Is Luxury Afraid of Storytelling?
FSW examines the current state of luxury storytelling and ponders if the industry is ready for a narrative reboot.
“I do fashion to tell a narrative.” - Virgil Abloh
Every fashion week, there are a few collections that immediately carve themselves into the fabric of fashion history. For the 2023 autumn couture season, it was Thom Browne’s episodic train-travel-inspired Autumn/Winter 2023 collection. This spring couture season, it was John Galliano’s Victorian underworld for the Maison Margiela Spring/Summer 2024 Artisanal Collection, closely followed a week later by Marc Jacobs’ nursery-inspired fantasy of a Spring/Summer 2024 Prêt-à-Porter Collection.
What these collections have in common—and what makes them stand apart—is their cohesive, experiential, and multi-sensory approach to storytelling. For all of these shows, the narrative is apparent in every layer from the production quality to the makeup, music, movement, and, of course, the clothing itself.
With haute couture, audiences expect the conceptual or even theatrical and a strong narrative fabric. As of late, however, many designers have not been delivering on this promise. Many couture collections tend towards the practical or sellable, offering more wearable designs that cross the line between couture and prêt-à-porter. The same could be said for luxury prêt-à-porter itself, which has struggled under the weight of fast fashion and has experimented with a variety of show and production models, including see-now, buy-now runway collections and more street-worthy designs that respectively cross the divide between luxury and mainstream fashion.
As Rachel Tashjian noted: “[O]ne of the most fascinating things about fashion is its total embrace of its commercial necessity, unlike art, which pretends to be above it though it’s absolutely not.” But, being practical about the business realities of retail fashion and luxury does not preclude brands from presenting imaginative collections. Quite the opposite, as we will argue.
The question is: Does storytelling still matter in luxury? How has it changed and how should it evolve when it comes to the future of luxury content—in our widened definition of content that encompasses IRL+ and digital content? If a luxury runway show and collection designs are content, what role should storytelling play in their creation and presentation? What do consumers expect from this type of luxury content and how do brands balance the inevitable pressures of luxury prestige and heritage with the realities of staying afloat as a brand and selling clothes?
The sad truth is that many luxury brand designers and the creative teams that support them have neither the time nor the business incentive for storytelling. Their main imperative is to design and sell clothes. It is no small matter to note that many luxury brand creative teams are exhausted, both literally and figuratively. The pressures of having to design upwards of six to eight collections a year are daunting and limit the amount of creative energy and, in turn, the narrative substance of any individual collection. Unfortunately, couture is increasingly falling into this category.
As we will argue, the current state—or rather dearth—of luxury brand storytelling signifies a misalignment between corporate, creative, and marketing goals and is symptomatic of a disconnect between brand vision and consumer values across the board.
The Undefinable Definition of Luxury Storytelling
What defines good luxury storytelling? How does it differ from other storytelling? Does the structure or substance of storytelling matter? What is the current state of luxury storytelling?
As we have argued, luxury content is different than other content. It requires an attenuated, specific approach that marries brand values with an elevated customer experience. By corollary, luxury storytelling involves taking a narrative or story-based approach to planning, creating, managing, and distributing luxury products, content, and experiences. It can be macro, micro, or both.
Luxury storytelling, like all storytelling, requires the essentials of narrative:
strong, consistent unifying concept or main idea;
a structure or “plot”—i.e. a course of action or series of events—that can be developed across different media outlets;
intriguing “characters” or actors (whether a person, product, or idea) to carry out the action;
a clear sense of “why” for target audiences and a distinct call to action; and
a simple, pervasive means of implementation or strategy to express or tell different parts of the narrative in various forms across the product line and through media/advertising/communications.
A luxury fashion brand can tell stories through individual pieces of clothing, a runway show, a film, social media posts, or an entire brand ecosystem. (And, yes, a piece of clothing, as a product, can have a call to action—whether that be a beautifully articulated design or a well-priced label.) Similarly, a luxury hotel can tell stories through in-person moments in physical spaces, personalized customer clienteling, or phygital marketing activations that appeal to both current and future guests.
Luxury storytelling does not have to be literal. Sometimes it is better when it is not. However, luxury storytelling needs to be experiential and emotive; and it needs to demonstrate values sinuous with its consumers. It relies upon assumptions of scarcity and elevated status through aesthetic and monetary value.
Most luxury houses excel at storytelling through content marketing of individual campaigns and product launches. Heritage brands have somewhat of an advantage with a longer brand history, which lends itself to story-based approaches. But, again, that is not always an advantage. Still, brands like Gucci, Valentino, and Hermès are constantly reinventing their marketing storytelling while staying true to their brand story, respectively; and it usually pays off. Consider Burberry’s takeover of Harrod’s for the store’s 175th anniversary or Valentino’s use of color as a narrative marketing tool in its Chinese New Year campaign. Or the depth of illustration-driven UX across the Hermès website and other content touchpoints.
The Business Value of Luxury Storytelling
How do you operationalize storytelling within a business? What is the balance between corporate, creative, and marketing goals?
Previously, we explored the business value of the luxury aesthetic and proposed three key takeaways for brands:
The perceived aesthetic value of a brand’s collections and its ability to tell effective stories across platforms greatly impact business outcomes.
The idea of marketability or sellability is a combination of aesthetic value and wearability combined with the costs of bringing a product to market.
Brands need to operationalize the model of the designer-as-artist in a strategic, goal-oriented way that aligns with corporate vision to own and empower their brand messaging and be authentic with consumers.
Operationalizing the luxury aesthetic, of course, is a different matter. Selling luxury goods requires a balance between luxury storytelling and retail economics. Luxury products need to function as signifiers of the esoteric value of luxury at the same time as they need to exist as objects to be priced, marketed, and sold. This is what Daniel Langer calls the “extreme value creation” quotient of luxury.
Luxury speaks in cultural codes. It is by its nature a contradiction. Luxury is concomitantly tangible and experiential but also sublime and emotional. It is aspirational, elevated, and purposefully apart from other kinds of products and experiences. Trends like “quiet luxury” and the “mob wife aesthetic” blur the definition of luxury into a style or lifestyle choice but its defining principles are more rarified and value-driven.
In conversations about luxury storytelling, there is a lot of conflation between luxury brand vision and luxury brand storytelling. They are related but in no way the same thing. A brand’s unique perspective and point of view are the center of its vision; whereas storytelling is a narrative arc between brand vision, heritage, and design values. This results in a major discrepancy between how brands talk about storytelling as a concept and how they practice it. In our experience, this is true for heritage brands as it is newer ones.
Brand storytelling and narrative-based marketing also are related but divergent concepts. A brand can be very good at narrative-based marketing but may fail to communicate its own vision and brand DNA consistently and authentically throughout its products and content touchpoints.
While what counts as luxury storytelling is subjective, it is nonetheless easy to identify when absent. For instance, a themed collection with collection notes that explain the designer’s inspiration but have no identifiable or cohesive influences on the clothes being shown is not storytelling, no matter how diverse or eclectic the cultural or literary references. A bunch of models traipsing down a white runway in couture designs with mood lighting and ED music is not necessarily storytelling. A screen airing a fashion film before a runway show is not storytelling unless it meaningfully and identifiably connects to the collection being shown. Also, from a storytelling perspective, a celebrity-filled front row that garners more media attention than the designer’s show often has the effect of negating the narrative value of the collection that was being shown.
The current state of luxury storytelling is tenuous, largely because luxury brands internally take a diffuse, decentralized approach to content. Many brands suffer from inevitable tensions between the vision of a strong creative director and the business realities of running a brand. Operationalizing luxury storytelling as a business strategy requires a balance between corporate, creative, and marketing goals. When it comes to creating and implementing luxury storytelling across touchpoints, internal teams need corporate buy-in and a sense of shared purpose. They need to function within a corporate culture that seeks to build a positive employee experience and that encourages open collaboration and creative participation. All of this can be very challenging in brands with heavily siloed teams that each have their approaches, systems, and tools and that are unused to or uncomfortable with change.
Selling Luxury Storytelling
What do audiences and consumers expect from luxury storytelling? Is there a disconnect between brand vision and consumer values? How do brands express their creative code and build culture through storytelling?
In practice, luxury storytelling is the communication of creative brand vision, culture, and products through a consumer-focused lens. No one would lust after the scarcity of value a $30,000 Birkin bag represents if the product were not the center of cultural lore. Whether you are referring to material luxury products or immaterial luxury experiences, luxury storytelling must be rooted in a familiar structure with relatable values to which target audiences will connect.
Sometimes, it feels as if luxury brands are afraid of storytelling because it is yoked together with heritage and viewed as not sexy or commercially viable. Yet, from a consumer perspective, luxury storytelling is what drives the essence of the luxury experience and the perceived aesthetic value it represents. The human instinct for capturing stories about real and imagined experiences is what connects us as people and is at the root of every culture, every brand, and every person.
Successful luxury storytelling requires a consumer-focused approach, even in the context of haute couture. If consumers do not feel connected to the story or ideas a luxury product or experience is trying to convey, then what is its purpose as a good or service? Luxury consumers are exacting and expect superior, personalized service and unique, high-caliber products and experiences. In combination, that is all a very hard thing for any brand to deliver successfully, never mind at scale.
Stepping back to think about the “why” of a specific campaign or project is helpful but not enough. Luxury brands ideally need to think more about the “how” of storytelling, investing in a holistic approach to storytelling grounded in a brand-specific omnichannel content strategy framework. Taking a full view of a brand’s current external and internal content ecosystem allows brands to think about how they communicate their brand story across and within channels and how consumers may perceive this story differently as they journey from one touchpoint to another.
Storytelling that connects brand values to customer values allows luxury brands to express their creative code and build a culture of refined exclusivity, which, in turn, encourages consumers to be invested in the brand and its products.
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