Compounded addiction: Techno+Luxury in Berlin, part 1

I’m back after having spent 2 days in Berlin for…work. Wow, that was exciting! Kein leisure this time!

The Ritz-Carlton was hosting the Herald Tribune conference of the luxury industry in Berlin. This conference has been traditionally hosted in London, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo. But this year Suzy Menkes, the venerable fashion editor of Herald Tribune, picked Berlin because the flirt between luxury and technology is becoming something serious. And surely Milano, Paris or London felt a bit passé when it comes to technology.

It was kind of odd to talk luxury in Berlin, the anti-luxury town. Or the über-luxury town, if you think that a cleaner air, using the bike and nature at your doorstep are the real luxury now. But Suzy Menkes has antennas, and they are tuning in on new themes: technology, CSR. After all the New York Times offers one of the best online media experiences, we started to see during the US election campaign how its Lab was exploiting all the potential offered by multimedia and the mixture of graphic/text/photo/interactivity. Plus the US are pushing smart grids, greener technology: sign of the times. And Berlin is a good example of sticking to environmental commitments.

Technology + luxury is indeed an intriguing combination and the concentration of interesting speeches and conversations provided abundant food for thought. Not all contributions were equally interesting. Some speakers lost golden opportunities for sharing with the audience a deeper understanding of their approach to technology because they picked a standard, institutional presentation off the rack and delivered it without too much belief, thus lowering the momentum generated by lush video introductions. Or because they never answered to questions but just kept on pumping their message “we’re the best”. But they were just a couple of them. The majority of the speakers had prepared the material carefully, both conversation and multimedia content, has delivered the key messages with passion and answered in a candid way to Suzy Menkes’s questions.

My favorite speeches…

1. Christopher Bailey, Creative Director @ Burberry like a dj mixed effective visuals and music, lots of it, with pragmatic examples and clear messages. He’s really in tune with the times. He shared with the audience in a simple way many examples on how the company is approaching technology in an holistic way: be it environmental issues in the workplace, permanent videoconference facilities, wifi and skype, online activities, approach to social networks, and feedback from social networks. It’s not a matter on jumping on the bandwagon of the latest cool gadgetry. But of having a vision on how that brand could profit from technology, preparing a plan and rolling it out. Not being afraid of engaging into a dialogue, not sticking to the brand monologue bunker-mentality.

2. Natalie Massenet, CEO @ Net-à-porter answered in a candid way even tough questions such as “what is the % of merchandise sold online that is returned?”. It is about 25%, but the fact you can do it without fuss lowers the barrier to entry and encourages shopping. She approached the theme of discounts and outlets with grace but without hiding the truth. Very elegant, very impactful. Or, as Menkes said, Multinational, multilingual, multimedia…

3. Jochen Zeitz, CEO @ Puma delivered a very inspired and quite intimidating speech on the social responsibilities of companies, or rather, the responsibility tout court of companies and customers alike vis a’ vis the environment. He sounded a bit like a priest and sometimes a dash paternalistic, putting himself on a level above the audience. But apart from the form, the substance of the speech was there. My impression is that he is truly committed and is working with the objective to making a difference, starting with a different way to use packaging for instance. No cosmetic CSR, but a clear vision. He may sound idealistic, but ideals are not a bad thing to have and I trust the man is pragmatic too – after all he’s German, right? – and we will see the results down the road. The speech was carefully prepared, even if it was delivered like a sermon. Maybe the audience could have been spared the many references to Heidegger and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but very inspiring and deep nonetheless. The guy is honest and means what he says.

4. Jefferson Hack, Editorial Director, Dazed & Confused – during the coffee break Hack was rehearsing his presentation. I love to see this. It means the speaker is taking the audience seriously and has worked personally on his presentation, is involved and cares about the product and the customers he has in front of him. Hack started off with a powerful video (and sound, hey!) and carried on with an extremely lateral-thinking form of presentation, and clear ideas on smart media. Similarly as with music, we will consume media online and “buy the paper” in the same way as we “buy the CD” or the vinyl now: for its artwork, as a souvenir of the experienced we consumed somewhere else, online. At the end he showed he cared for the audience, signaling that a bunch of links had been prepared were available forthose who wished to further explore the matter of smart media. Competent and thorough, but at the same impactful and effective, without trying to please the audience or the moderator by means of cheap seduction. Rough edges.

I crossed later Hack at Grill Royal and couldn’t agree more with him on the theme of higher quality magazines. I buy far less magazines today than I used to 10 years ago. But those ones I buy, are of better quality and deliver something more than just the news or the odd fashion editorial. Think about Dummy, Monocle, Brand Eins. And Vogue Paris, which I still buy because of its clean graphic look, extraordinary art work and articles which are not shallow.

5. Ross Lovegrove, Designer, Lovegrove Studio – was able to deliver a presentation which bordered more on the philosophical divertissement than on the clear description of the role of technology in luxury. But he had won the siberian slot, the one around 3pm, and managed to keep the audience interested and entertained during the toughest moment of any conference: digestion. Was it because he mentioned that during his career as a cook he managed to add marijuana to any dish? or because he was very tanned and laid back? He loathes retrospective, he hates looking back and he only works on future/futuristic stuff. Still, objects become icons – and sell – also because they have the magic of aging well, epitomizing the Zeitgeist of their time. One should not despise the source of his cashflows, oder?

6. During the same module Adam Thorpe and Joe Hunter from Vexed dived deeper in the relationship between technology and the human body and discussed poignantly themes such as impact protection, moisture management, protection from pollution and visibility. We’re in smart materials territory, and the two bikers work on an array of projects also for other brands in order to develop materials with special properties and garments with ergonomic solutions to specific problems. I suggested to Adam to go and have a look to Otto Bock’s building across the road, an amazing buiding more fascinating than Prada’s Aoyama flagship in Tokyo…smart materials once more, with the difference that they deal with trauma recovery rather than avoiding trauma! Avant-après!

7. Alexander Reichert, Prada Transformer Project Architect, OMA together with Tomaso Galli from Prada. The Transformer is a fantastic giant toy and maybe you needed lateral risk-takers like the Pradas to make it a reality. Reichert’s project is a fantastic challenge which became real. On the one hand, I wonder about the financial implication and return of such a project. On the other hand, on paper it seems more interesting than Chanel’s cocoon-spaceship Art Container designed by Zaha Hadid, because it is truly innovative and capsizes, literally, the paradigm of building, making it truly…polyedric. Mongolian jurta, Eskimo boat, Indian Teepee, Scythian carriage, god knows how Reichert came up with the mega-toy. Reichert seemed quite shy (but very proud) in presenting his project, so some interesting slides got skipped because of his being maladroit. Tomaso’s communication skills were crucial in smoothing the creases. But as Reichert picked up a 3-d maquette of the Transformer things started to get better, he was more in control of the presentation and could share the 3-d idea behind it: a pyramid-shaped building morphing in a movie theater (rectangle), art exhibition (cross), special event (circle) and fashion event (octagon).….more tomorrow….

Photo: NYT – IHT

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