Culture / Design

Post-opulent design will save the luxury industry as it did following the Great Depression

Spurred by a global pandemic and the resulting decimation of national economies around the world, ‘Post Opulence’ is an emerging design movement defined by reduction and simplicity

Sep 11, 2020 | By Jonathan Ho

The 2008 recession led to a resurgence of minimalism. A similar kind of shift is on the rise now, and it began more than six years ago, when a team of luxury intelligence specialists, designers, engineers and craftspeople assembled to begin development of the new Rolls-Royce Ghost. As with the first Goodwood Ghost, launched in 2009 just barely out of the global financial crisis, the collective would work obsessively to ensure that New Ghost would hold its own place in the Rolls-Royce portfolio and represent a unique set of client values.

With multiple brands criticised for ‘tone-deaf’ marketing campaigns recently, instead of showing off an upscale bag or car, which might feel too conspicuous when the global economy is in a downward spiral, consumers are turning to kind of post-opulent aesthetic best exemplified by brands like Rolls-Royce, Hermes, Bottega Veneta and Prada.

“Depression-era industrial design tended toward streamlining,” says Sarah Lichtman, a professor of design history at New York’s Parsons School of Design; and after the Great Recession since the Great Depression, it was venture-backed lifestyle startups like Everlane espousing a minimalist aesthetic, dare i say ‘streamlined’, with quality materials that offered consumers a way forward through design in the retail carnage. And now it looks like during this greater recession, the fore-mentioned mega-brands are leading pioneering the language of post-opulent luxury by virtue of the timeless classicism of their brand products and values,

Since the introduction of Ghost, which became the most successful Rolls-Royce in history, the marque’s unique proximity to its clients afforded the team access to a large body of information. It revealed the divergent interests, opinions and changing taste patterns within Ghost clients’ appreciation of luxury. This primary research allowed Rolls-Royce to tap on the network of ultra-high net worth perspectives to create a product focussed on the requirements and desires of these remarkable men and women. These insights informed the designers, engineers and craftspeople at Rolls-Royce as they moved into the development phase of the highly progressive new Ghost and what the English marque calls “the era of post-opulence”.

Post Opulence as envisioned by Rolls-Royce

When Rolls-Royce designer Henry Clocke conceived the new Ghost, “Our team kept returning to this phrase post opulence,” recalls Clocke, “As a designer when I imagined this movement. I think of The Shard on London Southbank. It’s the polar opposite of the opulent Baroque buildings that it overlooks. It’s perfectly minimal and linear yet by cleverly using reflection and light. It doesn’t feel clinical. It doesn’t expend any excess energy to define itself. This is exactly what goes clients asked us to create.”

Indeed, Rolls-Royce’s upmarket clientele didn’t want grandeur, they wanted something ephemeral, something pure and clean. The perfect blend of minimalism and the Spirit of Ecstasy, the next-generation Rolls-Royce Ghost though wider and longer than its predecessor (which is essentially what Rolex did with its new 41mm Submariner) is emblematic of this post-opulent luxury.

“Everything else was designed, crafted and engineered from the ground up. The result is the most technologically advanced Rolls-Royce yet. It distills the pillars of our brand into a beautiful, minimalist, yet highly complex product that is perfectly in harmony with our Ghost clients’ needs and perfectly in tune with the times.” – Torsten Müller-Ötvös, CEO of Rolls-Royce

“We removed all unnecessary design, we pursued a minimal aesthetic, yet ensuring the new Ghost was unmistakably, a Rolls Royce,” said Clocke. Certainly creating perfect simplicity is really, really complex, just ask David Penney, designer of Patek Philippe’s Calatrava Reference 96. Created at the height of the Great Depression, Bauhaus simplicity became the standard reference (no pun intended) for sophistication and elegance.

To achieve such luxurious clarity on the new Ghost, Rolls-Royce had to take monumental steps, such as hand welding aluminium bodies and sewing incredibly long perfectly straight stitch lines. Leather alongside futuristic new materials, Rolls-Royce architecture was completely reconfigured, distilling the experience of the next generation Rolls-Royce Ghost by imbuing it with an incredibly pure and refined driving personality. One wouldn’t be able to tell, but beneath its unobtrusive and most importantly polar opposite of a wanker exterior (as evidenced by our exclusive with Alex Innes, Head of Rolls-Royce Bespoke) lies the heart of a magnificent beast, a massive 6.75-litre V12 engine outputting 563 horsepower and 627 pound-feet of torque in an all-wheel drive configuration, completing its century sprint in just 4.6 seconds. In fact, “The only components that we carried over from the first Goodwood Ghost were the Spirit of Ecstasy and umbrellas,” said Torsten Müller-Ötvös, CEO of Rolls-Royce.

Pared-back Prada encapsulated the zeitgeist of the current situation perfectly

As interpreted by Bottega Veneta

That impulse toward simplicity was visible in interior design, too. White walls and innocuous fixtures became popular among home decorators in part because of the Recession which of course, brought a new generation of lifestyle magazines like Kinfolk (est. 2011) which professed the kind of design sensibility that try as one might, has never particularly gone away, even in the face of Alessandro Michele’s maximalist Gucci aesthetics.

“Strength, sensuality, being in the moment. Bottega Veneta is about defining a point of view, a new way of seeing subtle individuality, and then subverting that status. “ – Daniel Lee, Bottega Veneta creative director

Amid an industry saturated in hype, one other designer has remained fiercely independent from the world of streetwear and experiential brand activations: Bottega Veneta’s Creative Director Daniel Lee. Fiercely committed to the brand’s philosophy of letting its owners speak for themselves, Bottega has offered its customers a quiet confidence and individuality that since the last great recession, still feels fresh; Lee’s penchant for long-lasting design transcends popular trends, marrying the heritage of Bottega Veneta with an acute sense of modernity.

Taking on the mantle of Creative Director at Bottega Veneta, Lee has focused on bringing together a sense of elegance, sophistication, and longevity with an ethos of bold but quiet confidence. Obviously we didn’t know back during his Fall 2019 runway debut, that his reworking of Bottega’s signature black leather into slim puffer coats and Intrecciato woven outerwear would presented a return to sophistication while acknowledging the future of the house. In February 2020, long (relatively speaking) before we realised the world was to enter its first global pandemic in 100 years, Daniel Lee swept London’s Fashion Awards, scooped up four statuettes, more than any designer has ever managed to win in a single year before. Yet, the 34 year old, one whom arguably the era of hype has catered to, has never pandered. Lee embraced the brand’s intrecciato. Double-faced and unlined, Lee doubled downed on the brand’s iconic leather strips and just when you thought there couldn’t be any more post-opulent simplicity to be squeezed out of a pioneering luxury subverter like Bottega, Lee’s double-sided accessories expressed the same exceptional workmanship visible on the exterior of the bag is exposed on the interior.

120,000 Birkin and Kelly bags Hermès releases combined each year contribute 25% to 30% of its total sales. Combined with rising values estimated by Knight Frank to a tune of 13 percent a year, Hermes bags have literally become good stores of value – better than some traditional investments

What Luxury Consumers Gravitate to during a Downturn

Lee’s Bottega indicated shifting perceptions of luxury even before the covid pandemic and the resulting bloodbath catalysed a rampage back to the tone-safe confines of post-opulent luxury. This is best evidence by NewBottega, a super-fan digital archive of Lee’s work at the fashion house. Fashion student Laura Rossi is the woman behind @newbottega. According to CRfashion, “Post-Phoebe’s-departure-from-Celine-trauma” is the ailment that spurred the 20-year-old Rossi, a fashion design student at Polimoda in Florence, to create @newbottega. The luxe, minimalist nature of Lee’s aesthetic has drawn swaths of @oldceline enthusiasts, an Instagram account was started in 2018, providing an archival gallery of pre-Hedi Slimane Celine: proof in pudding that minimalism was always there, even if Louis Vuitton – Supreme and Gucci became became the dominant voice (as maximalism was always wont to do) in our cultural consciousness.

Hermès is about craftsmanship and technique, this essentialism lent itself naturally to pared-back minimalism

Speaking to CNBC, Malinda Sanna, founder and CEO of consultancy Spark Ideas expressed, “It’s going to be one big party and it’s going to be like nothing we’ve ever seen. And I think luxury brands, all brands, should be preparing for that,” Indeed, McKinsey’s report projects consumers are likely to return more quickly to paying the full price for upscale goods, as they did after the 2008 financial crisis, with positive growth of 1% to 4% expected in 2021. With one major caveat: some consumers will have an eye on sustainability, buying “fewer, better things,” but there will be others who will splurge; and regardless of who’s shopping, there’s going to be plenty of consideration of what their social circle and immediate community will think of them – especially if they were being particularly gauche with a display of overt ostentation.

Mercedes Benz ‘Project Geländewagen’ projects 100 Years into the Future: Can Virgil Abloh’s aesthetic survive Post-Opulence?

Following a string of fashion and cultural coups, it is hard to deny that Virgil Abloh is one of the leading tastemakers of the 21st century. The multi-hyphenate  Louis Vuitton creative director, Off-White founder, and one time artistic advisor to Kanye West, heralded a design language that is one of modern history’s most recognisable aesthetics:  Deconstructed and highly industrial, Abloh’s design philosophy brings him as many streetwear fans as it does critics.

Writing for contemporary art magazine Frieze, Evan Moffitt once described the designer’s first museum survey at MCA Chicago a crass and corporate affair, calling on readers, “not to buy what he (Abloh) is selling.” Citing Abloh’s 2017 lecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design, where Louis Vuitton’s first black creative director connected Duchamp’s concept of the readymade to what he called ‘the three percent approach’, Moffitt argued that a “lazy scribble on a pair of Nike trainers, resold for wear at a higher, limited-edition price, has little to do with Duchamp’s profound discovery that the meaning of an object can be totally transformed simply by the choices an artist makes.” Going so far as to indict Abloh on the criminal artistic charge of “a cynical misunderstanding of art’s conceptual power.”

Dubbed ‘Project Geländewagen’, the stylistically modified Mercedes Benz G63 or ‘G-Wagen’ was the work of Abloh and the marque’s chief design officer Gorden Wagener. Calling the conceptual design project “an exercise in studying what luxury may look like in 100 years”,  Project Geländewagen was critically panned in automotive circles, but respected automotive journalist Ted Gushue had a more nuanced perspective, “it’s not for us but what it is for is to act as a ‘Trojan horse’ to get an entire generation of kids who live in cities who never ever ever think about cars or car design interested and engaged.”

Abloh and Wagener transformed the Mercedes Benz G63, a SUV that was never supposed to be sportive, into a postmodern race car, with “breadbox” kit; large NASCAR tyres, window grills and cerulean blue twin exhausts out the side floor. To my middle-aged eyes, automotive enthusiasts and art lovers, Project Geländewagen may be some odd, dystopian high fashion vision of motoring a century into the future but when consider that it could just have easily been brick-red with brown ‘LV’ initials and ‘Supreme’ emblazoned across the side, it starts to dawn on these old eyes that the Mercedes Benz ‘Project Geländewagen’ might just solve the problem that a generation growing up on ride-hailing apps like Uber and Grab, are now going to start looking at how they want their cars to look when they grow older.

Project Geländewagen could very well be what post-opulence aesthetics could look like 100 years on, it’s sanded, off-white and makes a design statement purely by virtue of its unabashed functionality, if a Gen Z didn’t care about automotive design heretofore today, they’re bound to at least look up Abloh and Mercedes Benz and see what they are doing.

It’s undeniable that Kim Jones scored a remarkable coup with Christian Dior Air Jordans, but reselling for $38,000 on auction sites, its the kind of conversation that feels a little uncomfortable in an era of where global average unemployment (according to World Economic Outlook’s April report) is spiking close to 10% thanks to covid. Even as chief economists around the world grapple with stimulating the economy and avoiding the kind of Great Depression “queuing for soup” imagery that Gen Xs and Boomers will remember, the fact is that high net worth aren’t looking to have their own “let them eat cake” moment themselves.

According to Bain & Co, the last global recession shrunk the personal luxury goods market 9%. This time, they predict bloodletting, suffering a year-over-year decline of 25% to 30%, even accounting for China’s recovery.

That said, recovery from the last recession was rapid, thanks to the huge increase in Chinese consumer spending. By 2013, Asia-Pacific had overtaken Europe as the largest market for luxury goods and unlike the previous recession, this pandemic was more a global “pause” than a systemic financial crisis. Needless to say, that last downturn taught the industry a few lessons: Designs became less ostentatious and more minimalist. Democratic styles, like streetwear, became popular, the luxury industry as whole became more resilient.

If the desires of Rolls-Royce’s discerning clientele are anything to go by, the high net worth segment is without a doubt expressing an expectation that their beloved labels get even more refined, distilled into the very brand values they purport to espouse but yet still in every respect, recognisable and distinctive. A high bar, but if two recessions are any to go by, products withstand the test of time – good or bad.




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