Interview: Ann Rafter

31 Mar 2019 , 10:10pm

Ann Rafter has been at the helm of luxury for over 30 years and shares her thoughts on the changing landscape alongside traditional and timeless elegance.

Meet: Ann Rafter,  CEO of the boutique brand development  and communications company, Stephanie Churchill PR.

The company specialises in luxury fashion, lifestyle, health and beauty. In an evolving global landscape, Ann's expertise is in story telling through creative direction, digital strategies, content creation and media relations. She is also a founding partner of Tomorrow and Partners, an international agency that creates, plans and manages branding strategies for clients, increasingly in Asia. 

Luxury Law Alliance: In your role as a public relations strategist in the luxury market with more than thirty years experience what main changes have you seen?

Ann Rafter: Everything has become speeded up and the luxury landscape is populated by constant noise, timed drops, more categories  pre- fall, resort and the opening up of new markets who all have their own fashion weeks, Tokyo, Shanghai ,Seoul fashion, and of course  social media

LLA: Why did you set up Tomorrow and Partners?

AR: Four years ago we spotted a gap in helping support new emerging fashion markets, Vietnam, Korea, China who had their own home grown luxury brands but who soon would  be aggressively targeted by the rapid entry of international  luxury brands, who had the vast budgets to open up in the best areas  within the key capital cities of SEA. We opened offices in Asia three years ago and have worked  helping local businesses across all sectors, refining and helping with product development, retail design and multi-platform marketing and ecommerce programmes.

LLA: What does “New Luxury” mean? 

AR: Luxury today is more about self-fulfillment for a consumer rather than using a luxury brand to project his or her own status.  It’s more democratic these days, although that’s not to say it’s cheap. For me, David Tourniaire-Beauciel, design director of shoes at Balenciaga and creative director at Clergerie sums it up when he says of Millennials: “They’re looking for comfort, colour, technology and to be cool and elegant at the same time. To me it’s about mixing Manolo Blahnik with Nike.”

LLA: Are you optimistic about the future of luxury? 

AR: Yes I am. Fashion has always been about embracing change and inventing new things and I don’t think we need to worry about the new influx of haute street wear (think Balenciaga Speed Knit trainers or Gucci Supreme track suits) into the traditional luxury sector. It’s actually helping the market by bringing new clients to its shops and internet platforms. Indeed street-style ‘drops’ have started influencing the traditional market. Before, luxury was about having enough money. Now, knowledge and especially social knowledge is important. For instance you need to know when the limited item is going to hit the store, you need to queue and during that time you will have social interaction ie what they call an “experience” which you will post that experience on your Instagam account. Although celebrity is still important in terms of selling product, there are increasing collaborations between artists and fashion designers. Recent ones have been Raf Simmonds and Robert Mapplethorpe, Stella McCartney and Ed Ruscha. Prada’s most memorable  collaboration was with French artist Christophe Chemin for the now-famous Fall 2016 menswear collection.

LLA: How does the new luxury translate for women in the era of #metoo and gender fluidity?

AR: I think this is a very exciting time for women in luxury fashion. As we’re talking about training shoes, I think it’s interesting that women’s sneaker sales rose in the US last year by 37 Percent. Here in London, Nike trialed its new female-centric retail concept, Nike Unlaced. Unisex sizing was implemented even for the most covetable products such as the Virgil Abloh x [Air] Jordan I high top trainers. (Virgil Abloh, the American artistic director of Louis Vuitton men's wear wore the sneakers to the Met Gala along with a Louis Vuitton suit). 

I can’t believe how long it’s taken the market to realise that women do not all want to wear high heels – or cutesy pink sneakers! Céline’s Phoebe Philo was an early adopter of the Stan Smith trainer which, as we know, became the basis for the huge new market for designer trainers. The rise of gender fluidity also means that women are now as confident in trainers as they are in heels. Wearing trainers does not make you somehow les ‘feminine.” Check out also Lady Gaga wearing a Marc Jacobs suit on the red carpet or  Cara Delevingne in an Emporio Armani tuxedo and a Chanel top hat at last year’s royal wedding of Princess Eugenie. In an age when Mattel has started creating “shero” Barbies modelled on black activist and model Adwoa Aboah, I think brands are aware they have to discard a lot of their old thinking. 

LLA: What other ways can established designers think outside of the box in this fragmented new market?

AR: I think Valentino’s a good idea of a luxury brand that keeps up to date. Launched in the 1960s it’s synonymous with elegance, luxury and romance but they‘ve done some great collaborations such as the one with spoken word poets which got a lot of social media heat. Spoken word artists were still largely off the mainstream radar when the campaign began so it’s great if you can get in there early.

LLA: What’s really happening with technology?

AR: A recent US luxury report in the New York Times said that “Twenty-nine billion dollars in e-commerce today will become $150 billion by 2022, and that’s just the direct sales — even our in-store transactions are influenced by interacting with brands online.” Yet according to Bain & Co., the global online marketplace is slated to tap out at 25% of all luxury purchases by 2025.  What we do know is that that the path to purchase is no longer linear, but what will remain unchanged is the consumer’s desire to react to stories and content that are inspiring and authentic. I think we’ll see a more blended retail experience as time goes on, that’s to say a shopping experience that brings together online and offline channels. 

LLA: What are the best ways for luxury retailers to keep up with the changes?

AR: It’s important to know who your audience is. Which influencers do they follow? Where do they hang out digitally? Which live events do they like to see? Which media do they read and which of your competitors are they most drawn to? Also look into the lifestyles and tastes of your influencers. And see if your clients associate you as a heritage brand or as one of the more up-and-coming labels.

LLA: What are your three favourite designer trainers right now?

AR: The Balenciaga Speed Knit sneaker because it’s sleek, light and fashion forward. The Burberry Salmond sneaker because it’s low key and stylish and in the Stan Smith mold although everyone’s bored of Stan Smith now. If I was 20 I’d probably go for the new Travis Scott’s Reverse-Swoosh Air Jordan 1 high tops. I love the idea of a reverse Nike swoosh the hidden stash pocket in the ankle! People forget – the best fashion is fun and slightly transgressive!

LLA: What’s your favourite modern rap song about the New Luxury?

AR: Cardi B’s “I Like It” of course! She sings that she likes “dollars” and “diamonds” and also “those Balenciagas, the ones that look like socks.” She posted a picture on her instagram of herself wearing a sculptural plaid coat and matching boots from Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia’s Fall 2018 collection. But she was also carrying a turquoise Hermès Birkin bag suggesting that the oldies are still goodies with the Millennials!