Luxury has been fixated on novelty in the search for originality. Yet newness may be losing its lustre as it comes up against big societal and environmental questions. Brands haven’t been blind to this shift with a recent acceleration in new thinking, revelations and radical new approaches when it comes to creating anew.
The current crises in climate coupled with the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic have foregrounded a desire shared by many to slow down and reflect on our actions. To pause the constant production and accumulation we’ve innocently named 'progress', and take time to rethink and redesign the future where the picture isn’t so rosy. For many, particularly younger generations, it appears rather a lot is frankly unsustainable and reckless.
For Luxury one of the big questions is: how does it continue to innovate? Is it possible to retire constant newness for newness’s sake? What kind of transformations do we or should we actually value? What future are we creating?
Back in May, Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele shared diary entries from his home in Rome entitled ‘Notes From The Silence’. In it are a series of reflections: foundational questions around his own actions and the environmental damage of the fashion industry, a subject we are increasingly aware of. He wrote: "Above all, we understood we went way too far. Our reckless actions have burned the house we live in. We conceived of ourselves as separated from nature, we felt cunning and almighty. We usurped nature, we dominated and wounded it.” In response, he describes a new beginning, where as creatives we take more responsibility and build a less destructive future. For his part, it starts with an announcement that Gucci will “abandon the worn-out ritual of seasonalities and shows.” A brave move to step out of the ring at certain points during the fashion year.
The idea is: less is more. Fewer collections and less excessive newness. In its place, more time for creating better, for developing a dream and even, Michele believes, “the promise of an epiphany”.
“the promise of an epiphany”
He’s not alone. For countless independent Luxury brands with environmental consciousness built-in, smaller and more sustainably produced collections have long been the reality. Due to the extended pause on production for much of 2020, this autumn, some brands are selling a very limited number of items including archival pieces. Irish-based 31 Chapel Lane announced their discrete collection that “continues to build upon our established values of integrity, quality and sustainability”.
This notion that less is more goes hand-in-hand with the thought that creativity comes from constraint. Or, as Orson Welles put it, “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations”. This has been critical in powering thinking, particularly when it comes to inventing sustainable materials. Circular design is vital in preventing further environmental damage so a key focus has been on what can be produced purely from waste. Meet the new materials.
From well-known bioplastics to the wonderfully niche, new products are being fashioned from the most improbable materials. The ReBurberry Edit uses lightweight ECONYL® made from regenerated fishing nets, discarded fabric and industrial plastic, seamlessly fitting the urbane modern look of the brand. The Shellworks transforms the discarded shells of lobsters into a paper-like compostable material. Meanwhile, eco-packaging is finally popping up in Champagne - something to celebrate.
“The idea is less is more.”
Haeckels, a beauty brand out of Margate, has been one of the recent success stories. Their environmentally friendly products and off-white mycelium packaging – a kind of living, breathing mushroom pulp, that can be grown, recycled and readily decomposes – have gained much attention, and are stocked today across many of London’s most iconic and curated stores. They’ve innovated not only products, but trialled a new way to shop, selecting a couple of days where no form of money was accepted in their Margate store: trialling the circular economy, watching how the day unfolded and the incredible interactions with their customers. Haeckles is one of the many small giants continuously innovating in this space, spurring on the conversation, and making sustainability eminently chic.
One of the crucial shifts we are seeing is a psychological one: making the old ultra-desirable. As a society we’ve long been sold the unblemished newness things. But this is changing, upcycling has come to New York, London and Paris. When Vogue Ukraine fashion director Julie Pelipas walked to a haute couture show in Paris in an extremely oversized men’s suit pinned with big bunches flapping at her sides, everyone around took note. It was a statement look promoting her new brand Better that sells vintage men’s suits altered to fit women’s bodies. Artist Rua Carlota’s unique patchwork knits made with deadstock fabrics have similarly been a social media hit and lionised in the press. Numerous brands have joined this wave of making things entirely from excess fabrics and materials, Acne Studio being one of the latest to announce its repurposed collection. Visually clothes are cut and spliced together, giving a heightened sense of visual resourcefulness, of difference. It’s a challenging aesthetic but challenger behaviour is exactly what we need. We have to be shocked, arrested and allured in.
Of course these innovations aren’t exclusively limited to Luxury, Adidas and Nike trainers are a spectacular playground for new biomaterial and tech innovations. But Luxury brands’ behaviour in this space is all important. It sets an aspirational agenda that is influential. Up to a point, Luxury gets to name and define what is valuable. Additionally, if eminent brands can afford to get behind new materials they can give them the economies of scale they need to get off the ground. As Alessandro Michele points out "now, more than ever, [it] is necessary to build new and more powerful narrations.” Today’s powerful story: old has to be the new new.
The outrageous nature of the world of luxury brands is no secret.
It is a place where people will pay extraordinary prices, and originality is the shared lingua franca. A place to cultivate and consummate your wildest desires, it’s all part of the fun.
But what permits luxury brands to behave in this way? The answer is a strong anchor in ‘truth’.
As societies, we have always been preoccupied with the pursuit of truth. It is the closest we can get to the essence of things. It is the provable and the real. Truth is the material world and the words we use to describe it. ‘The snow is white.’ Truth gives us something concrete, constant, complete. It satisfies and settles us.
Luxury brands have reflected this ultimate desire and grounded themselves in the essence of things, in the definition and discovery of truth itself.
They focus on ultimate materiality and material forms. They use the most authentic and heritage materials, as well as the most revolutionary and innovative ones. Take Burberry — a company founded on the principle that clothing should be designed to protect people from the British weather. In 1879, they invented gabardine, a breathable, waterproof, and hardwearing fabric that revolutionized outdoor wear. This April, they launched a curated ReBurberry Edit crafted in an innovative nylon yarn made from regenerated fishing nets and fabric scraps. In the past, Burberry has looked to the sculptures of Henry Moore to find the most vital, arresting, and human forms.
Artisan makers work closely with the essence of a material, they know it better than anyone else, they are closest to its truth. Their making is a real investment of time and skill captured in an object. Luxury brands foreground work done by hand — an activity that feels fundamental to what it means to be human.
Hermès is an exemplary storyteller of this kind and holds tightly onto the reins of its Parisian equestrian origins. Its film series ‘Footsteps Across the World’ shares portraits of saddler-leather workers in Paris and silk-marbling artisans in Kyoto. Luxury brands root themselves in time and place. This series reflects the brand’s commitment to the very best materials and its dedication to traditional and rare crafts, to keeping knowledge transmitted from generation to generation alive and relevant for a modern audience.
Alessandro Michele’s infinite creativity has made Gucci one of the most sought-after brands. But we mustn’t forget that this vision is built atop Gucci’s long-standing reputation for Italian craftsmanship, a pinnacle of quality and attention to detail. This is visible in their ornate bag closures and horse-bit loafer details that Michele has eclectically redesigned in forms such as tiger heads and shearling linings.
Luxury brands continue to search for the ultimate material forms, the tactile and tangible. Things that we can know and literally hold onto.
Alongside materiality, truth needs words — powerful, authoritative, and original definitions of what is. Luxury gets to define quality, luxury names it. It gets to point at something and call it luxury. Words cut to the essence of the thing and give it a name.
This is why naming is such an art in luxury brands: naming that bag, that perfume, that material, that color. Luxury brands are obsessed with this act of definition, of finding words that ring true to the essence of the object.
When Gabrielle Chanel created Chanel No.5, it was revolutionary, the first of its kind in scent, bottle, and name. It was named after the fifth sample given to her by the Tsar’s perfumer. An innovation for the time, it involved the use of aldehydes and offered complexity when most perfumes were single-note floral scents. The radical difference in christening the perfume No.5 helped name the difference and, of course, became iconic.
Byredo redefines ‘Pulp’ as a luxury name, speaking to the intensely evocative nature of the scent. Gucci promises decadence in a mascara that builds and builds. It selects charm and mystery as the thing this mascara should be about and names it ‘L’Obscur’. Authenticity matters and an original, skilled wordsmith is integral to creating luxury brands.
We might think it easy to pledge allegiance to ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’. But not many can. Truth is the domain of luxury because only in luxury is the focus on the truth, in and of itself. In the mass-market, brands have to elevate a functional or material truth by association with an emotional one — the brand is created to enshrine this association. Luxury is different in that it is anchored in the definition, invention, or discovery of truth itself.
What differentiates luxury is the audacity of their commitment to a vision. They don’t compromise.
Although we tend to think of the truth as setting things in stone, in luxury the truth animates. ‘The truth will set us free’. An absolute commitment to the essentials, to establishing material truth and defining the essence of what matters, earns us the freedom to dream, and, if we desire, to be outrageous.
So, when Gucci is hyper-referential and surreal — releasing a Spring Summer 2020 campaign starring horses in absurd scenarios in Los Angeles — we believe in the fantasy because its luxury is rooted in so much truth.
This article originally appeared in Branding Mag
On Tuesday, March 17, 2020, the music and conversation in our studio slowly subsided, as each of us decamped to our homes.
Computers, screens, chairs followed, and by Monday, March 22, we were coming to terms with a new kind of working - in dusty corners of our houses. Seeing familiar faces, but at more acute and unforgiving angles. Our communal Friday lunch, a distant and now somehow outrageous memory. It was the acoustic experience, and the new demands on conversation etiquette, that took the most time to get used to - to resist the urge to finish our colleagues' sentences or to excitedly elaborate on an idea which (we now know) has the effect of shutting down the flow of any meaningful conversation.
Cut to today. What felt like a serious compromise in mid-March now feels entirely viable two months later. So much so that, as we begin to plan a gradual re-opening of our studio, the immediate rush back that we anticipated just isn't there. The assumed role of our studio needs a rethink to actively entice everyone - earn its place in people's lives again.
Breaking down our working experience into its constituent parts, it's clear that a big chunk of that time is spent meeting and talking - and it has now been proven that it is perfectly possible to replicate this remotely. With tools like Miro, even more complex collaborative creative sessions can be run online. So, to consider the role of a physical studio, we need to look at which components of our work experience can't be replicated online. Why are we not just dismissing our studio as a relic?
"Why are we not just dismissing our studio as a relic?"
At Here, we have always been advocates for the importance of tangible physical experiences as a counterpoint to our our digital existence - time spent looking at screens - and in the last few weeks this dynamic has gone into hyperdrive. Assuming we will continue to use remote-working technologies, the studio should more assertively become a creative stimulant - or more than that, a space designed for digital decompression. An experience that Thomas Heatherwick calls "Hyper Physical" in an article about the future of office design.
So, more than ever, the studio needs to be a space that uplifts us with its design and beauty—that justifies its existence by enriching our lives. A space that celebrates spontaneous conversation untainted by digital glitches and encourages more nuanced human communication like "the subtle affirmations of our humanity" that Cal Newport talks about in his New Yorker article "Why Remote Work Is So Hard—and How It Can Be Fixed." It needs to be a generous and safe space that encourages disruptive and spontaneous creative work with the analogue tools that will differentiate and rebalance us from our time spent in pixels: books, pens, paints, inks, paper and jokes. In many ways this new model relates back to a very old model - something much more like the idealistic art college experience.
And why not open this experience up to the clients we work with? With fewer people in the studio at any given time, as restrictions are relaxed it could become possible to dedicate more space to productive collaborative work with our clients in our studio.
One clear observation from this experience is that it has suited some people more than others - the introverts among us are seemingly flourishing in isolation - and in many ways this is a moment where ideas of self-realisation begin to translate to our choices about how to work. We are being taught to understand when we get the most out of focused work at home and when we will get more out of communal work at the studio.
It strikes us that this is a lesson that will be hard to unlearn and step back from, and as a consequence, we can safely assume that the role of the studio will never quite be the same again. Stripped of the more methodical aspects of work, it could actually become much more exciting.
This article originally appeared in Muse By Clio
Let’s start with the worst-case scenario – the difference between art and design at its most unflattering. Art is autonomous, has aura – a space around it in which to practice and encourage criticism; art is free.
In contrast Design is in chains. Design is capitalism’s slave, tethered to its commercial purposes which means it has no agency as a critical medium. Art is aimed in the direction of social ends – design commercial.
Design takes all our experiences, sensations, thoughts and desires and carefully crafts them into commercial products. It builds a smooth and surfaceless landscape of fulfilled desire where critical autonomy vanishes amid a kaleidoscope of depthless imagery.
Art arrests, prompts thought, challenges, stands apart and creates - through its distance and its intimacy - a space with which to question and understand our world, and ultimately change it. Whereas the headiest praise we can think of for design is for it to be effective.
We believe that good design has never been restricted to the effective fulfilment of functional objectives and that part of its aspiration lies in its role in the performance of beauty.
Beauty is a good thing. Beauty is transcendent - uplifting - and two things have happened in recent times that mean we are starved of beauty. The first thing, according to Victor Margolin and Richard Buchanan, is that “Design appears to have replaced nature as the dominant presence in human experience.”
The thing we see most – the thing that conditions, effects, affects our experiences is design - that’s a pretty serious responsibility on the shoulders of designers.
“Design appears to have replaced nature as the dominant presence in human experience.”
The second Thing is that there are no longer any ideas but things. We pull down lofty stuff and elevate the mundane. Our grotty little rationalist consumer society reduces everything lofty to the commonplace - idealism to realism; authority to parity - one-offs to reproductions, art to manufacturing. It then sets about raising up the lowly: brands, products become ideas and aspirations and ideals. So if art has been commoditised and nature marginalised where do we get our beauty from? Is Kate Moss enough?
At Here Design we believe we have a responsibility to ensure our designs are beautiful. When we design, we set out to solve problems like all designers. But while we do it we also set out to create something beautiful, something life-enhancing. We solve problems and try to create objects or environments or books of beauty. We are proud to be problem-solvers but we also see ourselves as something more. As harbingers of beauty.
Design is different from art - its relationship with capitalism problematises its critical faculty - we need to leave criticism to art. But as art increasingly loses interest in beauty, design can and should take over.
What does this mean for designers? Practice good design-thinking but I encourage you to sneak in a bit of beauty whenever you can. And remember that, yes, design is still capitalism’s slave but importantly capitalism is also our slave. We can harness its greed, its ambition, its reach and make it the loudspeaker to beauty. I encourage you all to have a covert mission: to fill the world with things that are not just useful (solving a problem) but are also beautiful.