Saint Laurent is not the only brand taking this more personal approach. Brands like Hermès, which emphasizes the human aspect of its artisanal tradition (putting the names of its designers on its scarves, for example), seem to be weathering the storm best: Their first-quarter revenue was down just 6.5 percent. (Kering announced last month that first-quarter revenue declined 13–14 percent.) Publicists have been reaching out to editors and journalists over the past few weeks simply to ask how they’re doing. Naomi Campbell, Marc Jacobs, and Riccardo Tisci have all used digital media to become more intimate with their audiences over the past month, making things that once took months to consider and arrange (like, say, Campbell hosting a live talk show, which, pre-pandemic, is the kind of deal that takes multiple parties and a bidding war to put together) into now-daily occurrences. The industry seems to be betting that benevolent, customer-first service and entertainment are more effective than playing the trend-generating monarch.
Admittedly, skipping fashion shows seems like an inevitability as brand revenue shrinks. Bellettini told WWD that the brand still plans to advertise this year, and fashion shows often approach the million-dollar mark. Saint Laurent’s are some of the industry’s most spectacular, with blockbuster casting—Kaia Gerber, Naomi Campbell, and a selection of almost 70 spindly models, even as the industry embraces more diverse body types—and major celebrity attendees in incredible settings. Their Fall 2020 menswear show was staged last June on a beach in Malibu, where unlikely fashion icon Keanu Reeves wandered the sandy beach. The brand’s close relationship with Paris politicians has turned the city itself into an epic show space, with major thoroughfares blocked off to frame the Eiffel Tower as a mouthwatering backdrop. When I arrived at one such show on a chilly September evening in 2018, a black fringed, cashmere-blend Saint Laurent blanket was on my seat. Not a major expense for one of the world’s most profitable fashion brands, but that attention to detail can add up.
The substitution of the high-touch for the personal has a precedent—for years now, celebrities have been skipping traditional press opportunities for social media, where they can stage their own narratives and maintain optimum control. Brands will find that they really need to convince their customers that their products are worth the price, and the key, especially as consumers feel financially squeezed and cynical, is to show that they aren’t merely marketing. In other words: It’s time to get authentic. Consumers are already growing suspicious of brands that claim to do something “bigger” than make clothes. The key is to act humane, instead of like a human.
Rather than “democratizing” the industry, these attempts at personalization are more like opening the ivory tower to visitors, spelling a different—even more traditional—kind of luxury. Increasingly, over the past month, I’ve thought about what a rip-off it is to buy something off a clean, white website with no personal interaction. When you buy a pair of Celine boots in the store, for example, a glass of champagne and a sales associate who can walk you through the schmacy art collection are technically part of what you pay for. (It’s the simple sauce that Instagram-loving marketing consultants have frothed up into “experience.”) How can that bear out for a megabrand? Is there a way to bring that level of consideration to the internet? Is a future in which sales associates FaceTime you to help find the right Saint Laurent boot so far off? As countless avengers have declared before, this time, it’s personal.