Uncovering fashion's influence on luxury packaging

Pascale Ruchon

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Uncovering fashion's influence on luxury packaging


In a report originally published in the winter issue of our sister publication Formes de Luxe, we explore the fashion/sustainability equation and examine how fashion’s influence extends to luxury packaging.

From the couture dress splashed across magazine covers to the sneakers that millennials are scrambling to buy, fashion has always been a great influencer. It is familiar with the art of creating breakthroughs thanks to daring styles, sometimes technological innovations, and because it can tell the story of the times, mirroring sociological, artistic, and even political developments... Fashion influences because it allows itself to be influenced by the world’s biggest trends, to come up with something beautiful, or interesting at the very least!

This is why fashion has such a pull. In luxury too, it plays a guiding role. In this case, perfumery is where fashion exerts its strongest influence and for obvious historical reasons: most of the perfume houses have their origins in fashion. It is therefore a question of keeping the spirit of the designer alive while being in harmony with the style of the artistic directors who will succeed him or her.

Today, the coherence of a brand’s image often must be managed on the scale of international groups. These so-called luxury giants have different approaches that more or less promote bridges between the two sectors. LVMH manages fashion and beauty together since, from its own factories or those of its subcontractors, it controls the production of fragrance and cosmetics of its brands Christian Dior, Givenchy, Kenzo and Marc Jacobs. Kering is only on the fashion front and outsources the production of beauty products through licensing agreements with beauty groups including Coty (for Gucci and Balenciaga) and L’Oréal (for Yves Saint Laurent). Puig, meanwhile, gathers its brands’ activities in-house (Jean-Paul Gaultier, Carolina Herrera, Nina Ricci, Paco Rabanne) but also manages the licenses of perfume brands it doesn’t own, such as the extravagant and ultra-feminine style of Christian Louboutin. But the Spanish group had to give up Valentino two years ago and more recently Prada; the two brands joined L’Oréal’s portfolio.

While the waltz of licenses, like that of couture art directors, can damage a brand’s image, when a concept works, it stays put and ensures a sense of continuity. After firing John Galliano following his anti-Semitic comments, Dior tried to erase the evidence of his time spent at the brand, but the designer’s Masai necklace remains on the Dior’s J’Adore bottle. In its latest version, J’Adore Infinissime, the accessory is lightened with three gold rings that slide down the neck of the flacon—a fine injection process by Qualipac.

Despite the change of licensee, Valentino fragrances has remained faithful to its “rock stud” look, the triangular stud featured on the heels and bags created by Pierpaolo Piccioli. Formed into the glass of the Born in Roma fragrance, the pattern is subtly reinterpreted on the bottle and cap of the new Voce Viva scent. This kind of tribute is often based on an emblematic detail.

Take the golden chain, an accessory prized by Gabrielle Chanel, for example. The necklace was the guiding thread of one of Chanel’s recent make-up collections, inspiring both the color palette as well as the pattern of links embossed on the eyeshadows. Givenchy’s Private Collection offers fragrances meant to be combined in layering mode, just as Hubert de Givenchy’s “separables” collection from 1952 casually combined different pieces for one outfit. The bottle is reminiscent of the couturier’s clean lines, with a customizable cap for a touch of made-to-measure.

More whimsical, Miss Dior’s 2020 Christmas edition was embodied in a small glass dog named Bobby, who was Christian Dior’s loyal companion and who also gave his name to a new purse. Around his neck, a ribbon sports houndstooth fabric and pearl embroidery as a reminder of the maison’s signature dresses. Indeed, storytelling is sometimes all about digging deep into the brand’s history. A simple marketing ploy or a return to one’s roots? In any case, this approach helps stimulate inspiration and highlight brands’ creative initiatives.

Leather and fabric evolves

Obviously packaging is an essential vector here; we even refer to a pack’s habillage, a term borrowed from fashion. The material that best weaves the connection between these two worlds is… fabric, of course. Textiles give a fashionable touch to products that are not related to couture, such as wines and spirits.

A case in point is Champagne Collet’s Cuvée Esprit Couture, whose box is decorated with tulle giving an Art Deco feel (the house was founded in 1921). The bottle sports touches of imitation leather and a cord that can double as a bracelet. Ribbon, pouch and textile ornaments have seen significant development in luxury packaging. In this segment, leather has taken a prominent place—perhaps a parallel with the dynamic luxury handbag market and the branded “it-bag” that can even be a financial investment! “In make-up, we’re seeing a growing trend for decoration inspired by leather goods,” observes Christelle Lavaure, Sales and Marketing Director at Seram.

“Our clients sometimes send us handbag looks when designing compacts—quite logical given that make-up items are often slipped in the consumer’s handbag.” The leather issue has taken on an ethical dimension of late: the vegan movement is opposed to animal leathers, while the defenders of zero-plastic reject imitation leathers made of polyurethane or other petrochemical-based molecules. Research is therefore focused on vegetal alternatives. The best known is Piñatex, made of pineapple, while others are based on banana, apple, corn, cactus, mushrooms, fermented grapes, coffee grounds…

However, these solutions remain costly and not all are available on an industrial scale, especially for packaging, which only calls on them for finishing. So why not fall back on fabric? Superga Beauty, a specialist in promotional bags and accessories, notes that luxury brands which used to swear by imitation leather are now ready to adopt materials with a natural bent—as long as they can be enhanced. After all, a jute canvas softened with cotton and printed can be a beautiful option.

Yet fabrics are not exempt from criticism, far from it! Cotton has seen its reputation downgraded to a non-ecofriendly material because farming is both water and pesticide intensive, making organic cotton a more costly alternative. Not to mention other plants: flax, hemp, aloe vera... Textile ornament specialist Oriol & Fontanel took Tencel from the clothing industry for its softness and its anti-perspiration properties. The fiber is derived from the cellulose of fast-growing trees and is certified FSC.

Ecological awareness

As this fever for greener materials demonstrates, fashion has taken up the eco-responsibility gauntlet. Designated as one of the world’s most polluting industries, it simply has no other choice. According to a recent McKinsey report, the fashion industry generated 4% of the world’s greenhouse gases in 2018 and will have to redouble its efforts to reverse the trend and comply with the IPCC* objectives by 2030. “Our clients have always been concerned about fundamental issues such as digitalization, consumer behavior and supply chain issues, but it is only recently that sustainability has become one of their primary concerns. In the past, this issue was ‘too complicated’ or ‘not our style!’. Today, everyone feels concerned”, says Yvonne De Bruyn, Fashion & Style Consulting Director at Peclers, a trend consultancy that works with the United Nations for its sustainable fashion program.

So it seems everyone is getting onboard : both luxury groups, such as LVMH, which is making sustainability an integral part of its strategy (it was LVMH who brought ethical fashion pioneer Stella McCartney into its portfolio in 2019) and mainstream brands, like H&M, Gap, Nike and Adidas. More than 60 companies to date have signed the Fashion Pact presented at the 2019 G7 summit, which aims to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. In doing so, they may not only pave the way for new technologies and processes, but help change mentalities.

Fashion has advantages on this front. On the one hand, the industry knows how to be agile as it has a pool of designers coupled with a network of start-ups. On the other hand, fashion benefits from its proximity to consumers and strong visibility, more so than other sectors that are more advanced on environmental issues. This is best illustrated with packaging, which, despite its ecodesign efforts, is associated with harmful waste destined to fill our vast oceans with plastic. Yet from this same waste, Cambodian artist collective La Chhouk is creating beautiful dresses!

The new circularity paradigm

It’s not enough to just make a buzz, however. Fashion is starting to use industrially recycled materials, which packaging could also borrow from. For its promotional accessories, The Gift Lab is looking into using RPET zippers made of YKK and RPVB (polyvinyl butyral)—a plastic added to car windshield glass that can be recycled into economical imitation leather. Packaging players can also contribute to using recycled textiles: paper manufacturer Favini launched a paper containing wool or cotton sourced from Italian textile mills’ production scraps, while ESKA is adding denim fibers supplied by a Dutch textile recycling specialist to create its ESKA Jeans offer.

While clothing will increasingly be designed to be recyclable, the more different elements it contains (metal buttons, plastic zippers, different fabrics), the more difficult it will be. The nature of the material itself is also important. Adding Lycra to denim, for example, is becoming a reprehensible practice. The frequent mixes of cotton and polyester also hinder recycling, and processes to separate the two fibers are now a field of study, such as the solution developed by the Hong Kong Textile Research Institute (HKRITA). Its first application will be a recycled polyester collection from Monki, an H&M Group brand. While there is a debate around synthetics as they release microplastics into wastewater every time they are washed, their fibers are said to be more resistant and can therefore be more easily recycled, an advantage in terms of sustainability.

Finally, in this sector as in others, programmed obsolescence is on its way out. In fashion, we produce too much, buy too much and throw too much away. According to McKinsey, out of five garments produced, three end up in landfills or incinerators each year. Encouraged by signs from retailers such as Zara, which in the past renewed its collections twice a month, fast-fashion is seeing its last days. Even luxury products, sustainable in essence, want to progress in this direction.

LVMH aims to provide repair services for all its leather-goods brands, following those already in place at Berluti and Louis Vuitton. It is also thinking about how to upcycle pieces from previous collections and is working with a start-up to create a platform that will transfer unused fabric stocks from one house to another. These and other announcements were made by Antoine Arnaud, head of Communication, Image and Environment, and Hélène Valade, Director of Environmental Development, at a press conference in December for the inauguration of LVMH's Climate Week, an internal event to promote the Group’s actions against climate change.

Secondhand clothing is an evolving trend, as Peclers’ De Bruyn notes: “Secondhand items used to be more the domain of young mothers and thrift-store aficianados. Younger generation are now getting on board either because they are committed or to get a bargain on upscale brands.” As for upcycled clothing—those made from elements of other used items —it has become the specialty of designers who are popularizing the idea of making new out of old. This movement of circularity joins the refill or reload formats that we are seeing in luxury packaging.

There remains a lot of work to be done, and beware of simplistic analyses! “We talk a lot about upcycling, but the reality is that we are above all in a society of downcycling: the recycled product never regains its initial value. Moreover, recycling also has an environmental impact,” observes François-Xavier Ferrai, co-founder of ecodesign agency Mu. “We need to be wary of circular economy ideologies.” Fashion without greenwashing that maintains all of its glamour? There is plenty of inspiration yet to come.

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