Report from the first annual Condé Nast Luxury summit, Florence

by David Stürken | 1st April 2015

Picture: Suzy Menkes talks to Jony Ive and Marc Newson in the opening session of the inaugural Condé Nast international Luxury Summit

The 1st annual Condé Nast International Luxury Conference opened yesterday with a stellar cast of speakers in the Unesco World Heritage protected Palazzo Vecchio in sunny Florence. The global icon of fashion journalism Suzy Menkes who is hosting the show with Condé Nast publisher Jonathan Newhouse introduced the conference theme of 'Hard Luxury', which refers not only to jewellery and watches, traditionally categorised under this label, but also and more importantly as referring to the hard choices the industry must make and the tough challenges it faces in this "brave new world" driven by cultural change and the "uncontrollable force of social media". In Menkes' view , for the industry there is a trade-off between authenticity versus new trends, but at the same time acknowledging that technology alone is not enough. The conference seeks to answer what it takes for traditional brands to succeed in this environment.

For Suzy, the embodiment of the threat to the traditional business model is the Apple watch. Jonathan Ive, chief Apple designer and creator of the look and feel of the Iphone and Ipad, truly iconic designs, opened the day in an interview by Suzy, who was keen to find out whether Apple was planning to encroach onto other products traditionally made by the ‘maisons’. Ive ducked the question but inferred that if Apple believes it can make a product or device better or more interesting by applying its technology it would do so because this was the motivation for both the iphone and the Apple watch, and seems to have worked well. Clearly the room would have appreciated a more insightful answer as to better plan the defence, as there seems to be a feeling that the luxury sector is under attack from technology in every form.

Antoine Arnault, CEO of Berluti and son of Bernard Arnault of LVMH, for whom digitilisation has made more impact than the luxury sector ever has, or ever will, welcomed the new landscape of digital media and other consumer interaction as it enables the maisons to return to a dialogue with their customers, while luxury and technology are converging. Arnault said he could not predict if people were still using Apple products and other current technology in a hundred years but was certain that they would still be drinking Dom Perignon!

Michele Norsa, CEO of Ferragamo gave a very insightful presentation about life at the top of a global luxury group, a life dominated not only by technological but also demographical trends and major world events such as recently the low oil price and the Russia/Ukraine situation. While luxury has been moving at a different speed to other industries there have been major forecasting errors (e.g. Brazil did not turn out what it was predicted to be) making accurate predictions impossible. Hence Norsa likened his CEO post to also include a bit of fortune-telling. His recommendation is to sustain mature markets while encouraging emerging ones, encompassing both genders in a multi-channel model (retail, airports, digital) that focus on core business and leverage diversification. He also spent time analysing the Japanese rebound and the migration of customers world-wide in particular Chinese tourists’ desire for gambling and how this affects their travel destinations and therefore luxury purchase patterns and locations.

Sophie Hackford of WIRED Consulting took the conference to outer space (harvesting asteroids for precious materials) and then back down into the laboratory for the growth of artificial cow hide that can be ‘tuned’ to produce the desired quality, quantity, shape and feel. Basically she predicted handbags grown in the lab and luxury items being 3-D printed. Her conclusion is that “technology is everything and is changing everything and therefore every company needs to be a technology company”. She advised that one of the ways the luxury maisons and their retail operations could advance, is by being their “customer”s butler and not their stalker”, using the possibilities of technology to understand their customers, predict future purchases on the basis of past ones, and upping service levels, something that already happens when shopping on Net-a-Porter or Yoox for example given these are early adaptors of this monitoring technology.

Axel Dumas, CEO of Hermès, introduced by Suzy as a ‘slow fashion’ maison, and in many people’s perception one of the few brands that has preserved the mystique of its brand, offered the audience some valuable advice by stating that “anybody needs to be relevant in their time no matter how old they are”. This could be achieved through quality and being faithful to one’s style. One should “every day water the plants of today but plant the seeds for the flowers of tomorrow”. Interestingly, despite a stellar performance in this area, for Dumas, “profit is a means but not a goal”. For Hermès some of its most iconic products (for example the Kelly and the Birkin bags) were inspired by customers but Hermès seeks to create themselves the desires of tomorrow of their clientele banking on exceptional raw materials while constantly improving its skills base. Even for a traditional maison such as Hermès, the implementation and integration of digital solutions is a priority.

Suzy congratulated sponsor Swarowski on its first 120 years, by rolling out a cake, big enough to feed the 500-strong audience, and topped with the biggest Crystal you have ever seen (think rugby ball) and then had a discussion with Nadja Swarowski about the importance of heritage, a theme also stressed by Norsa of Ferragamo and Dumas of Hermès.
The long list of speakers and panellists, which also included Tory Burch, Frederic Cumenal (CEO of Tiffany’s), Eugenie Niarchos (CEO of jewellery house Venyx and of Greek shipping fame) and Albert Bensoussan (CEO Luxury Watches and Jewellery, Kering) was closed by none other than a truly global icon, Kaiser Karl Lagerfeld.

While Karl appeared without Choupette (his cat who he tweeted into global awareness, proof he is the most digi-savvy designer) he was his usual self: brilliant and tongue-in-cheek. When Suzy asked him why he did not go to see the retrospective staged in his honour in Bonn, Germany, he quipped “I don’t go because I am not Vintage”. Emphasising his forward looking lifestyle Karl claimed to “never have been to the archives of Mademoiselle Chanel, “a timeless icon of modernity”. Despite embracing digitilisation, Karl continues to write notes to friends because it is more private. Recognising that we all need to adapt he confesses to being “the first to throw something out when it is stale”.

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David Stürken

Partner for Western and Central Europe specialises in helping Western European clients to communicate with Anglo-Saxon markets and vice versa

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