Nathan Birch x Smart Company: Is the new accessibility of luxury brands diminishing their value?
Luxury lovers have frothed themselves into a frenzy over yet another luxury pop-up experience. But for luxury brands, is this approach counter-luxury?
The latest Dior pop-up appeared in March in a Parisian-style apartment in The Rocks, showcasing the world of Parfums Christian Dior through luxurious exhibits. It followed on from last year’s HermèsFit — the Hermès pop-up where you could “practice stretching with belts, yoga with silk scarves and test your balance with hats”.
Hermès and Dior are consistently ranked among the world’s most valuable luxury brands — last year, they placed 23rd and 77th respectively in Interbrand’s Best Global Brand Report. The combination of rich heritage, exquisite craftsmanship, and an eye for detail and quality has ensured both brands’ longevity in the competitive and ruthless world of luxury.
But is an offer to sweat over the hand-stitched, classic-H orange, leather-bound Pilates machine a gateway drug to Hermes’ particular vision of luxury? I wonder if Thierry Hermès’ original intent — to serve European nobility with saddles, bridles and other leather riding gear — fits with a pop-up gym. Or whether a pop-up gym is inherently anti-luxury.
There is a long list of luxury brands developing pop-up experiences to demonstrate their re-positioning to become more accessible and inclusive. Inviting everyone to play at the Hennessey basketball court at Icebergs, experience the SEE LV exhibition in The Rocks, or enjoy Dior’s pop-up Parisian apartment. Then there are the brand collabs: A$AP Rocky and Dior, Minecraft and Burberry and Minecraft, Adidas and Gucci.
The pop-ups and the collabs beg the question: why are so many luxury brands, on a quest to become more inclusive and accessible, absurdly becoming increasingly homogenised, optimised for an Instagram moment?
Luxury has been diminished, as it’s become democratised. Luxury has become transactional, reduced to a reel, TikTok, or God-forbid a pop-up experience.
Both new and incumbent brands seeking to attain or reclaim the true meaning of luxury must remain authentic to the concept. Quality, rarity, and exclusivity are key, rather than instant gratification, social media metrics, and access.
We’ve been through the era when luxury was defined simply as the product — the Patek Phillipe watch or Birkin bag on your wrist. The prevalence of knock-offs and counterfeits soon heralded a new era of “luxury experiences”. Less replicable is the private cruise to view the Aurora Borealis, or the guided walking safari across the Ngorongoro Crater in Northern Tanzania. But now, even the concept of the luxury experience has been diminished; you can hire, by the hour, a set designed to replicate the interior of a private jet.
Enter the rise of stealth wealth and low-key luxury. Brands you might not be familiar with are leading the charge; think Loro Piana shawls, John Lobb deck shoes, Jacques Marie Mage glasses, The Row trench. But the fact I’m writing about them here already starts to erode their luxury credentials.
The idea was captured brilliantly in a recent episode of Succession, in which Tom roasts cousin Greg’s date, Bridget’s “ludicrously capacious bag”.
“What’s even in there, huh? Flat shoes for the subway? Her lunch pail? I mean, Greg, it’s monstrous. It’s gargantuan. You could take it camping. You could slide it across the floor after a bank job.”
While Tom’s observations initially appear to be about the size of the bag, he’s really talking about the vulgarity of a Burberry bag among true luxury aficionados.
The show’s costume designer Michelle Matland captured it brilliantly: “The people who are used to luxury… they are not posturing their money … because they’ve got nothing to prove.”
The void in authentic luxury has left a space at the very top echelons of the market — above the likes of Dior, Prada, and Chanel — for new, neo-luxury brands like Loro Piana, Jacques Marie Mage and John Lobb to emerge. Granted, the neo-luxuries have a long way to go until they’re valued among the top 100 brands like Dior and Hermès, but it’s not unthinkable the others fall — Interbrand’s original Best Global Brands report back in 2000 had Nokia in the top 10.
More interestingly, there’s also an opportunity for other luxury brands — automotive, restaurants, and travel brands — to step up into these heady arenas. We’ve already seen Nobu and Bulgari move into hotels, Ferrari into fashion, and Bentley and Dior into homewares.
True luxury is the opposite of flaunting it to your subscribers for likes and views. It isn’t showy or immodest. The neo-luxuries know this.
Exclusivity is, after all, the antithesis of inclusivity.