We tend to throw the term ‘modern luxury’ a lot around here at Lean Luxe. That’s for a reason: As a specialist business publication, that concept is our focalpoint. From it, we’re driven by several ongoing questions, here, mostly economically-related. For instance, how is the idea of luxury changing? Who are the companies and folks at the forefront of that transformation — the entrepreneurs, the investors, the academics, the market analysts, the reporters?
Many longtime readers know the brands that are leading the way, as we also tend to mention them frequently. But many of you have also asked us: Just what exactly does modern luxury mean? How do you define it? What constitutes a modern luxury company (MLC) from, say, a Zara, or a Kate Spade, or a Michael Kors? All good questions, and hopefully this will provide some clarity.
Before we get into the criteria and standards, it’s important to point out several things. Based on our observation — and likely yours as well — it’s rather obvious that there’s a common aesthetic at play for MLCs. In the same way that you have an almost baroque and old world European feel with established luxury firms, the shared point of aesthetic reference for the modern luxury space is centered on minimalism. There’s a blend of Scandinavian, German (Bauhaus), and Japanese design touch points that have combined to create a contemporary design language. It’s a vernacular which communicates that modern luxury firms are driven by functionality and simplicity, more than they are ornateness and surface-level frills.
Whether that’s something that will stick around for some time — or is just a temporary fad — remains to be seen. The vast majority of modern luxury brands, at less than a decade old, are still maturing and developing, even now. So there’s a lot more to come from them, and it’s even possible that consumers’ tastes may shift away from functional minimalism as time wears on.
Many of you will also note that the definitions below are not exclusive to modern luxury brands. In that, you’d be correct. They are in fact the very standards established luxury houses themselves embodied when they first started out decades, and in some cases, centuries, ago. But they’ve since lost touch with those traditions and are far more mass market oriented than they originally were. Modern luxury companies have, in a sense, stepped in to carry on those traditions — and they’ve added a number of modern twists, including a different aesthetic approach, and, of course, a heavy emphasis on digital technology.
Andy Dunn’s Digitally Native Vertical Brands (DNVBs) definition is also a required mention here. Prior to his post on Medium, no one else had taken the time to identify these companies, let alone lend a name to the category. Working from his definition, we’re narrowing the scope a bit. It’s not enough to just be direct-to-consumer or to sell online. There needs to also be an elevated ambition, and a refined, high-minded presentation. That’s largely a subjective judgement, but based on our particular leanings, here’s what we look for when deciding the companies to track and those to ignore. Note that these definitions are ongoing. Updates come as needed.
Modern Luxury Criteria
Putting a definition the new category of luxury business
Quiet Confidence in Branding
A rejection of the logo-driven model, relying instead on the strength and credibility of the product as the backbone for revenue. Smoke and mirrors, celebrity-driven marketing campaigns are shunned as to avoid a superficial and purely status-driven focus on product. An effort to step away from frivolity.
Virtue of Product
Setting and maintaining an exceptionally high standard of quality in both product and service, and a relentless commitment to the perfection — constant refinement and improvement — of that product.
Transparency and Credibility
Why does this company exist? Why does this product exist — how is it made, who is behind it? A clear dedication to revealing these important details to consumers, and making a smart effort to appeal to the consumer-centric market in which today’s savvier, highly-educated shopper resides. This is done in an effort to build credibility with consumers, to bring a real sense of life and care behind the enterprise, and to build trust.
Who stands out: John Sterner
A Rejection of Scale for Scale’s Sake
MLCs see no logic in excessive scale and billion dollar valuations just for the sake of being “big.” Expansion comes as necessarily, often methodically, not for vanity — often done to offer an improved product or selection for core consumers. If expansion means compromising on the quality of the product and betraying the ethos of the brand — and thus consumer trust — it’s a non-starter. They are not, in a sense, trying to be everything to everyone.
Brands must be known for doing one thing (or a few things) and for doing it extremely well. This means occupying a singular product category, i.e. Ledbury the shirting company or Uniform Wares the watch company, instead of designing general fashion collections. This is based on functionality, perfection in a given sector or craft, establishing a unique position in the marketplace, and creating outstanding products that are practical and durable and memorable.
Solving real problems
Creating products and services that are not conceptual or abstract in approach, just to be “different” or with intention to “prove a point.” Rather, a focus on practical, well-executed products that offer clear benefits to the customer, have a reason to exist, and are designed, fundamentally, to solve a particular problem. Anti-fashion. If product- or goods-based, items should be simple, functional, high-minded, smart — not excessively artistic (as an act of hubris on the part of the designer) so as not to be fit for actual use.
A Full Embrace of Today’s Consumer-Centric Economy
Whether individualistic (made from scratch for that person in a one-off instance), or personalized (customizing a template to fit that person’s tastes), MLC luxury goods embrace and strive towards a model that allows consumers to customize their purchases as a means of differentiation. Convenience also plays a big part, for instance, faster delivery times for online purchases in big cities.