Last month, Cartier’s iconic watch, the Tank, turned 101.
In 1917, this watch was designed to be unisex and gender neutral, words that may have had little resonance in the early 20th century, but today have risen nearly to the level of calls to action.
Louis Cartier said that the shape of the Tank was meant be… well… a tank, in a nod to the end of the Great War. But the military inspiration for this brand is not what we retain from the jeweler. Cartier has always stood for elegance, excellence, and refinement. And the shape of the watch is now much more akin to the Place Vendôme in Paris than it is to the Land Ironclads described by H.G. Wells.
Brands evolve over time. They take shape with the Zeitgeist. And the great ones remain ahead of passing trends and popular ideas. This is the genius of luxury brands. It is also one of the reasons so few new luxury brands are introduced.
In a discussion with a group of graduate students, the question was asked: Is Tesla a luxury brand? Tesla Motors and its sleek, high-priced electric cars qualify under many of the definitions of luxury. Although the company has introduced several more affordable models, they are still exclusive, they require specialized knowledge and appreciation, and they have the ambition of altering our perception of design, quality, and function. Established luxury brands like Porsche are now benchmarking themselves against the Tesla Model S, acknowledging that the new brand is a force on the luxury landscape and positioning themselves in relation to it.
Tesla has every right to be considered a luxury brand.
We cannot, however, run the true test of luxury on Tesla. The test of time and enduring value. Beautiful as they may be, we have no idea where the development of the electric car will be in 20 years. It may well happen that every automaker switches to electric by 2038, but it may also happen that electric cars could fade into the history of automaking as an experiment that never took off.
Who remembers the luxury experience of flying the Concorde? The unique look and experience of the Concorde (and its enormous price tag) were the pinnacle of air travel luxury from 1976 until finally closing down forever in 2003. Time was unkind to the brand, and it is now an aeronautical footnote in luxury branding.
It is unfair to tell the creators of luxury brands that their work will probably not be acknowledged as true luxury in their lifetimes, but part of luxury its ability to survive the passing years with its value in tact.
Dior’s value as a luxury brand supersedes the flamboyance of John Galliano (creative director from 1996 to 2011). Chanel’s timeless elegance has now merged into the reputation and guardianship of octogenarian Karl Lagerfeld who has stewarded the brand since 1983. But Chanel remains Chanel, and Lagerfeld’s style, creativity, and design are fully subsumed into the brand. Time has protected Chanel. The jury is still out on Lagerfeld.
Is it possible, therefore, to introduce a new luxury brand today? The answer is yes and no.
A new luxury brand will be judged by the precepts laid down by tradition in European luxury. There must be intrinsic value in the materials, artisanal work and craftsmanship, rarity and exclusivity of ownership, and a commitment to quality. Beyond that, a luxury brand must confer status and privilege on its adherents. It must engender a pride of identity for those that use it or wear it.
Luxury is an identification much more than it is a class of products. We identity with the luxury brands, choosing to use a Montblanc pen over a standard ballpoint, wearing an Armani suit over an off-the-rack knock-off, carrying a Hermès Kelly bag rather than a trendy Fendi.
The new luxury brand must be conceived with these values in mind. No matter what the sector, luxury has much more in common with art than it does with consumer goods. It is the artistic vision of the creator that will help ensure its place in the pantheon of great luxury brands. But this qualification will only be proved with the passage of time. As brands come and go, the luxury brand will be the last man standing.
Careful custodianship of the luxury brand over time is also vital. As Coach and Burberry are discovering, it is all too easy to allow your brand to descend into the mundane and banal.
If you are able to imbue your new luxury brand in deep-seated traditional values, mindful of the times in which you are living and working, and looking ahead to future generations, the only course of action you have is to trust in time to affirm your creation as luxury.
A brand’s value does evolve, and it is certainly never fully controlled by its creator, but if the core is solid and the values are respected as the years go by, then one can feel that a true luxury brand has entered the world.
Coco Chanel cannot know what her brand has become, but her aim was always on lasting value and she trusted in that.
I would like to extend my personal thanks to Julien Baland, Anna Chastel, Laura Farbos, Sarah Grondin, Matthieu Guisiano, Charlotte Hamelin, Diane Le Gal, Emmanuelle Malenge, Solène Rondelli, Mariapaola Saponaro, Fatima Ezzahra Zouheir in Luxury and Fashion Brand Management at Skema Business School, Suzhou, for their debate on Tesla and inspiration of this piece. The future is in your hands.