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how luxury went millennial

How do you market yourself to those who grew up hardened to marketing?

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Dec 22 2017, 8:12pm

Gucci spring/summer 18. Artwork by Ignasi Monreal.

This article was originally published by i-D UK.

Millennials, so the broadsheet truisms go, spend their days in a murderous slaughter. They have killed fabric softener and tourism in Canada. They have killed the beauty industry and the corporate suit. They killed sitcoms and sex and the oil industry. A generation consumed with a genocidal bloodlust directed at their parents’ culture.

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What — as the traditional Irish proverb goes — kind of world are millennials going to leave for Keith Richards? What will be left when the millennials are done with the massacre? When they stop, look down at their blood-stained hands like Lady Macbeth, the scattered and smouldering remains of a civilization at their feet, what will they have spared?

The world is changing, and it is terrifying. The corporate suits working in the beauty industry are terrified. The fabric softener barons and sitcom writers can barely sleep at night. The oil industry tycoons are out on the streets, in cold December nights, begging for scraps. The way our generation crafts identity has changed; the way our culture unspools has changed; the status signifiers have changed. Luxury fashion is about all of that, so luxury fashion, we should assume, is going to change too. What will the millennial luxury fashion industry look like? In an effort to be spared from the butchery, the heritage brands, historic houses, and big brand conglomerates have spent 2017 pivoting to young, digital, woke, authentic, and engaged. Those five buzz words might as well make up the points of a pentagram of "The Stereotypical Millennial as Imagined by the Middle-Aged Marketer."

Millennials, born between the mid-80s and late-90s, came of age online, smartphone in hand, sharing their lives, opinions, hopes, dreams, and selfies. A swarm of individualists, at whose cultural heart is an earnestness, a recalibration of the ironic sarcastic detachment of Gen X. There’s a belief in the power of principle, and a desire to believe in the possibility of changing the world.

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"In an effort to be spared from the butchery, the heritage brands, historic houses, and big brand conglomerates have spent 2017 pivoting to young, digital, woke, authentic, and engaged."

The problem is that this is not really what you associate with the old world luxury fashion house. How do you bridge that gap? Break that new market? Build that new relationship with the new consumer? A consumer who will soon be dominant. You are not, at the moment, selling a $3,000 coat to a 20-year-old but, instead, an idea, a feeling, an ethos.

Selling is part of it though. This year Céline and Prada took the first baby steps, and arrived fashionably late into the wild old world of e-commerce. (Céline even found time to launch an Instagram account.) The millennial buys online, not in shops. Céline and Prada find themselves in different positions. Though both are critically lauded, Prada continually finds itself batting away comment on falling sales, despite Miuccia’s incredible talent and vision.

Online is only going to grow. According to BoF, “In the next 10 years, McKinsey & Company expects the share of luxury sales occurring online to triple, making e-commerce the world’s third largest luxury market after China and the US.” As e-commerce grows though, new challenges emerge in the way millennials will be targeted. How do you sell a $1,000 bag, or a $3,000 coat, via a flat picture on a website? The name is a guarantee of quality in an endless sea of pixels, but the name has to conjure up a world too. The millennial buys the experience as much as the product.

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The two most commercially successful brands among millennials at the moment are Balenciaga and Gucci. Both Demna Gvasalia and Alessandro Michele have successfully created that brand experience, but at the heart is the product, its signals, and codes. Both have successfully (and most importantly) naturally, placed their designs within the framework of internet culture. The memeification of fashion? In the flat world of the endless scroll, they’ve harnessed the power of surprise, shock, and humor, to stand out. Aesthetically they couldn’t be more different — one represents an earnest classicism and romance, the other an absurd modernity and humor — but between the two, that’s the millennial experience.

Everything else? The #content platforms, native marketing, and 360 brand rollouts. They are there — Gucci has been especially successful with them — but no digital world building strategy will work if the product isn’t any good. The same goes in reverse. Is Gucci a millennial hit because of their engaged online content? No. It’s a hit because people really like the clothes. It’s about being in tune with millennial’s passions, tapping into who they see themselves as, inserting themselves organically into that swarm of individualism. Take as an example, Gucci going fur-free. Millennials are more likely to be vegan and vegetarian, they are progressive politically, they care about animal rights and the environment. Fur free is about being part of that, rather than, in management speak, tapping into a brand strategy for Q2 (or whatever).

How do you market yourself to those who are resistant to marketing in such old-school reductive marketing ploys? The most successful make the marketing the brand experience, and the experience becomes an integral part of the product. The brand’s narrative and what a brand stands for fill in the gaps, flesh out the picture, make the thing feel real.

"How do you market yourself to those who are resistant to marketing in such old-school reductive marketing ploys?"

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Burberry, for example, has led the way in technological innovation — you invite people inside the brand in a way that feels natural, feels part of their everyday experience. Burberry was the first to livestream their shows, use social media to let consumers pre-order the collection, adopt a see-now-buy-now, and partner with Apple, WeChat, Google, Snapchat.

In the last twelve months the brand married this technological move with a return to the much loved check, a collaboration with the much loved Gosha Rubchinskiy, and a photography exhibition that places the brand’s history within the British textile industry in the larger frame of British identity.

The power of reintroduced check though is a valuable lesson for others; for so long the brand failed to own such a vital piece of its heritage, the instant critical acclaim and column inches that followed the check’s return shows the love for authenticity and reality of tradition.

If we look at the way French houses have responded to the brave new millennial world. Take Vuitton, under Kim Jones, collaborating with Supreme. It was a bending and subversion of the old rules of the luxury game, and an explicating of the new ones; so much to be drawn from that mix of Supreme/LV. That millennial desire to pick and choose the parts that fit.

Dior, under Maria Grazia Chiuri, has appealed to another element of the millennial; tapping into wokeness as brand strategy, aligning the brand with a millennial desire to change the world. The brand’s feminist activist sloganeering T-shirts and collaborations with female artists, this is Maria trying to put it at the heart of what the kids are standing up and shouting about.

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A couture house doing a political slogan tee? What’s the world coming to. A couture house collaborating with a streetwear brand? The sky is falling. But luxury, in practice, for the millennial, isn’t cashmere or angora (not animal-friendly) or couture or Made in Italy labels. It is definitely not snakeskin or mink or exotic leathers. Luxury is a new kind of reflection of who we are, and a who we are that extends beyond clothes. Some stuff you don’t need to fuck with, Chanel’s interlocking Cs, for example, have their own magic, their own power. But the millennial experience pushes that mystery into the same space as every other experience.

We are what we wear, and wear what we become.

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