• Brooke Roberts-Islam

Burberry's definition of luxury flames in the face of millenial discord

With sustainability at the top of the fashion agenda in an increasingly discerning and judgemental public domain, the news that Hermes and Burberry are burning their bags (and all manner of other products) to protect brand image and keep their products out of the hands of ‘undesirables’, smacks of luxury fashion trying desperately to maintain a veneer of exclusivity and aspiration in a resolutely democratic and accessible digital age. Brands such as Burberry and Hermes have luxury at their core, but what does luxury mean? What has it meant historically? The average consumer is now familiar with the environmental issues caused by clothing production and our over use of plastic (recently highlighted during World Oceans Day, which gained vast media coverage) and the strain such production puts on our planet’s resources. Therefore, burning in excess of 30 million US dollars worth of product due to brand image vanity appears incredibly ugly, conjuring up images of anything but luxury. If luxury used to mean a product so painstakingly crafted from rare and expensive materials it was prohibitively expensive and the domain of the highest brands only, the explosion of new technologies for producing materials and products more quickly and cheaply along with the surge in numbers of the middle class in China, a majority consumer of Burberry goods globally, notions of luxury are changing.

Artisan embroidery at Burberry Makers House exhibition – Image: Techstyler

Millennial and Generation Z consumption patterns demonstrate that the next generations of customers overwhelmingly define luxury as linked to life experiences – events and opportunities that they can share on social media and that contribute to and celebrate their lifestyle choices. Witness the rise of sportswear brands – especially those nailing the ‘athleisure’ category – and fashion brands borrowing from streetwear. Business Insider’s recent survey of the favourite brands of 15,000 millenials revealed no luxury goods brands in the top twenty. At position one was Apple, with Nike at 2 and Amazon at 5. Samsung, Sony, Microsoft and Google were all in the top 10. Millenials and Generation Z’ers consume digitally and live online. All the more confusing that luxury brands including Chanel and Celine refused to sell some or all of their products online until last year. Chanel maintains it will not sell their ready-to-wear collections online ‘any time soon’. So whilst this news of Burberry and, back in 2012, Hermes destroying resource-devouring products to the further detriment of the planet is a sustainability issue, the notion of brand image and exclusivity are at the heart of this wasteful practice. If or when ‘luxury’ brands shift their notion of luxury to focus on the next generation of consumers’ definition and desires in terms of what they deem to be luxurious, this practice of destruction will be less-linked to perceived brand value, at least.

Burberry samples presented at their Makers House exhibition – Image: Techstyler

Fast fashion usually bears the brunt of this scrutiny and ‘luxury’ brands have historically hidden such practices well, until such destruction of valuable goods in increasingly challenging economic times surfaced, following a severe downturn in Burberry profits. The practice of burning product or tossing tonnes of samples into landfill is rife in fast fashion, it’s just less offensive when the product is not valued nearly as highly. What’s just as offensive and ugly is the volume. New technologies like 3D apparel design software CLO3D allow the realistic rendering of clothing without the need to manufacture a physical sample. If brands want to find their next generation of consumer they need to modernise their point of view on design and luxury and make drastic changes to their practices to measure up.

Interestingly, up until around six years ago, Burberry used to sell such products at staff, family and friends sample sales. They stopped this practice when they found their samples for sale on eBay, which raised concerns over IP and brand value. There was talk that product samples that didn’t ‘make the cut’ should not represent the brand in the public domain. Maybe it makes more sense to remove the labels and allow people to use products that have cost us and our planet so dearly?

Header Image: Burberry Makers House – Image: Techstyler

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