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BW Businessworld

The Best For The Best

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During the past few years, luxury houses have faced the dilemma of exclusivity versus accessibility. The temptation to sell to the new affluent and aspirational classes and conquer new destinations is strong. But with that comes the risk of diluting the codes and essence of luxury.

However, for some luxury brands, becoming accessible through affordable products, mass market lines, mass communication and mass distribution is an irreversible and unstoppable trend. In a world of  ‘no distance, no time’, one can buy a branded bag seen in a glossy luxury magazine from any corner of the globe, be it Paris, New York, Moscow or Beijing. Stores across the world come with the same look and feel as the flagship store; it’s shopping minus the jetlag! In fact, the added bonus is the service the staff provide you in your mother tongue, which makes you may feel at home.

But this overarching reach of  luxury has led to paradoxes, including misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what constitutes luxury. By going mass, some luxury brands have diluted their original significance, and their reputation. This has eroded their exclusivity, which is key to their success.

On the other hand, there are those brands that have chosen a different goal,  and resisted exponential growth. These represent the silent world of  bespoke. The movement is supported by artisans and craftsmen, as well as the purveyors of quality, rarity and history. Bespoke is for those who do not want to flaunt logos, or outwardly visible products.

“The joy of seeing a client getting a watch that is exactly as per his wishes, and the fact that we will never create the same watch twice, is truly stimulating and challenging,” says Mikael Bourgeois of MB Watches.

Bespoke is not a new concept. Its loyal patrons have been crowned heads, maharajas and nawabs, who, in turn, have lent some luxury houses and craftsmen a sterling reputation. Bespoke now represents a transformation in the way luxury is consumed: it is a deliberate choice of going ‘personal’ and ‘sustainable’. “A woman can be beautiful in a dress. But she becomes outstanding when there is a genuine connection between her and her gown,” says Fanny Liautard, who designs unique and exclusive wedding dresses and accessories.

Bespoke, not to be confused with tailor-made, is the pinnacle of luxury. The word is derived from ‘bespeak’, which means to speak for something. It is a very high degree of customisation. The buyer’s involvement starts from the very beginning where he expresses his dreams, needs, features, fit, and more. It continues into the various other steps of production, right up to the point of delivery.
ONE OF A KIND: Maison Corthay (left) offers bespoke shoes as well as product alterations from its ready-to-wear line; a
Mikael Bourgeois watch takes shape

Some luxury houses, like Louis Vuitton, prefer using the term ‘special orders’ (les commandes spéciales). Even in ‘special orders’ they make a distinction between a made-to-order product, which is in fact a piece selected from the permanent collection but re-interpreted in other materials, and the custom-made order, which is a unique, one-off creation that perfectly balances the customer’s wishes, the technicalities and the established design codes of the company.

Take, for instance, master shoemaker Maison Corthay, Bottier Contemporain Paris. Their success is based on two types of services. They offer supreme quality shoes with bespoke service, and also allow  customers to handpick a model from the ready-to-wear collection, alter their specifications and select the leather and the colour in what comes close to the bespoke experience.

Bespoke escapes the spiral of high-budget advertising and extravagant promotions. The magic strategy is ‘word of mouth’, which means the ‘buzz’ will be passed to you as a chance as well as a secret to be kept within the circle of ‘connoisseurs’. For Pierre Corthay, the footwear artist, this strategy worked quite effectively as it led to him designing 150 pairs of bespoke shoes for the Sultan of Brunei.

The philosophy of bespoke relies on a close, personal and creative communication between the customer and the ‘artisan’. “Our clients prefer a kind of return to tradition, personalised advice, patient sessions of listening and understanding their needs, specifications and dreams. They value the unique relation they have with their ‘personal master tailor’,” said Charles de Luca, Marc de Luca’s son, during an interview at his Parisian atelier located at the Place de la Madeleine. Camps de Luca is a luxury house that spans three generations of master tailors.

This is also underlined by Paris-based Liautard: “My key strength is listening to and the attention paid to my clients. My approach is to observe my clients’ personality to offer them a creation that will add magic to an exceptional event. I need to reach a stage of affinity and confidence with them.”

Entering the world of bespoke is like opening the doors of some hundred-year-old prestigious houses. Patrick Louis Vuitton, representing the fifth generation of the founding family, personally oversees the ‘special order’ department, at the historic Asnieres workshop where more than 400 orders are executed per year. For over a century and a half, Louis Vuitton has been designing fine luggage for special orders. Patrick, inspired by his ancestors, followed in their tracks, and trained for many years to perfect his craft.

Mostly, artisans start training at an early age. “I began my apprenticeship at the age of 16, and spent 12 years learning the trade,” says Marc de Luca. He adds with a smile, “To become a master tailor, it takes a minimum of 15 years.”

“It is in the perseverance of work that we manage to sublimate the creation,” confirms Franck Benito, an artisan who specialises in bespoke crystal products.

However, there are also some young companies that specialise in the niche world of bespoke, escaping from the doctrines of market-driven businesses. Luxury house Pinel & Pinel is just a little over 10 years old and gives life to unique orders, especially trunks.
LEGACY: For over 150 years, Louis Vuitton has executed special orders in fine luggage
“To me, the meaning of creating a haute horlogerie timepiece is to make a watch that remains timelessly beautiful and is designed to live much longer than us,” says Bourgeois, the owner and creative brain behind MB Watches. The notion of quality naturally includes a selection of the best and most beautiful components.

Sometimes, making a bespoke piece can take months. Many of the production steps are manual; for instance, the first sketches are drawn by hand. “Following the finalisation of the pattern, 65-75 hours are needed to make a suit,” explains de Luca, adding that more than 95 per cent of the work on their jackets is done by hand. For instance, 15 minutes are required to make a handmade buttonhole, while it takes just 90 minutes to make a whole suit in a factory!

And this is without including the number of hours that go into taking care of the technical and innovative challenges. “My greatest reward is when a client marvels at a mechanical movement or gets impressed on discovering all the intricate details of his masterpiece,” shares a proud Bourgeois.

A bespoke order is charged with passion and emotions as it tells a story. “The most beautiful request came from a man who wanted us to create a watch for his son, who was born a few hours earlier. In such projects, we forget the technical aspects, the theory. Suddenly everything just becomes emotional,” says Bourgeois.

Last but not the least, bespoke is not only the privilege of individual customers. Corporates, hotels and those connected to art and culture also commission such pieces to personalise their professional environment. An example is the prestigious luxury Hôtel de Crillon in Paris. Many bespoke pieces were commissioned to decorate the gastronomic restaurant and the bar section: a console designed by Philippe Stark and Lalique, a sofa designed by Sonia Rykiel, among others.

Focusing on extreme personalisation signals the revival of the authentic values of a luxury company. Once you have been part of the bespoke experience, you will never go back to commercial products. You will ask for the best and nothing less will do. 

Véronique Polès Mumbai-based luxury and lifestyle consultant to French companies

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 07-10-2013)