new permanent location in 2015.

Now luxury brands are also lifting the curtains of their ateliers to put their prized artisanal skills in the spotlight by hosting workshops and classes for customers to get a taste of their craftsmanship.

Chanel’s Lesage workshops, which allowed fans to learn basic embroidery as part of the exhibition programme, were a sell-out. The pictures and posts on social media platforms proved how successful the classes were.

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While Chanel’s only hosting the classes during exhibition periods, Van Cleef & Arpels has taken the mission further and established L’ecole in Place Vendôme, Paris. Since 2012, the permanent address has been the venue for the brand to host a variety of classes on subjects from the history of jewellery, gemmology as well as savoir-faire.

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The Parisian school made its overseas debut in 2014 and hosted classes for fans in Hong Kong and came back for a third run just last year due to overwhelming results. “We’ve been asked by students to bring it back,” says Nicolas Bos, CEO, and president of Van Cleef & Arpels. “These programmes need some time and repetition to establish. So when we take them abroad, the mindset is that it’s going to last and develop over a long period of time. It’s really about education.”

It is important to show the rare craftsmanship behind the brand, Pavlosky adds. “Because it’s difficult,” he says. “You can’t be a good craftsman without the experience. In this digital world, it’s important to remind everyone of that.”

Digital integrations might be how luxury brands do business today, but physical experience, be it in brick-and-mortar stores or for brand communications, has not been forgotten. As the aptly coined term “phy-gital” suggests, the future of luxury experience might require both experiences going forward hand-in-hand.

“Both physical and digital aspects are really important, but when you buy a 2 million
[HK$19.1 million] necklace, you would want to have a full ceremony,” Poulit-Duquesne says.

Bos also believes that digital and physical experiences complement each other.

“Definitely the digital world provides fantastic opportunities but we create jewellery that is meant to be experienced, touched and worn. So we really believe in physical experience. The more you offer on digital experiences, the more you need to develop physical experiences to match.”