Why the UK's luxury brands aren't expected to "do a Gucci"

There was a dual tone throughout this programme: a kind of impatient casting up of the eyes to heaven about Britain’s lack of tax incentives for luxury craftsmen, and a deep smugness that many of our producers have neither the backing nor even any remote

Selling British Luxury
Radio 4

A programme on Monday about the UK’s luxury brands (Church’s brogues, Fox Brothers flannels) naturally applauded their “subtle fusion of heritage and craftsmanship”. But there was a dual tone throughout: a kind of impatient casting up of the eyes to heaven about Britain’s lack of tax incentives for luxury craftsmen, and a deep smugness that many of our producers have neither the backing nor even any remote desire to “do a Gucci” and be wheeled out across China. “The discernment trends are with us,” sniffed Deborah Meaden of Dragons’ Den, speaking very fast in a convinced tone, like someone forever moving towards grabbing mid-level loot. It sounded sensible but hardly audacious.

I once interviewed a former chief executive of Louis Vuitton who said that his favourite part of the job was not the parties or products (I believed him – he was wearing a zip-up cardigan) but the dawn poring over sales figures, seeking shapes and promises in buying, forging forth to Chennai and Yekaterinburg and Siberia.

“I have a very big idea of what Europe is,” he said inexorably. “Basically it starts in Paris, and ends up via the rest of the world in Vladivostok.” At the time we were in Kazakhstan, where he was opening a store in a mall aimed at young Kazakhs oil-rich from a treacherous site in the Caspian sea and shopping high-end for the first time in a century. And yet, the first product I spotted in this gold-dripping mall? Not, in fact, Louis Vuitton or Prada or Hermès – but a bottle of bubble bath from the Somerset brand Cowshed.

Later that day, on the damp walls of a restaurant on the outskirts of the largest city, Almaty (arrived at in a 1980s Lada), I noticed a mouldering but cherished hand-tinted, 18th-century print of West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire. If ex-Soviets can foster such whimsical ideas of Britain, anybody can. (And they do. One of the last prisoners in the Gulag, a double agent and former KGB code-breaker, said that his most prized possession back in Moscow had been an AA road map of the UK, featuring a special route to T E Lawrence’s house in Dorset.)

For now, though, we must accept our roots in the petit-bourgeois trading classes, plug our cufflinks, and think smallish.

Is it cause for smugness that British brands aren't able to "do a Gucci"?

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge