Two leading figures in the luxury sector argue the case for and against embracing technology and online selling, writes Clare Gascoigne
"There's been a change in the mindset of the consumer in the past ten to fifteen years," says Mr Louit. "High fashion brands have changed the way women buy; they expect something new on a regular basis and all the luxury brands are having to cope with this trend."
Luxury no longer simply means the highest quality goods. Developing and maintaining a luxury brand means creating a whole lifestyle image, and technology plays a key part in that, he says.
"The key word in the luxury brands and technology debate is consistency. We have our own history and tradition, and we want to present ourselves in the same way in this new media as we would do in a bricks and mortar store. The story is the same; we're not changing the way we are. It's more a matter of form than substance."
Longchamp has embraced technology for nearly a decade, having started selling its folding bag online back in 2003. "We entered the e-business world with the idea of customising the bag; the customer is able to pick the shape, the handle, the colour and make it unique," he says. "It is something different to what happens in a bricks and mortar store, where such an offering would take up space and need someone dedicated to walking you through the process."
Customisation is still a part of the Longchamp website, but it has developed other technology-rich elements, such as videos of ready-to-wear clothes and a mini film, Oh! My dog, by choreographer and director Blanca Li, while previous years have seen successful collaborations with model Kate Moss.
Facebook and Twitter are also part of the mix, with behind-the-scenes films and interviews with Longchamp's creative director to explain the "Longchamp" woman, as well as frequently updated comment and product images.
"The idea is to show that there is something fresh, it's not a case of showing one season's products and then having to wait for the next season before the website changes," says Mr Louit.
Technology is also key to attracting a younger customer, he says. "We have to keep up with this new world, so we need to be found on this media, though it needs to be presented in a way that is very close to our stores. We use the two to create the brand environment."
Certainly the increasing use of technology does not change the need for a high-street presence. "It goes both ways," says Mr Louit. "We have customers coming to our stores, who have checked the website at home with their families or friends, and also people coming into the shops wanting to touch and feel the products, but who then go home and buy online at 10 o'clock at night."
But central to the successful use of technology is having the right products, he believes. "You have to have products that appeal to younger customers, otherwise it's useless." For Longchamp, it is the folding bag (Le Pliage range) which is often the entry point for new customers; no doubt partly due to its price, which is significantly lower than many of the fine leather bags that are Longchamp staples.
"The website is a learning curve for the brand; it showcases bags with higher price points as well as the less expensive ranges," he says.
At the end of the day, technology is simply another channel to amuse and impress customers. What counts is the interaction between the customer and the company. "If the final contact is not right, then all the effort and money spent to get to that point will be wasted," says Mr Louit, "And it's exactly the same on the web." "What we do hasn't changed in over a century," says Ms Charles "You can't order a bespoke suit online and you shouldn't be able to. It's a personal and unique service."
Savile Row, the iconic home of fine tailoring, has its shop fronts, but to call those who work here retailers is somewhat missing the point. This is part craftsmanship - it takes six years to become a cutter, and that's only the starting point - part heritage industry - Huntsman's illustrious clients include Edward VII, Sir Winston Churchill and Lord Lawrence Olivier - and part theatre - the shop, with its leather sofas, roaring fire and pair of stag's heads left by a customer in the 1920s, would seem a better setting for Downton Abbey's Earl of Grantham than retail expert Mary Portas.
"It's all rather soulless online," says Ms Charles. "Customers like coming into the shop; it's part of the tradition and history of Huntsman. They want to see the familiar faces [each client has a dedicated salesperson and cutter]; they come here to be recognised and welcomed. We can explain a lot about who we are and what we do on our website, but a website won't make you a cup of tea."
A Huntsman suit is the ultimate in luxury tailoring, taking three or four fittings and on average 85 hours' work to create. A bespoke suit has its own individually made pattern, and at Huntsman your personal paper pattern goes into the archive and is kept - well, until you no longer need it.
"A Huntsman suit is almost sculpted to the body and you have to measure the customer properly to be able to do that," says Ms Charles. "Endless companies will make you a suit online, but they are not measuring the customer properly."
Though many clients research Savile Row via the net before choosing a tailor, the process of bespoke requires a personal visit, if for no other reason than it would be hard work to click through pictures of the thousands of cloths available. Huntsman makes much of its own cloth, in conjunction with historic mills, such as Fox Brothers or the Islay Woollen Mill, and customers will wait for a particular tweed to be woven rather than rush into buying.
"People come for the experience and the service. Many of the choices in a suit are about communication and people rely on the guidance of a salesperson. Our people are paid to explain face to face. Things haven't changed in so many respects," she says.
Huntsman does, of course, use technology. It uses email to keep in touch with clients; just under a third of customers live overseas, so email is a valuable means of making contact without having to worry about time zones. The company also now logs customer information electronically, rather than in the magnificent leather-bound ledgers that make up its archive. But sister company Budd shirtmakers has only just joined the 21st century, having made do with a fax until last year.
"Technology does make a difference and, by the end of this year, you will be able to buy some items, such as ties and nightshirts, online. But a bespoke suit will last 20 years or more and it won't change with fashion," says Ms Charles. "We even offer a 'Good Look Over' service, which is like an MOT for suits, to give it a whole new lease of life."
This article orginally appeared in a special report on The Future of Retail, produced by Raconteur Media and published with The Times (UK). Please see www.raconteuronthetimes.co.uk for further articles from this report.
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