Club Culture: Why luxury retailers want to transform customers into ‘members’

Playing fashion’s game has always been about access: to have or have not. In the 1970s, part of the allure of investing in a garment from Yves Saint Laurent was the idea that an unmistakable silhouette could grant imaginary access to Studio 54, a nightclub frequented by the designer and celebs like Bianca Jagger. Since 1937, the Hermès scarf has been known not only as neckwear but as a square of silk, or carré, that elicits the flutter of hand-rolled fabric in the breeze of the Provençal countryside. Likewise, wearing Prada couture gets you one step closer to Miuccia Prada’s creative genius without boarding the next flight to Milan.

For today’s luxury brands, however, reserving an exclusive lifestyle for only the staunchest of followers no longer makes business sense: as fashion labels establish an omnichannel media presence and increasingly look to self-disrupt, ‘experience’ usurps ‘product’, and access to branded Instagrammable spaces now tops every superfan’s wish list.

The change is prompted in part by social-media influencers who act as mediators between potential buyers and companies. In marketing terms, influencers make luxury marques more relatable to everyday consumers, inviting them, albeit by proxy, to step into today’s rarefied brand worlds. But ‘by proxy’ is no longer proximate enough, it seems. In a shift appropriate to the current now economy, the fashion industry is investing in a form of graduated pop-up: the luxury branded club.

Cover: Hermès' Los Angeles Carré Club (Photo: Owen Kolanski / BFA) | Above: Hermès' Singapore Carré Park (Photo: Edward Hendricks) | Bottom: Hermès' Milan Carré Club

Over the past year, YSL Beauty, Hermès and Prada have opened their own iterations of the club concept across a host of international cities. Even the most aspirational of brand fantasies are being reduced and made feasible at the consumer level. Temporary spaces allow companies to learn more about new markets and their demographics, while making consumers feel as if they are supposed to be part of a specific club. Getting involved can be seen as a cultural achievement, one that suggests the consumer’s relationship with the brand goes beyond the cash wrap.

For Hermès – a nearly 200-year-old company that garners traditional French prestige – introducing activities like Carré-OK and artist Cyrille Diatkine’s Sketchomaton portrait sittings into a branded space may seem surprisingly whimsical. But last November in Los Angeles, Hermès targeted a transgenerational audience with these functions, enticing honorary ‘club members’ to explore the heritage of the company’s iconic silk square.

‘Hermès Carré Club began with the idea of bringing the silk square – or carré – to life,’ says Bali Barrett, creative director of the Hermès Women’s Universe. ‘The collaborative creative process behind our carrés is very intense and demanding. The idea of a club very naturally followed on from the initial studio idea. It seemed like the perfect way to bring a community together to discover the carré.’ What’s more, consumers get to meet the designers in a studio environment that echoes their creations. For a mobile-obsessed fan base, being seen in such spaces helps drive the community Barrett refers to. ‘The State of Fashion 2018’, published by BoF-McKinsey, reports that device dependency was the industry’s top consumer trend last year.

Above: Prada Mode Miami | Below: YSL Beauty Hotel NYC

Being photographed upon entry was a keynote feature at YSL’s SoHo Beauty Hotel, which opened for two days during last autumn’s New York Fashion Week. Although visitors couldn’t book an overnight stay, a one-hour reservation gave them just enough time to check out the hotel’s five discovery-based floors, which activated three highlighted products found in a fragrance workshop, a pop-up shop and innumerable photo ops. Visiting #YSLBeautyHotel on Instagram reveals nearly 16,000 posts showcasing individual experiences in the label’s neon-laden hedonist heaven.

Visibility and implied exclusivity were also major factors of success for Prada Mode Miami, an ‘event platform’ that hit the South Florida city during Art Basel 2018 in December. Designed to amplify cultural gatherings worldwide, Prada’s first version of the members’ club took over Freehand Miami, a hotel steps from the beach. The location, with a site-specific photo intervention by Theaster Gates, was refurnished and redecorated to reflect appreciation for classic Miami aesthetic. While entry was exclusive, the approach to the club was unique in that it didn’t market product at all, but rather the cultural capital of the brand – a slew of celebrities embellished the guest list, and curated conversations helped facilitate the buzz in a notably democratic environment.

With luxury brands gaining more and more traction in community building, it begs the question: just how inextricable are our relationships with the brands we buy into? After all, a club is a club: once you’re in, you’re in.

This piece was featured in our Mar – April 2019 issue, Frame 127. Get your copy here.

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