High art & craft

High art & craft

Michael Burke may head one of the world's largest luxury brands, but he is as obsessed over the intricacies of an It bag as he is about sustaining the growth of a multi-million dollar fashion empire. The Louis Vuitton CEO, who was in town for the launch of the brand's fifth high jewellery collection, should, after all, be a leading connoisseur of nonpareil craftsmanship. How else would he be able to justify escalating price tags for products from the fashion behemoth?

"If it were easy to answer that question, many people would be successful in luxury," said Mr Burke, when asked for his definition of luxury. "The fact is, it is a very limited club, which means that there must be something more complex to it. But I would say there're a few necessary components: There is the artisan, and there is the artist. There's the creative side and then there's the making side. And basically it's a juncture of where art meets the artisan."

Picking up the brand's status tote du jour - the Capucines, Mr Burke explains why the "very, very high end bag" has been perennially out of stock since its launch over a year ago. While sceptics might attribute it to a shrewd, limited release to increase desirability, the LVMH Group veteran explains how a single detail - the "LV" initials on a flap of the bag, is painstakingly covered with leather by craftsmen and limits production. Using a delicate pencil-like tool made from the bone of a whale so as to avoid damage to the expensive hide, leather is seamlessly wrapped around the metal emblem.

"It looks deceptively simple but to create the 'LV' covered in leather - it's a very difficult craft to master," says the former CEO of Fendi and Bulgari, which are both under the LVMH group. "There are only about a dozen people who know how to wrap this leather around the metal 'LV'."

While it has been reported in the Wall Street Journal that Louis Vuitton's classic Speedy bag is 32 per cent more expensive in America now than it was in 2009, perhaps contributing to the brand's sales growth of 9 per cent this year, Mr Burke is careful to explain that Vuitton has not changed its strategy in going more upscale. Here, the Capucines bag is priced at S$6,000 for the smaller "BB" version and S$7,650 for the classic version.

"We've always had these very exclusive products but we had a tendency of treating them in such an exclusive way that nobody knew about them," adds the father of five. "I mean, it's great to have these fabulous, exclusive products but it also has to be known. So what we are ensuring is that we're better known, that we would be more better known also for that part of what we've always been doing."

At the top end of exclusivity is the high jewellery category, which the house has muscled its way into by opening a boutique at the famed Place Vendome in Paris, and unveiling traffic-stopping designs dripping with precious stones. The Genesis ring from its latest Art Deco-inspired collection, Acte V, for example, features a 20.94-carat blue-grey Burmese sapphire. And to launch the range to VIP customers here, the brand hired a fleet of BMW 7 series cars complete with "LV" licence plates, put up guests at the Fullerton Bay Hotel, and ferried them directly to its Island Maison at Marina Bay Sands - where they viewed the pieces in private salons.

"We do need to stand out, and what that means is we do not want to bring to the market what already exists," declares Mr Burke. "Nobody is waiting for another perfectly round-cut emerald. We will try to surprise you with innovative cuts and unheard of and unseen settings, unique combinations of colours and materials."

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