In his essay Software is Eating the World, Marc Andreesen listed a whole bunch of industries whose business models had been, were being or were about to be massively disrupted by digital technologies – from photography and music to retail, publishing, health and education. Missing from Andreesen’s extensive list was any mention of the art, fashion or luxury goods industries – businesses that traditionally have relied on mystique, scarcity and exclusivity to drive demand and protect margin.
And at the International New York Times Luxury Conference, held 10 days ago in Miami, disrupters were ably represented by will.i.am, skyping in from Manchester to talk about wearables, collaborations and how not to get screwed by the tech giants while 93-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel championed more traditional views, bemoaning the ‘great paucity of imagination’ exhibited today.
Things started amiably enough, with Francois-Henri Pinault declaring that technology could, should and would support and renew the way that luxury works. Citing innovation in manufacture and supply chain as well as commerce and retail as reasons to believe that tech and luxury could live in harmony, he then pointed out the elephant in the room; delivering consistent experience at scale is antithetical to the bespoke experiences demanded by luxury consumers. “There’s an emotional quality to luxury that can’t be sacrificed on the altar of innovation,” asserted Pinault.
This was a notion referred to again and again over the next 36 hours, and one that went unchallenged; “People have to yearn for things,” said Apfel, rather wonderfully. “How do we sell our watches? One by one,” said Francois-Henry Bennahmias, CEO of luxury watchmaker Audemars Piguet, who conceded that social media did have some usefulness in entertaining a new generation of luxury consumers, or perhaps the children of their traditional customers.
Technology is wonderful at reducing and removing friction – the market inefficiencies that hamper consumers from accessing the goods and services they desire. But in the luxury industry, friction is reframed as qualification, inefficiency as rarity. As new markets for luxury goods appear in the middle and far easts, creating an industry growing 4-6% to $307billion in 2015, there appeared to be little trepidation about the future among speakers and attendees at the INYT Luxury Conference. Of course, this is not to say that the luxury business has no use whatsoever for digital thinking, more that digital isn’t yet asking the difficult questions of luxury that have challenged other businesses.
So perhaps a different question worth asking is what can the digital industries learn from the world of luxury? A world where every interaction with a brand is carefully considered and crafted for a discerning customer. Why, so often, do digital experiences with brands feel undifferentiated, flat and templated? Shouldn’t we be thinking about treating our digital audiences like the discerning consumers they are? Perhaps the time is right for ‘handcrafted’ user-experience, bespoke digital design that makes every site visitor feel like the most important person in the world. Maybe we shouldn’t expect luxury to go digital, but instead demand that digital gets luxurious.
But as the luxury conference blended seamlessly into the spectacle that is Art Basel Miami, where some of the wealthiest people on the planet vied to buy some of the most expensive art on the market and attend the most exclusive parties happening on earth that week, it felt worth remembering that the star of the International New York Times Luxury Conference was a ninety-three year old woman who has never, ever googled herself.