Ever since the coronavirus pandemic broke out, luxury brands have heeded the call to action. With protective gear for frontline medical workers in short supply globally, brands repurposed their factories to manufacture face masks and hospital gowns, as well as made financial donations.
LVMH, the world’s undisputed luxury leader, was first out of the block to respond to the crisis. From producing hospital gowns and supplying surgical face masks to local hospitals around the world, and shifting production in its cosmetics manufacturing plants to produce hand sanitizers, LVMH engaged its global network and many luxury brand houses to battle the virus.
Philanthropy aside, many luxury brands also jumped in to offer customers their own branded face masks, like Burberry, Rag and Bone, Missoni, Wolford, Erdem, Helmut Lang, Marni and others, with some brands donating a portion of revenues from mask sales to the cause.
In “letting no crisis go to waste” style, luxury brands had found an even more conspicuous way to display their logos.
Louis Vuitton, LVMH’s crown jewel, didn’t follow that path, though artisan-crafted Louis Vuitton face masks made with official fabrics are available.
Instead, it recently announced it will introduce a logo branded luxury face shield as part of its 2021 Cruise collection on October 30, right in time for Halloween trick-or-treating, since it looks more scary than fashionable.
Decked out with prominent LV logos, it is made with canvas-coated fabric familiar in its Neverfull tote bags. LV logo gold studs act as hinges to raise and lower the shield that automatically adjusts to changing light levels. It reportedly will sell for nearly $1,000. LVMH did not respond to request for comment.
The jury is still out on the effectiveness of a face shield against transmission of the Covid-19 virus. The CDC says, “At this time, it is not known what level of protection a face shield provides to people nearby.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, however, said in an interview with ABC News, “If you have goggles or an eye shield, you should use it” to protect the mucous membrane in the eyes.
But he also advised face shields must be worn with a mask, which undermines the essential appeal of the shield: the ability to see the full face.
That said, in these days with people on edge about income inequality and the global elite, who wants such an in-your-face symbol of that on your head, not to mention that LV brown is not a particularly flattering color around most people’s faces.
Tacky not tasteful
“It’s the next logical thing for a conspicuous consumption brand,” says Benedict Auld, CEO and founder of Lapidarius.co, a New York-based brand strategy consultancy. “It’s entirely compatible and consistent with Louis Vuitton’s overall brand strategy, which is to make its branded products as conspicuous as possible.”
He adds that this first foray into luxury priced face shields, while intended to put it out of reach of most to maintain “cynical scarcity,” is likely to be followed by even higher-priced face shields to come.
Getting philosophical, Auld sees the society that conspicuous consumption plays into and that luxury brands like Louis Vuitton foster reflected in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where the elite Alpha caste are at the top of the hierarchy and the Epsilons at the bottom.
“Luxury brands have struck a Faustian bargain, as Louis Vuitton and other conspicuous logo wear brands have, between being demotic, meaning of the people, and yet preventing a vast majority from experiencing their goods on the other,” he believes.
“You can’t have it both ways. LVMH’s strongest adherence isn’t to social impact, except for the top 1% of human society, which control about 80% of the wealth and who, by the way, are the product of income inequality and have a vested interest in its continuation,” he continues.
By catering primarily to customers’ conspicuous consumption drive, Auld sees brands like Louis Vuitton diluting themselves further into cultural irrelevance, rather than building themselves up as a culture creator.
“Catering to the idea of showing monetary income status via branded goods is the last gasp of any quote, unquote luxury brand,” he shares. “By making their goods showier and showier, it panders to the very rich or people who want to look rich. It’s what luxury brands do when they have no other meaning to offer.”
Shape of things to come
Admitting that the Louis Vuitton face shield at first strikes you as in-your-face status symbolism, Dr. Martina Olbertova, CEO and founder of Meaning.Global, which consults with brands on cultural intelligence, sees deeper meaning in what Louis Vuitton is doing.
“At first glance, it might look tacky or that Louis Vuitton is trying to cash in on people’s crisis, but that’s because of the narrative incoherence. It just doesn’t make sense to us within the luxury narrative that we know. We don’t have the wiring in our minds to contextualize it yet,” she says.
“This pandemic is making a clean slate in society and leading us to look at things in new ways. The old narrative is collapsing and we have to expand our view of what luxury means and what is essential and necessary,” she continues. “It makes complete sense that luxury companies would want to jump on the idea of creating personal protection because this is the way that society is evolving.”
Olbertova sees the Louis Vuitton face shield, LV-logo embellishment aside, as hearkening back to luxury brands’ roots. “If you look backward, luxury products have always evolved or developed around functionality and essential needs,” as she points to Hermès as a saddle and harness maker, Louis Vuitton making luggage and Gucci leather goods.
“A hundred and fifty years ago, women didn’t need handbags. A personal handbag wasn’t a thing. Women spent their lives in the household and if they went in public, they would carry just a small bag. A woman from the mid-19th century would think we are crazy to carry around huge totes filled with so much stuff,” she says.
“Fast forward to 2050 and personal protection will become the normal thing. Carrying a face mask will be a necessity like carrying tissues or a wallet. This is the direction we will need to go,” Olbertova reflects.
So she applauds Louis Vuitton for stepping out ahead of the pack innovating in a category that she sees ready to grow. That said, she also sees it as a course that will be tricky to navigate for luxury brands.
“There is a kind of insensitivity embedded into the fact that health shouldn’t be a luxury or that a person is using their status to protect themselves because they are better and therefore deserve to be healthy,” she says.
She also feels it goes against the trend toward “subtle luxury,” which appeals to today’s wealthy. “Really rich people are probably not going to buy the LV face shield. These types of products cater to people who use luxury as a social mobility vehicle, which the rich don’t have to because they have nothing to prove,” she shares.
So while this Louis Vuitton face shield may be an awkward first attempt to innovate in an entirely new personal protection category, it is a step in the right direction.
“The Covid pandemic only serves as a catalyst to speed up the transition of the luxury sector,” Olbertova concludes. “The sudden boom of personal care products within luxury, like this, makes perfect sense given the health and wellness trend it locks into. Luxury brands need to figure out how to do it more sensitively, perhaps. But it is definitely an interesting dynamic that needs to be explored for the future.”