Masculine luxury booming despite the world economic crisis, deciphering a surprising paradox

Hugo JACOMET

Masculine luxury booming despite the world economic crisis, deciphering a surprising paradox

Gentlemen,

Here is, as requested by those unable to get their paws on French “Dandy Magazine”, the complete article penned by yours truly in the penultimate issue of the magazine. This synthetic article attempted to provide a joined perspective of two texts published by PG during the last months, namely :

  • a Reuters article on the indecent booming of the markets of masculine luxury;
  • excerpts from an interview conducted by Pierre Henri Tavoillot with french philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky after the 2003 release of his “Le Luxe éternel” by les Éditions Gallimard

Masculine luxury booming despite the world economic crisis, deciphering a surprising paradox

Dandy Magazine N°39, by Hugo Jacomet

Long-time specialized observers of men’s evolving attitudes, notably in regards to their own elegance, Dandy magazine and Parisian Gentleman could definitely “feel” that the markets for masculine luxury in general, and of classic style in particular, were undergoing radical changes.

To say the truth, this very clear evolution of men’s consumption of so-called luxury stood out rather blatantly. Indeed, some traditional labels, even in the midst of the “first” crisis in 2009, had reported, to our great astonishment, solid sales figures and, more importantly, a measured and notable increase in their client base.

This sharp augmentation was confirmed in the last two years for those labels. Rather confidential and obscure in nature, they include measure shirt makers Courtot and Lucca, bespoke tailors Cifonelli and boot maker Anthony Delos. All, followed very closely by Parisian Gentleman, have heavy backlogs and have seen their delays for delivery stretch considerably (3 to 4 months for Courtot, up to 7 for Delos).

Nevertheless, it had never before been possible to globalize this trend and therefore, to analyse it, due to our limited outlook. Until recently, we believed the phenomenon limited to a highly confined niche, fostered by the renewed passion for beautiful things inspired to a limited number of comfortable, if not wealthy, few aesthetes…

That been said, the deep mutation was just been confirmed by a greatly interesting article published by the Reuters Agency. It proves, with supporting figures, that masculine elegance is indeed a promising, if not a booming, sector.

Needless to say, it focuses on its undisputable skyrocketing on the Asian market. But what we have suggested above proves indeed that the trend is just as clear in Europe.

Any attempt at deciphering this seemingly paradoxical trend, given the current trials of Western economies, is quite treacherous indeed. Still, it seems important to engage in such a reflexion by trying, in all humility, to understand the forces at play that are shaping the upsurge, by crossing a variety of perspectives, whether they are economic, sociological and of course, aesthetic.

We shall start with facts. Here are a few selected excerpts from the article released by Reuters last December 7th.

Luxury giants battle is out in menswear

PARIS, Dec 8 (Reuters) –

Buoyant demand for luxury menswear, driven by China’s male-dominated market, has prompted big industry players such as LVMH and PPR to step up their investments in the fast-growing market.

Consultancy Bain & Co estimates the luxury menswear market, which makes up 40 percent of the global market, is worth 180 billion euros ($240 billion) and growing at about 14 percent a year, nearly double that of luxury womenswear at 8 percent.

“Menswear … remains very underdeveloped compared to the woman’s market, so there is a lot of catching up to do,” said Jean-Marc Bellaiche, consultant at Boston Consulting Group.

Soon after PPR snapped up Italian tailor Brioni, LVMH said this month it had ambitious plans for its Berluti menswear brand, known for its 4,000-euro patent leather shoes worn by actors such as Johnny Depp and Ryan Gosling.

The world’s biggest luxury group said Brioni would unveil its first ready-to-wear line at Paris menswear fashion week in January designed by Alessandro Sartori, who was poached from industry leader Ermenegildo Zegna last summer.

Analysts predict Brioni and Berluti will have to work hard to catch up with better-established rivals such as Hugo Boss, Burberry, Armani, Dunhill and Ermenegildo Zegna, which makes just under half of its 1 billion-euro turnover in Asia.

“Notoriety is key to success as Chinese consumers only buy what they know,” said Jason Ding, a partner at consultancy Roland Berger in Beijing.

Brioni, bought last month by PPR, which owns the Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent brands, is well known in Europe and North America but not so in China or elsewhere in Asia.

With PPR’s financial firepower, Brioni, which makes sales of around 170 million euros, hopes to widen its global footprint as well as its product offering, particularly in leather goods.

Berluti, headed by Antoine Arnault, son of LVMH Chief Executive Bernard Arnault, has more of a presence in China than Brioni, but is one of the smaller players in the luxury menswear market, with sales estimated at 50 million euros.

China is the world’s biggest luxury goods market in terms of growth, with sales rising on average about 20-25 percent a year, and men make up three-quarters of that market, estimated to be worth about 23 billion euros overall.

“At this pace, Chinese consumers will, in the medium-to-long term, make up 70 percent of the global luxury market’s growth,” said Bernard Malek, a partner at Roland Berger.

Analysts from CLSA Asia Pacific estimate Greater China, which includes Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, will make up 44 percent of the global market by 2020 against 17 percent today.

French luxury goods maker Hermes, a centuries-old provider of menswear luxury goods, said growth at its specialised men’s shop in New York, which opened two years ago, was higher than its sales growth average in the United States.

“Our growth in the United States is about 30 percent and in our (menswear) store on Madison Avenue, it is higher than that,” said Axel Dumas, head of operations.

Attracted by the potential of the men’s market, Paris department store Printemps has just opened a corner dedicated to men’s luxury accessories such as leather goods and shoes.

Tancrede de Lalun, head of fashion purchases at Printemps, said he expected the men’s market to “explode … because appetite is very strong and male consumers know no limit”.

So how does one explain this global trend, beyond the outrageous figures and “catching up” mentioned by Jean-Marc Bellaïche?

Gilles Lipovetsky is a famous French essayist and philosophy professor, interested in postmodernism, hyper modernism and hyper individualism. Already in 2003, he provided some answers following the release of his book by Éditions Gallimard, Le luxe éternel.

During an interview conducted almost 10 years ago by Pierre-Henri Tavaillot, Lipovetsky provides thoughts to ponder, which the passing of time seems to have made appear auspicious and rather visionary. They can -to a certain extent – explain the current trends. Here are some selected enlightening excerpts.

Humans are not exclusively engaged in deep and serious pursuits! And the modern man cannot be reduced to an obsession with efficiency. We also deal with excess, dreams, frivolousness, and beauty.

Greeks, then the philosophers of the 18th Century, considered essential to reflect on this dimension of infinite desire. I agree with that. In addition, common interpretations of the subject have evolved very little: the moment has come to refresh this line of pondering. It is true that it could seem insignificant or even indecent.

In his time, La Bruyère already expressed it: “There is a certain shame to be happy in the face of certain miseries”. Some have nothing, others have everything, or too much: controversy is always near. 

But critics forget an essential aspect: the universal, anthropological nature of luxury. It is impossible to envision humanity without luxury. Indeed, through luxury, humans affirm their superiority to mere animals, and that their destiny cannot be reduced to survival, conservation and need. Shakespeare himself said that removing what is superfluous to a man and you will annihilate his humanity.

Can humanity be without dreams? Great scientific or political utopias have drained: we no longer have faith in a mechanically better and fairer future. What is left for individuals is the hope for greater welfare, sensory celebrations, and the expectation of beauty emerging from everyday grisaille.

Luxury is no longer the cursed part, but the dreaming and journeying part, the part of excellence and superlative that no human can live without. 

Such words, in addition to their refinement and unquestionable relevance in today’s context, shed bright light on the recent, and quasi daily emergence of new stakeholders in this deep trend, which rejoices both Dandy and PG, notwithstanding any obnoxious elitism, of course.

More prosaically, there are indeed tangible and unmistakable signs:

- Almost every day, the Web welcomes many new blogs on men’s style in France, Europe and beyond, apart from the online versions of the main magazines on the subject, such as The Rake and GQ.

- The increasing number of publications on masculine style: James Sherwood’s Savile Row, Anderson & Sheppard’s A style is born, Bruce Boyer’s Enduring Style and Hand of the Artisan published along with The Rake, to name just a few.

- The exponential emergence of new shoemakers. Just in France, every quarter sees the establishment of a new label. Leafing through the guide published by Pointures magazine (loved by Dandy’s editorial staff) will suffice to really seize the scope of this trend. In addition, high end multi-label shops such as Blake and Goodyear, as well as glazing workshops are blossoming throughout France.

- The innumerable new small brands offering online “capsule” micro-collections aimed at über-niches of masculine elegance: Balibaris (neckties), Cuisse de Grenouille (neckties, belts and socks) and Mes Chaussettes Rouges (luxury socks made by the Vatican’s supplier).

- Young tailors like Julien Scavini in France and young bespoke labels in England like Thom Sweeney and others created by young thirty-something entrepreneurs already attracting clients hungry for discrete and immaculate elegance.

To prove our point even more precisely, let us look at two impressive successes, one in the US and one in Switzerland that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago because of the specificity of their offer, which are also an amplified example of what we are describing here.

Meet The Hanger Project, world leader of … luxury hangers (!), and Roland Iten, traditional Swiss watchmaker creating ultra-refined and complex time pieces (in the purest Helvetic tradition) with the small yet meaningful difference that none measures time!

The Hanger Project was created two years ago by Kirby Alison, a 28 year old Texan and is a perfect example of the new interest of men for exclusive “luxury” items. The (very) young Kirby also sensed this global trend towards masculine elegance. He had a simple and brilliant idea, summed up in his slogan known by elegant men the world over: You tailor your suits, now tailor your hangers.

His idea was simple (as all good ideas are) and based on the premise that a man who invests several thousand euros in a suit is entitled to expect his tailor to provide a quality hanger (just like the shoetree of a bespoke shoe), which few did.

So the young Texan marketed a line of very high quality hangers of various widths and thicknesses, directly to individual customers (on thehangerproject.com). Following his immediate success, Kirby developed a very wide yet exclusive offer based on the care of high end men’s garments. Hangers for shirts (in various widths), trousers and neckties, but also coral pearl collar stays, luxury shoehorns, garment bags, brushes, trouser presses, traditional shaving paraphernalia, etc. His formidable online store is now highly popular among aesthetes and, by the way the largest distributor of SAPHIR shoe care products (legendary French label) in the United States.

This American success story is a wonderful example of what we are describing; as such worldwide success was barely imaginable just a few years ago.

As far as undefinable go, Roland Iten, black sheep of high end Swiss watchmaking, he will simply take your breath away! He makes, with skill comparable to that of legendary timepiece Swiss manufacturers… belt buckles and credit card holders, which would have been a risky gamble just a little while ago.

Of course, the particularly iconoclast planet inhabited by Roland Iten fascinates as easily as it amuses. There is no denying that all the pieces made by this decidedly unconventional factory are masterpieces of ingeniousness and virtuosity: highly intricate titanium, pink gold or steel belt buckles (with automatic movement to fit your waist, maybe after a decadent meal), “smart’ cufflinks with incrusted diamonds, automatic movement credit card holders, etc.

I must admit that, without being myself a consumer of such rather dispensable (unless one already owns a few houses, yachts and two or three Aston Martins) items, when I met Roland Iten, as strange, brilliant and offbeat as his out of this world creations, I was in awe of the skill and creativity (or was it creative madness?) that they display.

We now live in very particular times, notably for media like Dandy magazine and Parisian Gentleman. Indeed, in a generally concomitant way, luxury has ceased to exclusively express a general strive for social recognition. Nowadays, one of the strongest selling points of a luxury car is no longer linked to ostentation but security…

This is what Gilles Lipovetsky calls “emotional consumption”. While elitism remains, given means required to afford such objects, it has transformed. The purchase of a luxury object entails a level of enjoyment linked to “knowing oneself different” (Nietzsche), to an awareness of one’s exceptional character. Today, this feeling is undeniably and increasingly available to men. Bespoke (shoes and textiles) consumers intimately know that feeling confined to personal and private enjoyment.

To close this short reflexion that seeked nothing but to attempt at deciphering the deep changes we are all privileged witnesses of, let us turn back to Lipovetsky. In 2003, Pierre-Henri Tavaillot asked him a question that, you will agree, remains extraordinarily current:

How does luxury remain a dream in our disenchanted world, apparently doomed to focus on the frenzy of the present moment?

Lipovetsky’s response serves as a wonderful conclusion to today’s subject:

From its earliest beginnings, luxury has had an essential link with time. We give to the sacred to earn eternity. Antique patrons spent fortunes to immortalize their memories. Nowadays, luxury brands are doing the exact same thing, but with paradoxical means.

On one hand, there is a constant need for innovation: that is the logic of the present and of fashion. On the other hand, brands still have to celebrate the legend of their foundation, their original myth, ancestral traditions and skills. The same ambivalence is seen in consumption: to be in the know, but also enjoy what has temporal substance.

The luxury object cannot be consumed thoughtlessly. Ritualization is part of the pleasure, along with duration, memory, and eternity that can be purchased and enjoyed. In the Kleenex society, luxury counterbalances, through time, death by giving us back a temporal depth. Paradoxically, there is a metaphysic dimension at the heart of the most materialistic passions.

We would not have said it better.

HJ

Hugo JACOMET.