Christian Dior (1905-1957) was born in Normandy, France, and in his short 52 years managed to revolutionize the business model for the fashion industry. Years later, his company would become a key holding of Bernard Arnault's LVMH, the conglomerate that revolutionized the business model for luxury. There are many available histories of Dior himself online, so let's dive into the business side of things.
The Brand's Origins
As many are well aware, Dior became famous with the New Look after WW2, and was integral to bringing French fashion back to the forefront after the occupation years.
Dior was the first to exploit his name with licensing agreements, which at the time tailored products to local markets and offered unique price per value products at varying price ranges. (It is very difficult to do this today- a company must maintain consistency across all markets because information is so easily exchanged over the internet and worldwide travel. People don't like to see plastic pens being offered by their favorite luxury brands in certain markets when they are paying the big bucks for couture by the same brand at home. If products are to be specialized for separate markets, they must remain within the same quality and price range as all products offered elsewhere.)
Dior was the first to give a name to each collection, alluding to future generations of designers, both high and low end, who name their collections based on an inspirational theme. He used garment models and made spectacular fashion shows, which are of course used by everyone today (we'll see how that keeps up as carbon footprints and insane exchange rates mixed with a faltering economy effect travel plans).
Many copies of the New Look and subsequent collections were made around the world, proving that one man could influence the style of the world while isolated in his studio. This is no longer possible today.
From Single Brand to Luxury Conglomerate
By 1984, as a result of diminished stylistic value after the death of the brand's namesake and a brand image spread thin through various uncontrolled licensing agreements, Dior was on the verge of bankruptcy. Bernard Arnault took a major stake in the textile group Boussac Saint Fréres, to whom Dior belonged, and converted it into the Christian Dior S.A. Holding. Just 5 years later, in 1989, the holding became a major shareholder of LVMH at 42%. Arnault had become the president and chairman of the largest luxury group in the world in a number of years. Christian Dior was divided into the CD Couture Management Group and the LVMH management group for a brand turnaround.
Because the French luxury brands are typically older than those borne of Italy, the UK and the US, they have already faced the brand transition that must occur if a brand is to continue after the death or retirement of the founder ("founder's dilemma"). We have yet to see examples of this in the US market, with a few notable exceptions, but in Italy, two prominent houses are currently undergoing the transition this year: Valentino and Gianfranco Ferré.
It was, in fact, Gianfranco Ferré who was placed as the Art Director of Dior in 1986, however, he did very little to move the brand forward. After understanding that fashion needs a wow-factor, the company wisely placed wild boy John Galliano at the helm of Dior in 1996. Galliano had a way of making headlines, and advanced through the company as quickly as he helped bring Dior back to the forefront of the fashion scene. He began as the Head Designer of women's haute couture and ready-to-wear collections, and became the Art Director for all Dior women's brands by 1999.
Galliano created a buzz through his design of outrageous characters on the runway, making his fashion shows a mix of art exhibit and theater. However, in addition to revamping the look of the brand through his couture creations, he also focused on beautiful ready-to-wear and accessories and cosmetics (the real money makers today). This is where the real success of the brand's renewal came from.
As you can see by looking at the CD and LVMH websites, a great deal of the marketing budgets are set aside for fragrances (64%) and only a small portion for fashion (6%). Today's Christian Dior is therefore not so much a house of haute couture as it is a part of the luxury cosmetics industry. However, without the built-in marketing genius of Galliano and his couture shows, all other lines and products under the brand would be devalued. He is needed to sell the dream.
Conglomerates: The Modern French Model for Luxury
Today the French model gives complete freedom to designers in high fashion only. In the end, even the wildest designer must be able to design the bag of the season and design ready-to-wear that is in fact wearable. This is often done in collaboration with marketing and merchandising teams.
Luxury conglomerates such as LVMH allow line and brand extension, as well as brand-buying to serve various levels of clients and all the needs of the high-end clients. LVMH carefully manages brands to have the correct balance of cash cows and strugglers. They also work to ensure that there is limited collaboration between brands within the holding to limit the dilution of brand identities (this includes dedicated production staff per brand, often within the same facility). When buying a tired old brand, the holding company must also decide if it's worth the time and effort needed to revamp the brand.
A Sustainable Element
The most recent brand acquisition of LVMH is the ethical fashion label Edun, brainchild of U2's Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson (LVMH took a minority stake, estimated at 45%). This brand has been at the forefront of sustainable fashion and advocacy, and has implemented guerrilla marketing tactics and pop-up stores recently. It also provides a great compliment to the LVMH portfolio, at a time when consumers want their purchases to mean something beyond frivolity. Caring is the new black, and philanthropy is beginning to represent status at an increasing rate. One would hope that the brand's acquisition will not hamper their youthful marketing or ethical initiatives. There is every reason to believe that the brand will be nurtured to continue in this way, in spite of the lackluster economy.
At this month's annual shareholders' meeting, Chairman Arnault announced that first-quarter revenues gained 0.4 percent to 4.02 billion euros, or $5.26 billion, and added “April continues this trend, with a very slight improvement" [WWD] Louis Vuitton continues to be the group's biggest cash cow, continuing to grow with their no-sale-ever policy. The profits from the booming brands are used to further nurture the newcomers, and those brands whom might be struggling.
For me personally, coming from a background in sustainability, it is inspiring to see this recent development within LVMH. The idea that the primary example of French luxury, the powerhouse of LVMH, has made a commitment to advance Edun also suggests that the holding will create synergies between the ethical brand and it's other holdings. Perhaps the future of luxury may be a sustainable one, after all.
By the way, the LVMH site has included some information on the main page about CSR activities the holding participates in.
A Digital Element
In January 2009, LVMH announced that they would be phasing out their e-commerce portal e-luxury. This site pioneered luxury e-commerce for the brands within the conglomerate (in addition to others, including Dolce & Gabbana) nearly 10 years ago, while other fashion and luxury brands continue to struggle with the concept today.
In place of an online luxury "mall," e-luxury will be transformed into an online magazine delivering news and cultural bits related to the luxury lifestyle.
It is unlikely that this strategic move had anything to do with the conglomerates lack of faith in e-commerce for luxury, but is rather a giant leap in online luxury strategy.
Luxury brands increasingly need to represent themselves as a singular entity online, and many are moving towards developing their own online stores instead of participating in the sort of grouping that e-luxury provided. Furthermore, it is highly likely that the players at LVMH understand that not only is it important for luxury brands to control the supply of their products and distribution (in fact, Louis Vuitton is one of the most protective over their highly counterfeited designs), but furthermore it is important to control the message.
Today, amongst the bloggers, tweeters and other mass-communication savants, it is critical to have a powerful brand voice to deliver a message of identity, and to establish a unique brand voice online. However, as many brands move into conversational online media, such as Facebook and Twitter, they enter into a medium of a dialogue where third parties can completely alter or dilute the power of a message. To control the message, you need to control the media. With the creation of the online magazine NOWNESS, it is clear that LVMH understands this strategic magic bullet.
For now, NOWNESS is a platform providing daily news bursts on items that may be of interest to the luxury market. The "real" site will not be officially launched until early 2010, but it appears that the developers are going to wow us with an algorithm that provides content based on our preferences.
Here's a word from the website:
So far, I'm impressed. Now let's see how they execute it...
Another word on digital marketing (because I must): the LVMH site also hosts an "online magazine," but it proves *visually non-engaging* at best. It is likely (hopefully) that this will serve more as a portal for company news than an online magazine for fans and the brand community.