When a consumer-facing product segment reaches functional maturity, it tends to split into tiers. At the bottom are budget versions, which do their job just fine – with one or two compromises. In the middle is the mass market, where products are functionally complete, but corners are cut with unexceptional presentation. And at the high end is the luxury or “premium” tier, where discerning buyers find the best performance, the most refined aesthetics and the most exclusive materials.
In pure utilitarian terms, for the average user, premium products don’t offer a discernible advantage over the mid-market. Luxury clothing covers the body the same way cheaper off-the-rack garments do. Luxury cars still just drive from point A to point B (often less reliably than cheaper cars, but that’s a subject for another time). And premium smartphones and computers access web services and send emails the same as their bargain basement counterparts.
But looking at things functionally is missing the point, because luxury is about elevating form, and transforming an adequate experience into an exceptional one.
A mass market dress is fine for the office; a haute couture gown is fit for a movie premiere. A family SUV will move you from one location to another safely; a luxury saloon will move you faster, and in envy-attracting style. And a budget smartphone will work just fine for social media, but a premium one will take Instagram photos worthy of Annie Leibovitz as well as looking, feeling, and performing better.
In luxury fashion, that divide has remained relatively safe. Mass market brands simply cannot afford to use better materials – their margins don’t allow for it. Fast fashion labels can trade on speed and variety, but uncompromising quality just doesn’t fit into their business models. And no other segment can afford the level of craftsmanship, polish, and brand personality that luxury houses have made their raison d’etre.
There was, after all, a reason that the seasonal catwalk calendar steering the fashion industry as a whole for so long.
But when it comes to other industries, like automotive and consumer technology, all but the most extreme examples of premium products are under threat, and the traditional race to the next stage of R&D is getting faster.
This year’s budget smartphones incorporate the magic-feeling “beneath the glass” fingerprint readers from last year’s top-flight devices from Apple, Samsung, and Google. A telephoto camera lens might be a selling point for a phone costing upwards of £1,000 today, and barely merit a mention on the box tomorrow.
A 2020 model year car in the (comparatively) affordable mid-market bracket is likely to incorporate a level of assisted driving, a suite of smart safety equipment and sensors, and even a standard of interior fit, finish, and infotainment that would have been exclusive to premium cars at most a couple of years prior.
The major difference – at least as I see it – between fashion and automotive / consumer technology is that clothing is only a utility in a very loose sense. Outside of outdoor and performance wear, fashion’s purpose is primarily aesthetic and personal – we buy high-end clothing, footwear, and accessories because they look good and they make us feel good. In other industries, that look and feel is a layer on top of the primary purpose of the product, and as the mid market (and even the budget tier) starts encroaching on the way top-tier brands actually perform their primary function, that additional layer is going to become increasingly important to the companies that make premium cars and consumer technology.
This is why automakers and electronics companies are looking to luxury fashion to steer them – sometimes as inspiration, but sometimes as literal partners.
Let’s get the outliers out of the way before we move on – Royal badges like Rolls Royce and Bentley aren’t the automakers feeling the squeeze, and neither are supercar marques. As the above video of the Rolls Royce Wraith demonstrates, this small group of prestige companies is already seen to be at the same level as the finest luxury fashion houses.
A better indicator of the trend I’m talking about is the executive or family saloon. These have always straddled a fine line between affordability and exclusivity, earning their premium label by having plusher interiors than other cars, more creature comforts, or more horsepower and torque under the hood. But as the pace of electrification picks up, these cars will likely use the same battery packs and motors as other electric vehicles (EVs), and their comfort and safety features are increasingly going to be found on much cheaper cars as well, leading to premium carmakers adding silly USPs like inbuilt aromatherapy scents and massage seats.
So, in a world where every car is quick, quiet, comfortable and environmentally friendly, how can a previously “premium” model stand out?
If you’re thinking electric range, you’re right, but you won’t be for long. A few years ago, only a Tesla would take you 200+ miles on a single charge, but now a Hyundai EV will get you just as far – further, in fact, than the latest EVs from upper-end brands like Audi and Mercedes. And that’s a trend that’s likely to continue: long-distance EVs will push further and further, while city cars will be fine with smaller battery packs.
What’s left? The answer should be obvious by now: new, even higher standards of look and feel. Take any recent EV and you’ll see the luxury designer’s touch everywhere – from materials to user experience design.
BMW’s just-revealed i4 concept is the embodiment of this. The accompanying press release mentions “excellence” and “elegance” multiple times before range and performance come up. And its interior is a study in sci-fi luxe: deep-contrast screens, marble-effect dashboard cladding, crystal, and rose gold.
Even the mighty Tesla, leading the charge on EV adoption, offers “part premium” and “premium” interior options on its notoriously minimalist Model 3. And look no further than Skoda – once the cheapest of the cheap – who will bring a very similar-looking EV to market later this year or next.
Things are even more overt in consumer technology, where mobile phone makers have are working in collaboration with premium brands to offer another, more exclusive tier of devices. Samsung’s just-launched Galaxy Z Flip – currently the flagship folding-screen phone – also came in a variant co-created with designer Thom Browne, and even Chinese manufacturer OnePlus has created a version of its flagship 7T Pro phone in collaboration with McLaren, clothing it in not just the brand’s signature colour, but also carbon fibre and Italianate Alcantara inspired by the Speedtail supercar.
In the case of Samsung and OnePlus, both are playing up the form of a device to justify a price point that, from a functional point of view, is hopelessly inflated when stacked against phones that cost much less. A third the price, in Samsung’s case.
But the strategy will probably work because, frankly, these sorts of partnerships aren’t anything new. Apple brought them to the mainstream with collaborations with houses like Hermes for the Apple Watch, but I remember owning a phone designed in partnership between LG and Prada more than a decade ago.
But we should expect to see these partnerships become more common. Because when product-based industries – and these are just two possible examples – can no longer sustain competition on function alone, they will invariably turn to form. And when they do, they’ll find the old masters, luxury fashion, and attempt to follow in their footsteps.
Now the unwritten question: is luxury fashion at risk of the same intrusion from other tiers of the market? With the proper investments in technology, we suspect not. Luxury fashion has every chance of keeping its edge, but nevertheless I recommend that any premium fashion brand keep a careful eye on what’s happening with cars and consumer technology, and weigh up the benefits and potential downsides if they do intend to lease their brand out in this way. Going luxe might well be the way forward for the top players in those industries, but there are certain to be some cautionary tales of partnerships that do not lead to success – not to mention the pesky problem of functional obsolescence, which technology-centric industries are used to dealing with, while fashion is not.
But that really is a story for another time.
(For a look at things going in the opposite direction, consider reading The Interline’s case study of motorsport-inspired custom brand Wreckreation – part of our luxury launch month.)