Luxury, Now!

The New Luxury Icons

In the first installment of our yearlong editorial series, we look at the people and the brands setting today’s high-end trends.

By Camilla McLaughlin



Mention luxury icons and Apple might not be the first to come to mind, but few companies can match the charisma and reach of this innovator, which recently nabbed the top spot on Interbrands’ list of the top 100 global brands.

“Few brands have enabled so many people to do so much so easily. With a reputation for revolutionizing the way we work, play and communicate, Apple has set a high bar for aesthetics, simplicity, and ease of use that all other brands are now expected to match. Apple’s ability to “think different” and deeply consider the customer experience is what makes the brand a leader,” explained Fez Frampton, global chief executive  of Interbrands. It’s important to also note that high-net-worth individuals are some of Apple’s most passionate fans.

Today, along with Apple, Jason Wu, Tesla and possibly even Amazon, are rapidly reaching the status achieved by legendary luxury brands such as Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Harry Winston and Tiffany.

What makes an icon today? Quality and craftsmanship  remain key attributes, and, if anything, there is an even keener eye for value. Exclusivity and rarity still count, but wealthy consumers today place a high premium on experience, whether it’s the experience the product offers, the level of service or the way a brand engages with them.

“An icon is someone who has made a significant contribution over time. Part of it is longevity. They have proven themselves and they’ve shifted the way we think,” or they have changed an entire category, explains San Francisco designer Jay Jeffers.

Rather than assuming the status of curators of luxury, successful brands are taking their cues from consumers. Navigating the new post-recession luxury landscape is, according to Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute, “a journey to discover what best suits luxury customers, no matter where the innovation originates.”

Consider Chanel, long a luxury icon. Slowly but surely, the brand has modernized and now counts mothers as well as their daughters among devotees. The transition from old to new luxury also involved examining how the brand relates to consumers. “Chanel has always had a good relationship with their customers, but now they understand they have to be masters at relationship building,” explains Pedraza, and Chanel reaches out to each generation differently.

Bottega Vaneta traditionally has been an esteemed Italian leather brand, but one that didn’t quite reach the icon pinnacle. Ten years ago they decided to modernize the product, and also moved the brand’s culture from a focus on transactions to one of building relationships. Today, it is considered a premier brand. The company is also remarkable in its commitment to its artisans, who combine a mastery of traditional skills with breathtaking innovation. What hasn’t changed is a commitment to excellence — the highest quality materials, innovative design and contemporary functionality.

Brands that compromise quickly lose status. “Luxury has rules that can’t be violated for long without serious consequences. True luxury consumers are highly educated and connected. When you take the high quality, craftsmanship and design out of your products, and also eliminate personalized service, you slowly erode the brand’s heritage, and loyal clients will begin to doubt your legitimacy,” observes Pedraza.

Luxury consumers may be back in the marketplace after a pause during the recession, but it is with a new appreciation. “There is a sense of bringing value to things and not just consumption,” says Beverly Hills designer Christopher Grubb. And a number of brands, including appliance manufacturers such as Thermador or Dacor, are leveraging a reputation for quality into new applications.

Iconic brands also understand current consumer focus on experience and are shifting marketing efforts. Rolex recently opened a “World of Rolex” store in Las Vegas. Mercedes collaborated with Escada and Brioni on a 12-city launch of new vehicles.

Price often becomes no object when a customer understands the inherent value built into a product, suggests Greg Furman, founder and chairman of the Luxury Marketing Council, using the example of menswear manufacturer Brioni. Every aspect of the brand — from hand-stitched buttonholes to their dealings with the customer, to the quality of the material and manufacture of the product — is meticulously and superbly managed. It’s no surprise that Brioni has become almost a staple on red carpets.

Notoriety in itself doesn’t make a brand an icon, but being associated with celebrity does confer a certain status. The most powerful celebrity nexus can be found in fashion and design. Instead of fashion magazines, one only has to turn to the red carpet — the Golden Globes, the Oscars — to see which designers have staying power and who is in line to attain icon status. Thanks to Jackie Kennedy, couturiers including Oleg Cassini, Givenchy and Valentino became household names. Today, being favored by a first lady still brings a huge measure of prestige. Michelle Obama twice selected Jason Wu to design an inaugural gown, and both designs are currently on display at the Smithsonian. A favorite on the red carpet, Wu has joined the ranks of legendary designers.

As more millennials enter the marketplace, expect to see even more cachet conferred by a big-name endorsement. Research from the Boston Consulting Group finds millennials twice as likely as gen-Xers (ages 35 to 49) and four times more likely than boomers to say they were influenced by celebrities.

The trend isn’t new. There has always been a dotted line between celebrity and luxury, says Paul Boomsma, president of Luxury Portfolio at Leading Real Estate Companies of the World. What is important to understand about the celebrity connection today, Boomsma points out, is that it has to be someone who has earned the prestige and recognition.

Mass marketing has been the downfall for more than a few icons, while some of the most successful have skillfully bridged a range of price points. Mercedes and BMW, which started out as premium brands, have maintained that status even though they offer models that appeal to the mass affluent. Ralph Lauren has been able to parley a clothing line into a lifestyle brand without diminishing his status. Still, a desire for exclusivity has a number of luxury consumers abandoning Mercedes and BMW in favor of Bentley or Lamborghini.

Innovation is fast becoming another characteristic driving icon status, especially in the automotive industry, where it is retaking center stage, observes Xavier Mosquet, a Boston Consulting Group senior partner and coauthor of a new study on innovation in the auto industry. “Consumers want to buy cars from companies that bring new technologies to market, and connectivity, safety and fuel efficiency are three of their top priorities. The ability to innovate in these areas will be a major factor in individual automakers’ success in the coming years.”

Rolls-Royce recently debuted a new sportier model, the Wraith, with a fastback silhouette. A satellite-aided transmission that uses GPS mapping to anticipate roundabouts, corners and intersections and selects the correct gear terrain as well as voice-activated connectivity makes this very forward-looking. Still, there was no deviation for Rolls’ commitment to excellence, either in the ride or interior finishes, which are still hand stitched.

Fifteen automakers placed among Boston Consulting Group’s list of the 50 most innovative companies. It’s no surprise that a number of such top manufacturers have or are in the process of introducing hybrid models, and few brands have managed to become an icon in as short a time as Tesla. Tesla’s rise also is a good indication that in the future, sustainability and being a good corporate citizen will be important, especially for millennials.

Expect to see more new icons as millennials become an even stronger market force.


 Iconic Experiences

Worldwide spending on luxuries is estimated to be $1.8 trillion, with approximately $1 trillion devoted to luxury experiences. “Consumers are spending more on everything from dining at five-star restaurants to exotic vacation travel,” shares Jean-Marc Bellaïche, a Boston Consulting Group senior partner and coauthor of “Shock of the New Chic: Dealing with Complexity in the Business of Luxury.”

More luxury consumers also are looking to hotels and resorts for inspiration for their homes, and there has been an explosion in the luxury travel sector in recent years. Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons still receive top ranking, according to consumers, but when it comes to resorts, many are looking for a more singular experience. “Today, it’s about a hotel you can go to and disappear,” shares Boomsma, who says One and Only resorts are setting a new benchmark for luxury.

Architect and designer Vern Yipp says when he thinks of luxury icons, he things of brands like Aman Resorts. “Their brand of luxury is so different than what luxury has been in the past,” and they set up shop where no one else does.

Ten years ago, an article on icons would not have included the culinary world, but many icons on the horizon are apt to be wearing a chef’s toque, and will join stars like Thomas Keller, Eric Rippert, Alain Ducass and Joel Robuchon. There are so many culinary stars on the rise that it’s hard to say who will be next, but one good prospect is Matthew Lightner, whose New York City restaurant Atera received two Michelin stars in 2012.

Wine and spirits have always had brands with passionate followers. Today, craft whiskies are getting quite a big homage. Icons today might include Highland Park, a 25-year-old single malt scotch, or bourbons like Blanton’s Single Barrel. Getting the most acclaim recently is a rare single-malt Macallen whiskey that sold at auction for $625,205. The crystal decanter fashioned by Lalique holds six liters of the famed Macallan M.


Fashion and clothes

Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Bottega Venata

Cosmetics and Fragrances

Lancôme, Dior, Chanel


Travel and Hotels

Aman Resorts, One and Only, Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons

Luxury Cars

Rolls-Royce, Mercedes, BMW, Bentley, Tesla


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