Editor's note: This week's Insiders is a collaboration with No Best Practices, a newsletter that is worth your time. Alex Greifeld is a seasoned operator whose contrarian take on the eCommerce industrial complex is a breath of fresh air amongst the thinkboi culture that is so pervasive. Subscribe to No Best Practices over here.
If I asked you to describe a luxury experience, something would instantly come to mind. It might be a multi-course dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant, a spa day at a tropical resort hotel, or driving a supercar through a deserted mountain pass. But with all likelihood, the experience you described would take place in the physical world.
What if I asked you to describe a digital luxury experience? At this point, many of us would draw a blank. Although several luxury brands have experimented with VR, AR, and other digital tools, these experiences have yet to go mainstream. And although many of these experiments have grabbed headlines, most failed to emotionally resonate in the way an expertly crafted “IRL” luxury experience would.
The past 14 months have shown us that this question is critical to the future of luxury. How should we define a digital luxury experience? What facets of physical luxury should we carry over to the virtual sphere, and what is truly unique to the medium?
To build the definition of digital luxury, let’s revisit the definition of a luxury experience. Thomaï Serdari is a luxury strategist, professor, and Ph.D. who has shaped the positioning and experiences of many of today’s top luxury brands.
In her latest book Rethinking Luxury Fashion, Serdari defines a luxury experience:
A luxury experience...is based on the orchestration of rare or beautiful (or both) ingredients that address at least one or more of the human senses in a way that enables the enactment of a specific creative train of thought.
The individual who perceives the luxury experiences may be physically, emotionally, or intellectually impacted.
This definition reveals the main challenge of building a true digital luxury experience: how do you address multiple senses within a medium that is primarily visual?
In this piece, I’ll build on this definition to describe the three dimensions of the ideal digital luxury experience. Then, with the help of the Future Commerce team, I’m going to examine some of today’s most notable digital luxury experiences through this lens to determine how far we’ve progressed and how far we still have left to go.
The Digital Luxury Matrix
There are three main dimensions of a true digital luxury experience. As brands evolve their understanding of the capabilities that new digital mediums enable, they will travel further from the origin, out towards the ideal digital luxury experience.
The experiences we rated were as follows:
The three dimensions are:
From Skin-novative to Innovative
Does the experience apply existing conventions from the physical world, or physical media, to the chosen digital medium? Or does it build on the tools of the chosen digital medium to create something completely new?
“Fashion video game”: the phrase seems contradictory with a lot of potential to go completely off the rails. Yet Balenciaga was able to create something truly innovative with “Afterworld, The Age of Tomorrow,” an interactive experience that borrowed from the language of gaming.
From cut scenes to sound design to a sometimes foreboding atmosphere and pacing, the “Afterworld” experience will strike some familiar notes for even a casual gamer. But it also delivered on some of Balenciaga’s key themes under creative director Demna Gvasalia, including climate anxiety and power dressing.
This kind of risk-taking is something that Future Commerce has mused upon. Digital investments may be a form of psychological venture investment where a multitude of investments fail, with one being a standout success. From Insiders #074:
Since the future is murky, companies that experiment win. There are many paths possible, so why not bet on a lot of them? Experimentation is a sure hedge against expectation inflation.
Expectation Inflation occurs when a product or service achieves market dominance, forcing competitors to solve a problem that they did not create. As inflation increases, so does the pressure, forcing all competitors to make additional investments to keep pace with the most dominant players in the market.
To this end, Balenciaga and Gucci have recently raised the bar.
From Observer to Participant
Does the experience present something aesthetically pleasing to the viewer in a linear fashion with a single path to consumption? Or does the experience provide multiple pathways for active participation that leave the door open for serendipity?
Prada’s virtual reality brand experience, launched in early 2020, goes beyond the typical “virtual sales floor” shopping experience provided by most luxury retailers. In addition to virtually visiting Prada flagship locations in key cities, the experience enables users to explore the cities themselves. If users want the straightforward path to purchase they can find it, but if they’re in the mood for a more meandering journey through the Prada universe, a world of options awaits.
From Permanent to Ephemeral
Does the experience attempt to create exclusivity through traditional, physical means (high prices, limited quantities, limited access)? Or does it leverage “time exclusivity” to create macro or micro experiences that exist for a limited time?
To create the Gucci Garden Roblox experience, Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele partnered with Roblox developers and the platform’s creator community to develop an ephemeral “experience within the experience”. Gucci Garden was open to all Roblox users, but only for a limited 14 day run. This mirrored the native world-building on the Roblox platform, where users create unique environments and skins, then destroy or simply abandon them after the moment has passed.
The Ideal Digital Luxury Experience
Are there any digital experiences that have come close to meeting all three criteria of a digital luxury experience? Well, one experience, in particular, came the closest: the early days of the Clubhouse app, circa August 2020.
Clubhouse uses voice in an innovative way: what was typically an afterthought for other apps and digital experiences became the central pillar of this one. The voice-only experience leveled the playing field for all participants and enabled a new level of intimacy and (for lack of a better word) “realness” between them.
As a Clubhouse user, you have the option to passively consume conversations or bring people together to moderate rooms on brand new topics, adding to the community. This enabled true participation; users molded the overall editorial direction of the community.
The “peak Clubhouse” experience of summer 2020 was ephemeral by nature. When invites were harder to come by, the content within the app was more focused and big names were more likely to share real, unrehearsed thoughts and opinions. Now that the user base has expanded, genuinely compelling content is harder to find.
Early adopters still talk about the magic of the Clubhouse experience at its peak, but it is unlikely that experience will ever be recreated.
However, I wouldn’t rate the early days of Clubhouse as a five-out-of-five digital luxury experience because the creators of the app weren’t setting out to create a luxury experience. They drafted off-luxury principles as a growth marketing tactic. When technologists garner the same level of influence and respect in luxury houses as photographers and magazine editors, we’ll start to see some truly moving and culturally defining digital experiences.
Imagine that you are one of the top 10 clients of Brand X. You and your nine peers are whisked away to a heritage architectural site that Brand X is refurbishing. You all don VR headsets and are guided through a digitally enhanced tour of the grounds that blends history with interactive art. You’re invited to make decisions or actions that alter the look and behavior of the virtual artwork, which is thoughtfully interwoven with the newly renovated space.
The general public can walk through the same experience virtually, or experience it live on a limited basis, but only you (Brand X’s top 10 clients) got to do the real thing.
The fully realized digital luxury experience will blend a deep understanding of technology as craft with an appreciation for the cultural context that influences luxury. As technology gets more respect as a cultural force, luxury digital experiences will deepen beyond PR plays and become something closer to great art.
Co-Authored by Alex Greifeld, Phillip Jackson and Callen Hutton
Image credit: Prada's Digital Fashion Show in 2020.