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Drapers Luxury Roundtable

When it comes to luxury, a brand’s provenance – its story, how it came to be, what it’s made of, how it’s made and where it’s made – is more important than ever. There should be an art. This is the essence of provenance, and a vital element of desire for luxury goods.

While craftsmanship is vital to the luxury brand’s genetic makeup, it’s also the most difficult to envisage digitally, as the renowned style journalist and International Herald Tribune editor Suzi Menkes points out in her recent piece on cyber craft.

Without the luxury experience’s innate senses of smell and touch, what role has digital in provenance? Digital content, of course, plays a part – the iconic photography, the spellbinding video. The user can easily take a tour round the factory or begin to understand how a particular process works.

At last month’s Drapers Luxury Roundtable, I joined an impressive panel of luxury brands and retailers including Walpole, Trunk, Penrose London, Browns and Mr Porter. Along with many of the brands, Walpole pointed to the consumer’s growing level of knowledge, discernment and education as a major trend for the luxury sector, with provenance becoming increasingly important. Surprisingly, a couple of other brands felt that provenance is still secondary in the luxury market.

I can’t help but wonder is that because the quality of luxury is simply assumed? Perhaps, those particular brands had been paying more attention to other trends? Either way, with global consumer ‘discernment’ rising fast, luxury brands looking to gain traction, especially in Asia, really ought to avoid the ‘Made in China’ label. On the high street it may be acceptable that several retailers originate from the same factory. In the luxury market, however, it negates that luxury-intrinsic sense of non-comparability and uniqueness. Provenance is paramount.

Brands such as Hermès and Chanel are among those in the luxury sector who really get it. Both have benefitted enormously from investing in their ‘cultural assets’. Chanel has built a fine heritage as the ‘saviour’ of artisan producers. It acquired its first independent workshop in 1984, and now boasts more than 10 artisan manufacturing houses, including Parisian couturier specialists and the traditional Scottish knitwear production centre, Barrie, which it saved from closure last year.

Think about the UK’s current textiles and fashion craft skills crisis, and you realise how economically and culturally invaluable this is to communities. The skillsets passed down through generations in these small, artisan workshops are also invaluable to the continued global success of luxury brands around the world. Craftsmanship maintains product quality that is core to the value of the brand, and ensures its story stays authentic, relevant and experiential.

Meanwhile, the hugely popular Hermès exhibition, ‘Festival Des Métier’ at the Saatchi Gallery last May was a fascinating insight into the Hermès craftsmanship and craftspeople. Visitors queued for hours to see a Hermès silk scarf delicately and painstakingly screen-printed, while others were captivated by the tools used for, and intricacies of, bags, watches and jewellery. The exhibition toured the globe – from Beijing to London. Putting the brand in a gallery context and fine art framework reinforced this notion of provenance.

Beyond the heritage story, brands themselves have the potential to become cultural centres. Think of Mulberry’s factory destination in Shepton Mallet, or Hotel Chocolat’s St Lucia Boucan cocoa estate resort. Investing in cultural assets – be it the production, the art or the experience – these sorts of enriching stories and experiential brand extensions is the basis for a brand’s ever-important social media and digital content.

We must not forget that the customer journey doesn’t end with a click. Technologies, digital media and social media cannot supersede provenance, but they can support a brand in reaching wider, global audiences with the right message at the right time, helping to envelope the customer in mysteriousness and awe. Investing in the cultural wellbeing of a brand not only helps garner domestic support, but with digital, can strengthen heritage on the global stage too.