The quiet return of luxury living for the Irish shopper
Shopping trends are changing and the traditional retail landscape is now peppered with buzzwords like bespoke, artisanal and authentic. Our Fashion Editor went to Switzerland to experience some high-end brands and discovered that new luxury "whispers rather than screams"
The last time I drove along the Swiss lakes, I was in a hire car with suitcases squashed into the compact boot and tired kids in the back seat demanding to know "are we there yet?"
Fast forward 10 years and I'm back in Lausanne looking at things through a very different lens.
My mission is to explore, and experience, the world of luxury brands. My luggage may not have improved as much as I would have liked, but transport certainly has. I'm behind the wheel of a Lexus, navigating Lac Leman and De Neuchatel where snow-capped Toblerone mountains run down to azure blue water.
Lexus, the posh little sister brand to Toyota, has risen up through the ranks in the motoring scene in 27 years and is currently the luxury hybrid leader. Clearly Lexus are interested in what women think of their latest innovations. The 'Sense the Anticipation' one-day luxury brands driving safari showcases their integration of innovative technology, engaging driving dynamics, performance and what they term "emotional exterior and interior design".
It's certainly an eye-opener, and I'm not just talking about the scenery. I'm enjoying the smooth, high drive of the RX - the SUV which Jude Law promotes in adverts - and the closer-to-earth RC 300 coupé (pictured above). I can't deny it, but I'm intrigued by the concept of the Takumi master car craftsmen who, as part of their training, have to fold an origami model of a cat using their non-dominant hand, in less than 90 seconds. When I take their fold-the-cat challenge, I am the fastest in the group to finish. Competitive or what?
We break our journey to visit the Tag Heuer watch factory where I discover that women tend to like wearing the male styles - now there's a surprise!
Watches are an excellent way to explore just how the luxury market has been behaving. Anyone who has ever thumbed their way through the glossy How to Spend It magazine in the FT knows the eye candy - chunky, lavish, pure testosterone. But many of the Swiss brands are looking beyond their heritage of the traditional timepiece to embrace wearable technology, as smart watches steal hearts everywhere. There's big interest in TAG's Connected, hailed as the first luxury Android smart watch that's a marriage between Swiss watch-making and Silicon Valley. But the master move was a special edition Carrera which effectively taps the Generation Y guy and brings him back into the traditional luxe watch market. Very smart.
Luxury has been in a state of flux, but figures released by the OECD point to the world's middle class population hitting 3.2 billion in 2020, up from 1.8 billion in 2009.
Old-world luxury brands clearly wants to charm millennials, but as choice online increases, the race to win their loyalty heats up. Experts say the key is understanding what the consumer is willing to invest and how much it's worth to them.
Magazine publishers Condé Nast have ventured into the world of online fashion retail with their style.com website. But critics maintain that the new e-tailer doesn't have all the luxury brands of rival Net-a-Porter.
Marcie Merriman, Retail Strategy, at Ernst & Young told The Business of Fashion website that, "people don't invest in products, they invest in things that fulfil their emotional needs."
Here in Ireland, post-recession and a little bowed, perhaps, by Brexit, more people are taking steps back into the luxury sphere as disposable spend increases. The mantra is to buy less but buy better. Since my return from Switzerland, I've watched and listened and it's clear from talking to the experts that instead of the trophy purchase, it's now about the experience and personal transformation. Luxury 2016 is about the 'better you'.
And speaking of you, personalisation is key in this retail space. It's not about the show-off logo any more. Think monogramming and subtle initials discreetly placed. A bespoke piece made just for you, unique to your taste, your body shape and lifestyle.
The Christmas 'Marvel Room' at Brown Thomas last year revealed a major appetite for monogramming and personalisation of products. Rae Feather, an Irish woman who has already slayed the luxury summer bag market with her monogrammed baskets, triggered a major rush on her monogrammed cashmere scarves costing €400. Irish men are increasingly bitten by the notion of bespoke and for the first time ever, Tom Ford makes his debut in the Made to Measure suiting event at BT next month. Starting price for the suits is €2,650.
Stephen Sealey, group general manager of the Brown Thomas Group, says modern luxury is about "going beyond the basic, functional minimum and investing in something which gives real pleasure, through design, materials and craftsmanship or innovation.
"Investment in luxury can be financial, or it can be an investment in time, or a combination of both. Irish people are discerning and knowledgeable about the world of luxury. They are confident about fashion, which can transcend the appeal of the brand name - indeed as a rule, branding is getting more discrete."
Forecasting a strong future for luxury brands, he says: "I think it is about the pleasure of owning a great product which has been carefully considered, well designed and manufactured with care - something that brings a smile to your face every time you use it or wear it."
Dublin-born fashion designer, Simone Rocha, is a perfect example of a brand attracting a youthful luxe customer. At 30, she is attracting huge attention on the world stage and was tipped to take over at Lanvin. Her clothes, like the €2,300 dress (pictured right) from Havana in Donnybrook, appeal to a new generation of fashion fans who want to buy well and who desire collectables - her sought-after shoes being a case in point.
Big-name designer handbags continue to attract love from consumers, and from the world's biggest auction houses, too, who are now targeting luxury fashion to achieve record-breaking prices.
Last week, Louise Kennedy showcased her new AW16 collection which included delicate hand-beading and embroidery. The designer, who has her eye on expanding into the US, says, "there is a new luxury client that I have seen who is interested in craftsmanship. They are actually excited by the fact that you're not in every single city. They are so intrigued by this beading work and we've really seen it in our London store, they are excited by the fact that it's not a brand that is instantly recognisable."
Leading Irish retail consultant Eddie Shanahan says it is "an interesting time in luxury" and points to craftsmanship as "the value and the essence of luxury. The real luxury brands are subtle and quiet, they whisper, not scream."
Some people know the codes for real luxury across fashion, cars, furniture and interiors, and it's clear that in Ireland we now have new standard-bearers for our new kind of luxury shopping which is far more anonymous. It's pared back, it's all about good lines and you won't see obvious logos.
One of the most interesting moves by an Irish high street brand towards the luxury sphere takes place next Monday when designer Joanne Hynes launches her new clothing range for Dunnes Stores.
It includes Joanne's signature collar and also includes a €900 reversible shearling coat - an eye watering price tag for Dunnes and undoubtedly their single most expensive fashion garment to date.
The retail institution, famous for its mantra 'Better Value Beats Them All', clearly recognises an appetite for luxury and wants a slice of that Irish pie.