Salon selective

In the battle for customer loyalty, luxury brands are creating ever more exclusive cultural events, where product takes a back seat, says Avril Groom.

February 27 2012
Avril Groom

In the name of shopping, over the past few months I have attended a networking dinner where a young artist sketched my portrait, I have listened at close quarters to the Prince of Wales expounding his theories on arts education for children; I have had a private tour of the Cabinet War Rooms arranged by Churchill’s great-great grandson, Randolph; and I have been walked through Grayson Perry’s British Museum exhibition by the man himself. I could also have listened to a debate on the future of the fashion industry with top-flight business insiders, been shown around a private antiques collection by its owner and attended a reading by well-known actors of a green manifesto.

All perfectly normal for the plugged-in, culturally aware citizen, you might think. However, you don’t need arts-world connections for these privileges. You just need to be a good client of luxury brands such as Breguet, Louis Vuitton, Miu Miu, Montblanc, Omega, Vivienne Westwood or Ghadah, who between them supplied all the experiences above. Others to have held events in a similar vein include Annoushka, Matches, Browns, Marni, Dunhill and Club Monaco. Brands, from fashion through jewellery and watches to pens, are embracing the cultural experience as a subtle selling tool.

“How does one get invited to these things? I’ve no idea why I was asked,” wondered a guest over the champagne and canapés at Apsley House, once the Duke of Wellington’s London home, before Montblanc’s ceremony to present the Prince of Wales with its Arts Patronage award. He was observing the select gathering of philanthropists and arts-world movers invited into the Waterloo Gallery to enjoy the Prince’s wryly humorous speech and a short recital by tenor Johan Botha of Wagner arias. The guest revealed himself as something of a pen collector and thereby answered his own question: he was undoubtedly invited as a thank you for his custom and perhaps to pique his future interest – the brand’s new Gaius Maecenas pen was referenced but never impinged on the evening’s cultural purpose.

Inviting clients to sponsored events is not new, as luxury firms’ involvement in sport demonstrates. Neither is sponsoring the arts. The change is in the more intimate approach, creating a closeness with clients that an arena-sized sporting occasion can never match. By the standards of such events, Montblanc’s, with its 150 guests, was large. Dinners are often tiny: the networking event where I and fellow guests had our portraits drawn involved 25 women from areas as varied as film and politics. Organised by Omega, it was held at a smart restaurant and saw variants of the new Ladymatic watch passed round – as Breguet did with its models at another small dinner in the London Library, which included literary readings, to help raise awareness of this venerable institution.

Breguet’s historic roll call of arts-orientated clientele is a unique selling point, so it always tries to include an element of art and culture in brand experiences. The Library dinner emphasised past literary patrons such as Balzac; its War Rooms visit commemorated Churchill as a noted Breguet client. The aim is to create favourable associations that keep the brand in clients’ minds when considering a watch purchase. Yet at the Churchill evening there wasn’t a watch in sight, except for the wartime leader’s own pocket watch, on display at the War Rooms.

Brands often separate cultural events from selling. For five years Louis Vuitton, one of the most heavily promoted brands on the planet, has run Art Walks – private tours of hit exhibitions such as the Grayson Perry , often with the artist and respected art historian Tim Marlow, for invited guests. According to Louis Vuitton CEO Yves Carcelle, “Each artist collaboration is unique – from private cocktails and a guided tour of the exhibition, to dinner in the gallery or museum. Art Walks have become a sought-after ‘private club’, giving the guest a personal insight into the life and work of an artist.” Next on the agenda is Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, whose current Tate Modern show Vuitton is sponsoring and with whom it will embark on a full-scale collaboration covering clothes, bags and even jewellery.

Clients also featured in the audience of Vivienne Westwood’s “friends and family” at the designer’s reading of her climate-change manifesto, Active Resistance to Propaganda, with model-turned-actor Lily Cole. For Westwood, the commercial aspect is irrelevant – she has believed for decades in fashion as a platform for cultural debate, in the manner of the 18th-century literary salon, and sees such events as campaigning tools in an area about which she is passionate. When she first mooted these ideas, and began holding her shows in surprisingly historic and elegant settings, it was viewed as typically eccentric.

Yet the great Dame has often proved prescient, and her ideas are remarkably close to those expressed by Miu Miu about its Musings evenings, held periodically in its stores. These have been developed by Miuccia Prada’s team, with social commentator and blogger Shala Monroque, “to reflect on the diverse meanings of fashion; talks that invite intense cultural exchange”. Fashion intelligentsia, key cultural figures and invited guests meet and exchange ideas informally. Nothing so vulgar as commerce, but if a guest spots a covetable dress and pops back the next day, everyone benefits.

In-store events naturally add a commercial slant, but some far-sighted owners turn this to artistic advantage. “When I opened my shop I had the arts connection already in mind,” says jewellery designer Annoushka Ducas, who has so far run three soirées with artists in her London store. “We designed it to be flexible, so we could mix art and jewels.”

The first involved sculptress Manuela Zervudachi, Ducas’s childhood friend, some of whose large sculptures were put on display, while elements of them were turned into gold jewellery. “Both jewellery and sculptures sold,” says Ducas. “It was the same with Bouke de Vries, whose sculptures made from broken antique porcelain had long fascinated me. I asked him to make some jewellery-related pieces and he produced intriguing holders, where the jewels and sculpture became one display. It gave clients a new perspective – and in some cases the two sold together.” The latest collaboration was with Rosie Emerson, whose mix of photography, collage, drawing and jewellery made for a more conventional show.

Similarly, Dunhill uses the elegant spaces of Bourdon House, its London headquarters, to host Discovery evenings, where about 50 guests enjoy champagne, canapés and a chaired debate with cultural notables on anything from film to motor racing.

Sometimes the selling angle is more overt. Browns recently launched its Cabinet de Curiosités (reported in How To Spend It and in November), an exhibition of 30 high-craft items curated by editor Thomas Erber, which included modern decorative art pieces such as a fantastical ceramic chess set by Fabien Verschaere and a stainless-steel and teak desk by Paul Kelley – the artists were at the launch to discuss their work with invited clients.

Meanwhile, Matches’ has recently hosted events at its London townhouse, including a talk on how to blend bespoke fragrances and a demonstration of fine handworked embroidery. Now it is planning dinners that will feature speakers advising on art collecting.

Sometimes events can happen almost by accident. Saudi-based designer Ghadah Al Rashid comes from a highly influential family, which is a subject of fascination even to her wealthy clients. Invitations to dinners at her home are prized, especially if they include a tour of her art and antiques led by her collector husband. “Many of my clients buy couture and are used to a very personalised service,” she says. “They love the idea of a dinner made more special by showcasing my own collection of antiquities. It’s only natural that the conversation turns to fashion, with guests trying on and ordering gowns.”

Guests feel privileged by such invitations, and flattered to be included. “Sophisticated clients are very into new approaches and the idea of arts collaborations is particularly appealing,” says Ducas. “Our customers are naturally interested in the arts.”

Tom Chapman, co-founder of Matches, agrees. “The luxury fashion customer is equally interested in things such as art and wine, so arranging events around these peripheral subjects helps to connect the dots for them,” he says. “We also run small dinners with clients, designers and well-known opinion formers – it’s about forging relationships and providing the ‘money can’t buy’ experience, which is more important in this context than selling.”

It may be becoming competitive – as Browns’ founder Joan Burstein says of the Cabinet de Curiosités: “There are so many different ways of tempting customers into the store these days, so we have to keep trying ingenious new ideas.”

This is all to the customer’s benefit, but the feel-good factor is not confined to them. A brand that is able to invest in showing the work of a young artist, and which is seen to be doing so by its clients, must have a glow of satisfaction nobler than the one induced by simply seeing sales increase.

The notion of “putting back” plays a part in the new collaborations. At last year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan, Marni designer Consuelo Castiglioni turned the courtyard of her store into the magical First and Last Stop of Anywhere, a garden of plants and herbs, with projections of butterflies and trees by artist Sara Rossi and furniture covered with recycled PVC. After the event, to which art lovers rather than fashionistas were invited, the plants were donated to reforestation projects and local schools.

“For me, design and fashion are both about aesthetic vision,” says Castiglioni. “By mingling historic plants with our signature motifs, such as polka dots, and the art installation, we were able to tell a story. The play of colours was visible from the street and, apart from those invited, passers-by could come in. By creating a calm and quiet space we added energy to an important period for the city.”

Similarly, US brand Club Monaco, which recently arrived in Britain at Browns and Harvey Nichols, sponsored an award at the first Other Art Fair, held in London late last year, for young artists without gallery representation. “This new fair seemed a perfect fit for our customers,” says European marketing manager Suzanne Walters. “The idea is to nurture new talent. We also put it all online, including the chance for people to vote on the best work. It is about promotion and selling, but of art, not clothes.” In the eternal battle for sales and customer loyalty, this method seems very much of its time. Selling is the engine, but it takes a back seat; culture benefits, and everyone feels good. Winners all round, then.

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