WHAT IS THE SUBCULTURE OF LUXURY?

In the last couple of blog posts I have been blabbering about Hedi Slimane and Saint Laurent, about Alessandro Michele and Gucci, about luxury, without really explaining what I had in mind when I introduced the notion of “subculture” within the realm of luxury. Is it a little bit confusing? Let’s clear things out, then.

As history has shown us, subcultures appear when a current culture becomes, for a group of people, dogmatic, too traditional, and out of touch with current events. The cultural group that develops within a larger culture causes a rupture, a shift within the culture, because its beliefs and interests are oftentimes at variance with those of the larger group. In the case of luxury culture, we have the traditional luxury houses, such as YSL and Gucci which have managed to build a solid and recognizable brand culture. Due to the massification of luxury, such brand cultures were no longer perceived as generators of desire. By using established notions of luxury, such brands were no longer appealing to the group of people seeking exclusiveness. Their old clients were looking for items that reminded them of the “old masters”, while their new clients weren’t able to identify themselves with what the brand was offering them. So they had to rethink their strategy.

And this is where Slimane and Michele enter the conversation, and through different means, they manage to introduce a new kind of luxury. What they did is they played with the concept of exclusiveness by connecting it with the concept of the outsider where the outsider is the group of alternative/indie kids (Saint Laurent), and the group of nostalgic geeks (Gucci).  But these kids brought with them a shift within the culture of luxury. While the Saint Laurent gang hangs out in music studios, in bars, clubs, concert halls, skate parks and deserted beaches, listening to music, and drawing occult signs on their impeccably made leather jackets, the Gucci gang hangs out in secluded mansions, or abandoned underground stations, deciphering Deleuze, discussing the influence of surrealism in cinema, and dancing to the noise made by their numerous embellishments, each one bearing an interesting story. What both groups have in common is their sexual ambiguity, their constant ennui, and their need for escapism. There is also a certain hedonism which defines both groups. Clothes are for them pieces of memory: “the dress I wore to the prom”, “the shoes in which I walked her home”, and this attachment to clothes gives them timelessness, thus revealing to those that wear them the importance of valuing quality, not quantity.

This new type of luxury, which I referred to as the subculture of luxury is composed of a group of people who differentiates itself from the old culture of luxury by accepting change. This subculture of luxury finds inspiration in the world outside luxury. Its members seek luxury for its ability to function as a form of escapism, as well as a platform for experimentation, and expression of authenticity.  The subculture of luxury is capable of resuscitating the world of luxury by introducing a new type of client who has the financial capital, as well as the aesthetic know-how able to re-imagine luxury.

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THE SUBCULTURE OF LUXURY: MICHELE’S GUCCI

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At Gucci, things were a little different. After Frida Giannini left the brand in 2015 due to several years of mixed reviews, decrease in sales, and conflicting relations between her, her husband who also resigned from the position of CEO at Gucci and the Kering Company, a total makeover was needed. The new appointed creative director was a relatively unknown figure in the fashion industry by the name of Alessandro Michele. Despite his presumed anonymity, Michele had been working at Gucci since 2002. While Slimane’s approach on rebranding Saint Laurent resembled that of an architect, strategically restoring the brand, Michele’s approach resembles that of a cartographer. As Tim Blanks described him in an article, he is “a cartographer, mapping emotion”, his collections – “a moving topography of desire”.

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Michele works in Rome, at the Gucci’s headquarters in the Palazzo Alberini in a room “layered with a patchwork of antique Persian and Oushak rugs”, as it is described in an interview for Vogue. His work environment is his retreat from the everyday reality. In today’s world we sometimes seek to escape the insecurities, the pollution, the noise, the political and economic worries, and what we escape into is often sometimes that we connect with luxury.

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What he did first was to reflect on the idea of femininity and beauty in today’s world. If Tom Ford’s success at Gucci in the 90’s was due to his understanding of women’s desire to be empowered by the freedom to reveal their sexuality, Michele’s success has to do with the creation of a new Gucci woman. Light make-up, uncombed hair, wearing clothes that seem to have been taken out of her grandparent’s closet, and embellished with brooches and patches, and scarves found in the local flee market, the new Gucci woman has a Lolita mixed with Simone de Beauvoir attitude. Her sexuality is subversive, wrapped up in a romantic veil. She is an underground bourgeois, trying to find connections between semiotic theories and snapchat. What Michele succeeded in such a short time is to infuse coolness and desirability into a brand whose identity is so widely forged that it’s only remaining power was to mimic the illusion of luxury. Michele’s “remapping” also regarded the brand’s logo, its accessory line, the menswear universe, and also the stores display. After only a few seasons since Alessandro Michele has been appointed creative director at Gucci, the brand’s sales started to improve consistently, proving that his eclectic and gender bending aesthetic resonates with today’s luxury consumers.

GUCCI_MICHELE TO BE CONTINUED

THE SUBCULTURE OF LUXURY-HEDI’S SAINT LAURENT

Saint Laurent Paris  Fall-Winter campaign 2014

During his tenure as creative director of Saint Laurent, Hedi managed to raise a series of questions inside the fashion industry; he started controversies with his collections among critics and clients alike, as well as with his whole approach on rebranding the YSL universe. Despite the lack of appraisals from fashion journalists, Hedi’s collections were instant favorites of the public, and of the members of the Slimane “cult”. Since 2012, Saint Laurent, the rebranded ready to wear line, has doubled its sale revenues, becoming one of the most profitable brand of the Kering Luxury Group. But how did he do it? What were the ingredients of Slimane’s success at Saint Laurent? First of all I think it was Hedi Slimane’s name; but in the words of Shakespeare’s Juliet – “what’s in a name”? Well, in Hedi’s case, his name is linked to the success he had at Dior Homme (his first Reform project) with his adoption of a skinny silhouette that ended up changing the landscape of menswear, his connections with the art world and with the intricate and exclusive world of celebrities, and his intimate and visually delicate portraits from his photographic era.

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But why the need to change the name of the brand? At the beginning, some people felt that dropping “Yves” from the label was a sign of disrespect. But in fact this was merely going back to the original branding that Yves had used when he first introduced ready-to-wear. The return to the original name was also a part of Hedi’s strategy which included the transition from a loud branding strategy focusing on logo to a more quite one focusing on subtle tailoring details, and the launch of a permanent collection composed of signature pieces that are available season after season. He managed to reintroduce timeless products in an era governed by seasonal “IT” items. And isn’t this what luxury is supposed to be about? Hedi’s intention was to protect the name of Yves Saint Laurent which will be used for the Haute Couture line Hedi envisioned, which should have been launched this year, but with Slimane departure from the brand a few months ago, the future of this project is currently uncertain.

Valery Kaufman_Fall Winter Campaign 2014_photo Hedi Slimane

Another interesting thing Hedi did, which yet again resembles Yves understanding of modernity, was to find inspiration for his collections on the streets, thus questioning the exclusivity of luxury. He also launched a series of projects which aimed at reigniting the brand’s relationship with rock stars, and the music scene (the collaboration with Daft Punk, the Saint Laurent campaign in which music stars such as Kim Gordon, Courtney Love, Marilyn Manson, and Ariel Pink were shot by Hedi himself).

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As a matter of fact, all of the visual campaigns for the Saint Laurent collections were shot by Slimane in his recognizable black and white style. Such collaborations have been at the core of the house since its earliest days, when Yves Saint Laurent was dressing the likes of Marianne Faithfull, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger.  Saint Laurent at the Palladium was the creative director’s last show, and what a show it was. Held at the Palladium concert hall on Sunset Boulevard, the 2016 Fall/Winter collection was a parade of sleek and polished rock and roll ensembles, with a touch of youthful ennui wrapped up in vintage nostalgia. For the designer, L.A. is a perfect observatory of popular culture and of inspiring sub-cultures which have influenced every one of his collections for Saint Laurent.

Saskia de Brauw_Spring 2013 menswear _ Saint Laurent Paris

Slimane designed for Saint Laurent a universe for the type of customer who desires perfectly executed, impeccably made and literally ready to wear clothes which offer a glimpse into another kind of luxury.

 

TO BE CONTINUED

 

THE SUBCULTURE OF LUXURY

In order to define and understand luxury, one must experience it. For an outsider, luxury has more to do with a state of mind, an intangible lifestyle constantly generating desire. While in the past, luxury was easy to identify and to define, due to a clear division between social classes: if you were poor, you couldn’t afford it, if you were rich, you could, first with the creation of the middle class, and then with the ongoing democratization of luxury, its exclusiveness was deteriorated. It became accessible; a masstige luxury is the contemporary equivalent of luxury. If we think about it, a middle class family (from an economically developed country) nowadays has access to such a range of high end goods that it could easily stir up the envy of a nobleman from the 19th century. We have restaurants where we can be served all kinds of special dishes, we can afford to drink refined wines, we can buy designer items, and travel the world. But by being able to access luxury, which becomes a part of our everyday life, we contribute to the disintegration of its aura of mystique. Luxury stops generating desire, or a sense of belonging to a certain elite group, it is simply taken for granted. This is one of the reasons why the importance and relevance of luxury has been questioned in the last few years. The same dilemma lingers in the realm of high end fashion, where all of the big fashion houses were built on the exclusiveness of luxury. How did they approach the challenge of rethinking luxury in order for it to still be relevant today?

The concept of luxury can be hard to explain because it has such a wide variety of implications in our society, and our consciousness. So in order to analyze it I invite you to bear with me while I investigate the reinvention of luxury as seen in the cases of two international luxury brands: Gucci and Saint Laurent.

 

TO BE CONTINUED