Average read time: 7 minutes.
Salary reductions. Canceled events. Working from home. And yet, some might say that in these dark times, a little luxe is exactly what we all need. If you’ve emerged from lockdown with a cupboard full of ‘loungewear’ (or tracksuits, as they used to be known) and fewer bras, you’re not alone. But, says Palesa Mokubung, founder and creative director of Mantsho, you might be surprised by the number of people who chose not to let it all go.
She explains that when our first, and hardest lockdown was imposed, she decided to launch a sale. Offering all customers a significant discount. “To be honest, I didn’t think anyone would buy. After all, we had nowhere to go, and no idea of what life would be like after the lockdown,” she says.
Contrary to her expectations, interest in the sale was huge – and it continued well after lockdown. “There is a difference in how people are buying, though,” Palesa informs. “They’re buying fewer garments. But what they buy is more expensive, because they now see it as an investment. The thinking is that if they’re going to spend money, they should do so on something beautiful and special.” So, the thinking seems to be less quantity, more quality.
The desire to be draped in sumptuous fabric or revel in the detail of fine craftsmanship hasn’t diminished, Palesa believes that because people now have fewer occasions to show off their luxury garments, when the opportunity arises to dress up, they grab it. Another factor driving what she describes as ‘conscious’ or ‘thoughtful buying’ is the desire to support members of the local industry.
“There’s a big emotional component to purchases. Because our customers know that we’ve been in a tight spot, they want to help.” This has led to an interesting insight into the value people place on clothing. This has served as a reminder that they expect something in return. “For us in the luxury business, service is key. I want to thank the clients who have stood by me by creating an exquisite experience for them,” explains Palesa.
Woe betide the middle class
One of the factors that have helped to protect the House of Cinnamon, purveyors of handcrafted footwear, from the financial fallout of the Pandemic is the fact that, from its inception, it has been based online. This means that it has been less subject to the challenges facing bricks and mortar retailers, from lockdown closures to shoppers’ reluctance to venture out in public.
Then again, says Frances Edwards, the brand’s founder, and creative director, there can be no denying Covid’s impact. “Retail is interesting because it so often functions as a reflection of our buyers’ emotional states. We saw a huge increase in sales during the first few months of lockdown, followed by a plummet when people discovered it was going to last for longer than three weeks and as the realisation that they needed to save their money set in,” she says.
Since then, salary cuts have affected many of her buyers. “The Pandemic hasn’t played havoc with high-net-worth individuals, but for people who want to spoil themselves with a little bit of luxury every now and then, the loss of a bonus is a big deal.”
A little more education
Meanwhile, industries that rely on manufacturing have taken a hard hit, reveals Kate Shearer of Bespoke by Kate, a custom fine jewelry brand. Although she was able to conduct meetings with clients and submit Computer-Aided Design (CAD) renderings of their drawings online, to give them an idea of what their designs would look like, the usual three-to-six-week manufacturing process doubled in length as factories cut down on the number of employees allowed on-site to allow for social distancing. When staff infections led to factory shutdowns, the waiting period became even longer.
There was little Kate could do to ease this pain, but she has innovated several solutions to accommodate shrinking budgets. For instance, she has implemented payment plans, allowing people extra time to pay off their engagement rings, and has ventured into e-commerce with an especially designed range that is different from her usual engagement rings. It is interesting to note, that although customers are drawn to these pieces, they often choose less costly costume jewelry or plated pieces. Kate surmises that they might be willing to spend a little more if they understood the value of fine jewelry. But, she notes, a lot of education is needed around this point if habits are to change.
Value for money
Given the stress experienced by many makers and designers during this period, it seems particularly poor timing for the launch of neoprene handbags with a premium price point – but not according to Vanessa Marinho, brand manager of the Lily Rose Collection.
“The brand was, in fact, designed specifically with Covid times in mind – not only because it is easy to wash (and so to banish germs), but because it created a platform for empowering women, from the florists I hired to style the flowers featured on the handbags, who had lost out because events had been canceled, to the factory workers assembling the bags who also needed work,” she says.
As for charging a price people usually shell out for leather – Vanessa says, “I think that those who used to spend money on traveling are now using their surplus money for local luxuries, and we have managed to tap into that market. Our ‘Bag of Plenty’ is a multi-use bag that can be used as a nappy bag, a laptop bag, or a gym bag. It’s versatile and has longevity.” That’s what people are looking for right now.
A death knell for luxury?
So where does this leave luxury: is couture doomed to languish, or will we shake off lockdown-imposed lethargy and embrace life’s finer pleasures once more?
Palesa’s money is on the latter. “Nothing will hold fashion back. Clothes make people feel good and look good, and after months of being cooped up in our homes, many of us want that more than ever.”
Frances agrees – although not entirely wholeheartedly. “I think the reason people continue to buy my shoes even when they’re in a pinch is that being handcrafted, they understand that they have a value. There’s also an element of patriotism. People are taking pride in supporting local businesses. That’s important at a time when we were encouraged to think more deeply about what’s really important in life, and most of the time, the answer didn’t lie in our possessions.”
That said, despite rallies to live more purposefully and deliberately while placing less emphasis on material objects, we’re already seeing the rest of the world reviving its old ways. South Africa might not follow quite the same trajectory because of challenges such as massive unemployment, but still, the fact that the luxury good company Richemont increased profits by 60-50% during the past year is a telling sign indeed. As Frances concludes, “People may question the provenance of their purchases, and they may want to buy more consciously, but we still all want to feel special. That’s what luxury is all about.”