Millennials are redefining luxury in the search for more originality
The latest brand name must-haves don’t crack it for today’s luxury consumer. They are putting their money in a far more elusive thing: originality
It’s a common problem among the 1 per cent: they buy the latest Manolo Blahnik shoe or Chanel bag, and chances are that someone in their circle of friends will have the identical thing.
After all, it's not just the one per cent buying brand name labels any more. As globalisation of the designer brand expands, and wealth continues being created in new markets, it’s a rare person who doesn’t have access to any prestige brand they can afford.
As a result, the smartest and most avant-garde of today's luxury consumer is realising that just because they have the means to buy a certain brand, doesn’t mean they should. Instead, they are putting their money in a far more elusive thing: originality.
Much of the shift in the way people are spending comes in the prized millennial sector, the 16 to 30-year old that is a driving force in technology and fashion, setting the trend for what every other demographic wants.
This group discovers the hot new thing via social media, learns all they can about it with a touch on a tablet, and purchases with a swipe of a finger. In many ways, the harder to find, the better - and that much more exciting than walking into a store in The Landmark or on Rodeo Drive. It’s niche fashion - at a hefty price point - delivered at lightning speed.
“Mega brands have long relied on big budget advertising, fashion shows and relationships with buyers to reach consumers,” says Washington, DC-based fashion stylist Grant Harris. “While this model isn't quite extinct, it is stale."
As a result, the brands that are defining themselves as “emerging luxe” are swooping to capture the dollars of the bored luxury consumer who is tired of seeing the same product everywhere.
“Why would you spend five thousand dollars on the same bag that everyone else has?” says Rathna Sharad, CEO and founder of niche luxe etailer runway2street.com. The site has launched across 100 international markets, bringing to a worldwide audience a finely-curated offering of high-end fashion, accessories and beauty products from ateliers in the United States and Europe, and countries not generally associated with producing luxury products, such as Mexico and Greece.
“People buy niche brands so they can go to a party and won't find everybody wearing the same thing,” she says. Examples include US designer Anne Sylvain’s genuine python shopper bag for US$2,150, a US$1,746 lamb leather and silk hoodie from Istanbul-based designer Burce Bekrek and Hong Kong-based Runa Jewelry’s elaborate floral encrusted diamond bracelet for US$15,131.
“We make it really easy to get a product anywhere in the world within three to five days,” Sharad says. “Our bar is pretty high. We vet the brand first. We make it simple for a customer anywhere to receive a product from anywhere else. We take care of the shipping and customs and duties and all that paperwork which can sometimes be complex. Our customer is someone who wants exclusivity rather than the brand name.”
Certainly, in the emerging luxury world, it's not about saving money on fashion. Gabriella Wimmer, a US-based handbag designer, sells her couture-quality, customised bags to women who have enough Hermes Birkins and Judith Leiber minaudieres.
“My client is beyond labels,” says Wimmer, whose bags can run in the tens of thousands. “They have all those brands. For them, it's about the differentiation. If they go out in public, all eyes will be on them because they have something that really is different."
Interestingly, while “niche” often has the connotation of “new”, that is not neccessarily so. Take Jackie Rogers, the elegant New Yorker who was once the muse of Coco Chanel, apprenticed with the legendary designer and has had her own under-the-radar luxe line for decades. Her signature sculpted white gazar petal jacket was worn by Lee Radziwill on the cover of Women's Wear Daily in 1982, and ignited a storm of interest.
She has boutiques in Palm Beach, Florida and Southampton, New York, where she creates made-to-order dresses and jackets in silk-faced organza, burlap and seersucker.
There is an unabashed elegance to her pieces - the impeccable tailoring, the soft, feminine colours. Her pieces recall the graceful stylistics of Oscar de la Renta or Valentino, but because they are customised, are essentially couture; the structured burlap blazers, for example, start at US$2,200. She has a compact, quietly thriving business - regular clients who are part of the international jet set, grand dames of society and their daughters and grand-daughters who quietly acquire her pieces and don't care to shout from the rooftops what they are wearing.
Evidently, demand is mounting for these lesser-known-yet-still-high-quality lines: New York handbag designer Jill Haber is firmly focused on that customer; her US$2,000 python backpacks are available at Harvey Nichols in London, Ikram in Chicago – where Michelle Obama shops – and Luhong Couture in Taipei, with international stockists growing in number.
“If you look at buying patterns in the luxury segment, about half those people want something fashion forward and unique,” Sharad says. “The rest of the market doesn't want to spend time figuring out who the next cool brand is. They are happy with the known labels, and that’s fine. But I think what's really happening is a mix-and-match of both: women who might still want that Chanel bag, but who also want to find and support cool new brands, brands that other people don’t know what it is just by looking at it. It’s very cool to be able to tell someone what it is you’re wearing because they’ve never seen it before.”