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From the Silk Road to Alibaba: The Modern Iconography of Luxury Brands

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Louis Vuitton quatrefoil monogram on coated canvas 

Many people are probably familiar with the iconic Louis Vuitton motif, but most people probably aren't aware of the cultural influences behind it. In 1854, Louis Vuitton designed waterproof trunk cases for travel utilising lightweight coated canvas. To prevent his waterproof design from becoming copied, he printed a motif composed of flowers and quatrefoils and put a trademark on it. The quatrefoil design is an iconic one derivative from Ancient Chinese history that has been the inspiration of art architecture and design spanning over several centuries across many different geographic regions.

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Quatrefoil design from the Han Dynasty in China 206BC- 25AD

From 114BC to the 18th century, during the time of the establishment of the Silk Road, in which several trade routes were established from China to India to Persia to Europe, the quatrefoil gained popularity and spread throughout India and to Europe, and to France, where in the 19th century, Louis Vuitton derived inspiration into his flower + quatrefoil motif that would become symbolic of the Louis Vuitton luxury brand. The quatrefoil also gained popularity in architecture- and became popular in designs of Cathedrals, where many people associate the quatrefoil with Christianity. However, the design itself was derivative from the Han dynasty in China, in which the quatrefoil was present in many bronze emblems and ceramics.

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Quatrefoil in architecture: 17th-19th century

The quatrefoil also is a symbol of open economic trade, and crossing many different divisions and cultural divides, and the exchange of philosophies, religions and technologies, hence why it has a kind of universal appeal across many geographies, although in the contemporary post millennium era, many people might associate the Louis Vuitton quatrefoil motif with nouveau riche, the kind of flashy status symbol that people dismiss as an overt display of money, however, the motif itself is based on a period of great economic trade and the removal of cultural barriers and divisions of many nations.

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The routes of the Silk Road: 114BC to the 18th centuries: opening commerce for international trade between many different nations

My earliest memories of the Louis Vuitton quatrefoil motif are the things that my mother loved. I remember many hours sitting at the airport with my mother's LV bags in tow as we were traveling from the US to East Asia and back again. Although I grew up in a generation in which kids would get bullied at school if they owned any sort of luxury item, and tried to conform and be as invisible as possible via an endless uniform of jeans and t-shirts, my mother's generation was derivative of ladies who would get dressed up to go to the supermarket and the airport, and would take great value to care for the things they owned.

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An image from the 2014 Chanel Ready-to-wear fall/winter collection with the set design in a supermarket setting. Karl Lagerfeld poked fun at flash sales, and said he longed for the modern women to return to an era in which they would get dressed up to go to everyday places, such as the supermarket. 

In an era of fast-fashion, these luxury brands no longer hold as much caché as they did for generations past. The flash sales of luxury eCommerce marketplaces such as the Gilt Group, HauteLook, RueLaLa, TheRealReal, and many others do not appeal to people in the post-Millennial generation who can't really make sense of the cost-benefit ratio of purchasing items that are marked up 3000x to another similar looking item of similar quality even if it's "on sale." Although there is a huge problem with counterfeit items, and it is estimated that many luxury brands actively have departments to deal with counterfeit items with Louis Vuitton spending an estimated 15% of its revenue to prosecute counterfeiters, it is also the case that many different designers often inspire and copy from each other, in that fashion is an incestuous community where many designers influence the other, and reinvent each other's ideas.

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In terms of eCommerce, I think what the current generation really prefers is a lifestyle site with a combination of wellness, health, style and experiences, and not be inundated with daily emails about flash sales. That kind of "hard sell" psychology does not work for people who have lived through 2000 and 2008 and have seen fortunes rise and fall and back again. I recently read some blog posts regarding curated items on eCommerce sites such as Lyst, and to be honest, I have seen many others as well on numerous eCommerce sites, and think most editor's picks are not something that appeals to anyone except for that particular editor. Instead, I think what every generation loves is the story, the unique tales behind brands.

Since many luxury brands have very little net profit based on sales of their luxury items, and haute couture is a negative revenue undertaking, many luxury brands are dependent on the sales of their cosmetics, perfume and accessories lines. Thus far, haute couture has eluded 99.9% of the population at large as it is estimated that less than 70 people around the world each year purchase luxury items directly from haute couture houses. However haute couture is also symbolic of a bygone era, of a time when women had beautifully hand-crafted clothes made specifically for them, and for the majority of people, the extraordinary prices of haute couture are out of reach, leaving the population for mass consumption of fast-fashion, factory made, poorly constructed clothes that are then thrown into the tonnes in landfills every year.

The hope for flash sales from such eCommerce marketplaces such as Gilt, RueLaLa, TheRealReal et al was that luxury items would find a second home at these numerous sites that discount these items, however, the overwhelming response has been that women are not interested in buying luxury items, discounted or not- they have been steered towards the era of fast-fashion, of disposable, trendy items that appeal to people's fickles tastes. However what both men and women want in our contemporary era is not the label, but the quality and customisation of items.

The Silk Road, now replaced by Alibaba's online marketplaces allow people to buy direct from China, and move goods from around the world; however, a rather unexpected development of this has been more people taking up space in other online marketplaces, reselling items bought in bulk on Alibaba to other sites such as Etsy, effectively destroying Etsy's artisan, handcrafted image by inundating the site with resellers who mark up items 700-3000%+.

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After the departure of Etsy Founder Rob Kalin, Etsy allowed large manufacturers to enter the Etsy marketplace, hoping to scale the business into the next phase. However, as a result, Etsy is now inundated by numerous resellers posing as artisans, damaging the Etsy brand. 

The psychology of the hard sell does not work for an internet savvy generation bred on YouTube, Instagram and fast-fashion. The post-Millennial generation do not read Vogue or Marie Claire for fashion inspiration. Daily emails about flash sales goes directly into the trash folder in my inbox. I may click on a YouTube channel, but if it's about what I bought today/ what I ate today- I will click to something else and will not watch. Trapped between a rock and a hard place, there isn't enough substantial content for women on YouTube which promotes fast-fashion and consumption of toxic cosmetics, yet the hard sell of luxury marketplaces have left something more to be desired. Instead what would be refreshing is if eCommerce marketplaces created more editorials and provided insight into the human condition, offered tips about health and wellness and stories about everyday people who have created a unique look then offered a choice of different price ranges from the most frugal shopper to the big spender.

Although LVMH (Louis Vuitton + Moët Hennessy) has posted a profit for FY2015 and 16% rise in revenue, the overall trend seems to be that luxury brands are in danger of disappearing into the ether if their cosmetics, perfume, accessories do not bump up their revenue expectations each year. For FY2014, LVMH sold 24% of its rival Hermès stake to compensate for its 5% revenue decline

With the decline of luxury brands in mind, and seeking to create a new strategy, Bernard Arnault, the head of LVMH, last month announced that Groupe Arnault will set up a buyout firm with US private equity firm L Catterton to create a consumer-focused investment firm (with LVHM owning 40%) seeking assets under management of $12bn focused on the retail and personal care sector. 

But one thing is clear, as luxury brands move into the realm of private equity, eCommerce marketplaces such as Etsy, Wish and other sites that have become resellers of products on Alibaba and have become dependent on the Alibaba model, with Alibaba taking 99% of the market share. On Nov 11, 2015, Alibaba made $14.4 billion on a single day and $10bln in the first 10 hours alone whilst LVMH reported a revenue of $9.8 bln (8.8 bln) for their clothing and leather goods sector for nearly all of 2015

Bernard Arnault has said that he wishes to make the luxury brands in his LVMH portfolio companies: Louis Vuitton, Céline, Christian Dior et al, "objects of desire". Of course, his mindset is coming from that of a billionaire art collector perspective. However, the original founder, Louis Vuitton, fused art with functionality and created products that appealed to the everyday citizen, and which symbolised the dissolution of cultural barriers at the time, opening the borders of trade between many different nations.