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.

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.

julia-nobis-saint-laurent-paris-ss013

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).

saintlaurent_musicproject_03

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

Fashion is dead, long live fashion

 

1aThe more I think about today’s fashion, the more I realize it’s defined by a kind of fear of empty spaces, or horror vacui in fancier terms. From the number of shows/year, the number of pieces in a runway collection, the number of people attending the shows, or lurking outside the shows, the infinite number of tweets, retweets, to the absurd number of clothing items displayed in stores, the fashion industry is desperately trying to feed us content, to fill every inch of our news feed with its creations. Not a single pixel left unused. It almost seems as if it is trying to keep us distracted from what is actually happening…the end of fashion as we know it.

Li Edelkoort, one of the most prominent trend forecaster published recently an Anti_Fashion manifesto in which she argues why she believes the fashion industry “is going to implode”. Throughout the ten chapters that constitute the manifesto, she tackles different issues of the fashion industry, like the educational system, manufacturing, designers, consumers, marketing, and others.  Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to read the manifesto in its original form, but in the article published on dezeen.com, there was a phrase that caught my attention: “Clothes will become the answer to our industries’ prayers”, due to the marketing’s demand for sellable products, not innovation, or experimentation in the field of fashion design. Slaves to financial institutions, hostage of shareholder interest, designers are recycling trends from the past, fearful of not disappointing the brand owners, and being replaced.

This perspective sheds light on the curious case of Hedi Slimane and his current success in rebranding the YSL brand. In a recent article published on Business of Fashion we are informed about the commercial success of his Saint Laurent experiment. According to recent analysis on sales at different major department stores and multi-brand boutiques, the brand has more than doubled its sales revenue in the three years since he took the creative reins. Despite the negative feedback of fashion critics, Hedi Slimane’s collections proved he has the ability to create clothes that sell. The secret behind this success? “It’s luxury but super basic items such as tailored jackets, bikers, bombers, denims”. Slimane seems to have been a designer ahead of his times, realizing what his consumers want: digestible fashion, perfectly executed, impeccably made ordinary clothes.2aBut where does this change in fashion leave designers that are still trying to innovate, not generate products? Li Edelkoort predicts that couture will make a comeback. “After all it is in the atelier of couture that we will find the laboratory of this labor of love. Suddenly the profession of couturier will become coveted and the exclusive way of crafting couture will be inspiring all others.” It’s almost like an overweight fashion system is slowly realizing that fast fashion is not the answer to its problems, and it’s willing to try a detox program. I really hope it succeeds, and I really hope Li Edelkoort’s predictions will come true: “This is the end of fashion as we know it. Fashion with a big F is no longer there. And maybe it’s not a problem; maybe it’s actually a good moment to rethink. Actually the comeback of couture, which I’m predicting, could bring us a host of new ideas of how to handle the idea of clothes. And maybe from these ashes another system will be born.”FotoFlexer_Photo

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