After years of democratisation, the luxury industry is reconnecting with its founding values in a drive that reconciles excellence and dreams with sustainable development.
"Our shared vision of the importance of empowering young talent, combined with our industry knowledge, will encourage the next generation of fashion professionals to place sustainability at the heart of their future careers," stated François-Henri Pinault, Kering's CEO, in London this October. He was presenting a five-year partnership between his group and the London College of Fashion's Centre for Sustainable Fashion, aimed at supporting sustainable practices and innovation in the fashion industry. No small challenge to bring together two seemingly diametrically opposed worlds, one with overtones of ostentation and improvidence, the other evoking asceticism and austerity.
I upcycle, you upcycle…
Paradoxical then? "Not so," answers Cécile Lochard, founder of the Citizen Luxury agency and co-author of Luxe et développement durable : la nouvelle Alliance* (Luxury and sustainable development: the new alliance). "The apparent contradiction is mainly due to misunderstanding of the luxury industry, which in fact more than plays its part in sustainable development but either doesn't talk about it, so as not to betray sacrosanct atelier secrets, or doesn't communicate about it in the same terms." So when Hermès uses its leather or fabric offcuts to create new products, the resulting new line (christened Petit h) isn't touted as recycling but as "upcyling", which sounds so much more chic. Or when Chopard brings out a fine-jewellery collection in ethically sourced gold and diamonds, it publicises it in the most glamorous way possible by naming it Green Carpet in reference to the Cannes Film Festival.
Reviving luxury's true values
Even more subtly: "When in 2011 LVMH launched its Journées Particulières by opening Vuitton's, Dior's and Guerlain's workshops to the public, that was all about sustainable development because it publicised the very essence of true luxury," notes Cécile Lochard. True luxury. We've said it. A much maligned concept since the advent of "masstige" (a portmanteau of "mass market" and "prestige"), which for 20 years now has been dragging luxury into the street and turning labels into household names to the detriment of brand values. Is a monogrammed basketball cap produced as one of a million in a factory on the other side of the world still luxury? Of course not. Is it responsible manufacturing? Again, no. True luxury only delocalises production if it requires knowhow that is not, or no longer, available nearby. True luxury is selling durable products that we don't throw away, valorising manual craftsmanship and striving to preserve it by protecting the sources of the rare materials such crafts use. True luxury also means delivering genuinely exclusive experiences. And that luxury is a very hub of sustainable development.