Selling British Luxury
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.