Walpole x HTSI: In Conversation with Lucia van der Post

Walpole x HTSI: In Conversation with Lucia van der Post

In conversation with Lucia van der Post

David Collins Studio opened its Fulham Studio doors to Walpole on 19th June 2019, for an insightful conversation between CEO Helen Brocklebank and creator of the FT How To Spend It magazine Lucia Van de Post, as part of their Meet the Media series.

Please note, the below text is an edited version of an hour long interview.

Helen Brocklebank: It seems really appropriate to be here, and to have an evening with luxury's most legendary taste maker, in the home of David Collins Studio, who certainly have done a lot to shape my taste in luxury. I'm thinking of all the beautiful places, that I really love being in, the new Harrod's men's floor, the Wolseley, the Delaunay, my happy places. So thank you for having us in your amazing home. So, the elegance of luxury with Lucia van der Post... Lucia has presided over, and chronicles, the extraordinary rise and rise of luxury. Her beautiful, evocative prose has brought luxury brands and experiences to beautiful, vivid life, in every newspaper and magazine of note.

HB: So, do you like ‘Luxury Anthropologist’?

Lucia van der Post: I think it's an interesting way of looking at it, it is indeed as fascinating as anthropology, it changes, it shifts, its got layers.

HB: When you started chronicling luxury, what did people understand by luxury?

LVDP: It was much more, what we thought of conventionally as luxury, a beautiful silk scarf, a fine handbag, jewellery. The vocabulary surrounding it has expanded, the way of thinking about luxury has deepened, and the conversation around luxury has got much more interesting. Part of that is because luxury has become more ubiquitous. As more and more of us have been able to afford it, people have had to think more interestingly about it and move beyond the very conventional status symbol. A beautiful scarf is still a very beautiful scarf, but nowadays, it's extended into all sorts of areas, like learning, like wellness, like spiritual experiences, which one didn't think of in those days. One thought of objects, almost exclusively, as being luxury.

HB: So, when you mention that it's become more accessible, was luxury previously really the preserve of a very small elite?

LVDP: Yes I think so, the middle classes all over the world have grown hugely, and the wealth of the world has grown hugely. Therefore, those at the very top, want something more exclusive.

Only a very few people could afford couture clothing, and we didn't have the ubiquitous fashion industry that we have now.

HB: Luxury has, as one of its tenets are the idea of a rarity, of not everybody, of being a lot of people outside the sweet shop window staring in, and only a small amount of people should be able to buy, that's the kind of mystique, certainly the French brands, like to convey.

LVDP: Well, I think this has been a huge challenge, because for people like Vuitton and Hermes, and all those brands, how do you grow and yet keep that notion of it being special, and rare, and precious, and something hotly desirable. They've been quite clever, having smaller and smaller runs, finding ways of making things bespoke. Their very best clients are always invited to exclusive little gatherings, where a small collection is only available to them. To keep the prestige, they still have to engage the interests, and the wallets of the very, very rich.

HB: Should luxury be the preserve of the few, should it be more accessible, as it has become?

LVDP: It depends what your notion of luxury is. I mean, there are very beautiful things that don't cost a lot. And that would be my idea of luxury, they aren't the conventional things, because they're not swanky, or they haven't cost a great deal. There's a shop called Labour and Wait, which just does very simple, very beautiful things. To my mind, they are much more beautiful than the ubiquitous plastic, that everybody has in their houses. None are very expensive, and yet they are made of fine woods, carefully made, on the whole rather traditional products. A handbag doesn't have to come out of one of the big labels, to be precious, or luxurious. I would rather have one that somebody, with a quirkier taste, has made with love and care, in a small run, and which has a great back story. More and more people see luxury as that kind of an experience. Part of the experience is engaging with the craftsman, understanding how it's made, and I think, people have become much more educated, more sophisticated about what luxury is. Luxury comes in many packages. And some luxury does just cost, because of the inherent quality of the design, the craftsmanship, the materials.

HB: But the definition shouldn't, of course, be about cost, should it?

LVDP: Absolutely not, it's about quality, creativity, freshness, beauty.

HB: At Walpole we have a very fervent belief in luxury not being about the price tag, it is about the inherent preciousness of something. If you were creating a definition of luxury, what would you say?

LVDP: I think that it has changed, and the people now do want the back story, they want to know why it is costing so much, and to understand the design, and the artisan skills, and the crafts that have gone into it. But, I also think, that the new generation, wants the things surrounding luxury, that they matter as well. I remember, being asked to talk about new luxury at a conference, and one of the things that was at the top of my mind, was that there is no luxury without kindness. A sort of elegance, and grace, and that comes from the top. I recounted a story, where a group of Chinese billionaires, I was told the story by the translator, who accompanied these Chinese billionaires, round Bond Street. And they'd gone into the first shop, which sold amazingly swanky things, I'm not going to tell you the label, but you will all know it, instantly. And they were so offended, by how they were treated, that they walked out without buying a thing. They went higher up Bond Street, into another store, where there was somebody, who spoke Mandarin, nothing was too much trouble, everything was brought out, and they spent thousands. Now, how can that be a luxury experience? To go into a shop and be treated snootily, as if, you know, I can't really quite be bothered.

LVDP: This applies very particularly to the hospitality industry, and I remember the wonderful Gordon Campbell Gray, when he opened No.1 Aldwych, which at the time, sort of redefined what hotel luxury was all about. And I remember he said at the time, every single person who comes into this hotel, is to be treated as if they're Mick Jagger, I don't care what they're wearing, you treat them like that. It ran all the way from the top, every single customer here matters.

HB: I think Phil Barnes at the Savoy has a similar kind of philosophy with his people, so when he arrived, he said, the customer must always leave happy, you don't need to come and see me to put something right, if they're not happy, make them happy, you have carte blanche.

LVDP: Well, it is sort of happening, much more, people realise that it is key. At Pret a Manger, they're empowered to, every day, give away a couple of things free. They've done it to my husband.

HB: It's like these little things.

LVDP: But, what I've never understood about it, I mean, we've all been into a boutique, where we've been snottily treated, haven't we, you know, not thin enough, not tall enough, probably not rich enough, and, kindness costs nothing, that's what I've never understood about it. It doesn't add to the bottom line.

HB: That would be what you describe as, the elegance of luxury.

LVDP: Luxury is a package, and if you are selling a swanky handbag, to sell it, have it served by a snotty, rather unpleasant person, is not a luxury experience, in my view.

HB: Does luxury have a responsibility to make that kind of high bar, it can't just be about the exquisiteness of the product, is it the responsibility of luxury brands, to make sure that every single thing is the best, to be the leader in it?

LVDP: The product lies at the heart of it, it's no good being an absolutely lovely person, and selling a rotten scarf, or something. But I think, everything matters, it's now the sense of decency, and an ethical responsibility too, I think the millennials have demanded it; they really do want to know.

My kids mind much more than I did, in the bad old days, when you didn't think about these things, you know, we didn't really worry about crocodile, or lizard skin. We never thought too much, I'm ashamed to say, about the wages, or conditions. But the millennials really do mind. They want a sense that this is an ethical package. It's not enough just to have a beautiful product.

HB: Just the service is not enough; it's also the impact on the environment, on sustainability, on the people.

LVDP: I can remember a travel agent I know, who was putting together a package for this family to go round Africa. And what was interesting to me, was this was a stonkingly rich man, because he was taking three generations round Africa, to very expensive lodges. But he said, he would not go and stay in any lodge that did not have a Community Outreach Programme, and he wanted every grandchild to be taken to see the local schools, he wanted them to understand the context, they didn't just want to swan around from one posh lodge to another. That's what people are now asking for.

You know, it is a political decision, as well as a nicely moral decision. But, it has, it had a huge impact.

HB: One of the things that you've written about is the importance of luxury being closely rooted to its place. A sense of a cultural connection that you can't get in a global digital world, if something is very special, is it because you can only get it in that place?

LVDP: I absolutely agree. I always used to think of airline food, which is sort of, acceptable to everybody, but not liked or really loved by anybody. It's kind of a modern, and a sort of notional, international product. It has no character. I think that the more particular, and the more special something is, the more it has universal appeal, not less.

HB: There is a risk with the High Street becoming very homogenous, Bond Street is so fantastic, but if you've got a Vuitton, there's always a Chanel, there's always a Hermes, does it risk losing that local appeal?

LVDP: Well, of course, some of them have wonderful back stories, don't they, I mean Chanel just has a dream back story, you know, they're endlessly able to come with wonderful anecdotes about Coco, and what she said, and what she did. And that gives, a kind of aura.

HB: But they're very consistent, aren't they? If you're global - we travel so much now, if we're in Chanel in Paris, or Hong Kong, or Bond Street, is there anything special about being in any of those places?

LVDP: Well, no, I think they're telling the Chanel story, and I think consistency, it's part of being authentic, they are who they are. I'm sure that if you're living in Beijing, you are buying into the Parisian Coco Chanel, aren't you, you want that.

HB: Gucci do things interestingly, because they have specific product, or there are little things that you can get in London, that you couldn't possibly get in Florence, say, and vice versa.

LVDP: Yes, that's a way of making stores still worth the journey, I think, to differentiate them.

HB: I like to think, there's a very particularly British sensibility to the kinds of brands that we have in the Walpole membership. I wondered what you felt about that?

LVDP: I think there is a particularly British sensibility, I think it was Voltaire, who was so frightened by the British eccentricity, that he wondered why we weren't in the middle of a revolution, unlike France, at the time. We do have a particular penchant for the slightly shabby, the slightly imperfect, the slightly different; I don't think we take naturally to the sleek, the shiny, and the perfect. Many of the best British brands reflect that. Anya Hindmarch knows nobody needs another handbag. She's got to make it special, and she's been very good at injecting a certain sort of Englishness into it. An eccentricity, a bespoke element, you can go to Bond Street and have charming messages put in.

HB: How much, or in what ways are luxury brands cultural contributors in their own right?

LVDP: I think they certainly can be, I don't know how familiar you are with Shang Xia, which is Hermes, instead of only importing, exporting their traditional wares to China, Hermes decided to take their standards, their morays into China, and they got Chinese artisans, Chinese craftsmen, Chinese designers, to make things in China to the Hermes standards. And those have become almost like cultural icons, they bear the Chinese code, but they're made to that exquisite Hermes standards. And, of course, they are also, which people now mind about, keeping alive artisanal skills that were in danger of dying in China. Do you know, if nobody bought beautiful watches, nobody bought beautiful bags, nobody appreciated really fine workmanship, a lot of skills would be lost, a lot of jobs would be lost, a lot of beauty, in my view, would go out of the world.

HB: I think fifty percent of brands in the Walpole membership, who make things, have something in the permanent collection at the V&A.

LVDP: That's a good statistic. Fantastic.

HB: So those objects kind of become, either benchmarks or paradigms of beauty in their own right.

LVDP: But, what is interesting, is that, clearly the luxury goods companies are worried, about the tag of, them selling sort of baubles to the rich. Because they all like to have some cultural association, they've all got their art foundations; they're doing collaborations with artists. I always remember talking to somebody, and he said, do you know, the rich now, when they buy something, they say, ‘does my brain look big in this?’ They want to be flattered; they want to be made to think they're being very clever to buy that. It shows connoisseurship, that they aren't just buying into any old thing; they understand the sophisticated connoisseurship of this particular brand, or product.

HB: Money can't buy brains, but it can buy the impression of brains, perhaps.

HB: I wanted to ask you, where you think luxury should go? I mean the brands that we talk about use their past as a springboard to tell new stories, to innovate, to do things. What do you think the future holds?

LVDP: It seems to me, that patterns of expenditure are changing hugely. Trillions now go into the wellness industry. So that's all taken away from the watches, the scarves, the jewellery, the handbags. It seems clear to me that people are going to buy fewer things. There seems to be a flight to quality, it seems that the people at the top are doing better than the people in the middle. People at the bottom are also doing very well, but it's the middle, where you're neither one thing, nor the other, that seem to be suffering. I'm at an age now, when most of our friends have got everything, they don't want to buy much, even the very rich ones. They, and I spend my money now, on holidays, my children, tennis and piano lessons, and I like to travel comfortably. I don't buy much, in the way of goods. And I'm afraid, that is a pattern of expenditure, it's the way a lot of money is being spent now. It does involve challenges for the makers of traditional luxury goods. They've got to make what they do more special, people have to have a reason to buy, creativity, in my view, is at the heart of everything. I think it was Karl Lagerfeld who said, the business of the designer is endlessly to create desire. And beautiful things can make you buy something you don't really need.

HB: Well that's the definition of luxury, isn't it, it's not a necessity, it's something you don't need, but you really want, and long for.

LVDP: But, I do wonder why people don't in their daily lives, I mean, to me the difference in price, for a cheap bar of soap and a beautiful bar of soap, is not very much. But the difference in the daily experience of that soap, is huge. You know, there are certain small luxuries that will go on.

HB: Perhaps, be more considered about it?

LVDP: I think, people will be more considered. And they are much more sophisticated. They want a sense of decency; people do not want to buy clothes that are made in horrible factory conditions. So, I think, there is a lot of hope in those areas. I think, people are thinking more, they're being more considered, and the customer is demanding higher standards.

Maybe people will have to sell less, but sell better, maybe that's the way it's going to go.

HB: I think that feels like an incredibly good mantra for everybody to take home with them, less but better, the most extraordinary quality in every single aspect of the business.

LVDP: Back to the old William Morris.

HB: Have nothing in your house, that you do not know to be useful, or consider to be beautiful.

LVDP: Exactly.

HB: I think, that's the essence of British luxury, French luxury is, art for arts sake, British luxury is, William Morris.

LVDP: Yes, I think it's a very good axiom to live by, actually. A very good axiom.

Lucia van der Post is a journalist and the creator of the Financial Times How To Spend It magazine.

Helen Brocklebank is Chief Executive at Walpole.

Walpole is the industry association for the British Luxury sector at home and abroad.