Can Tech and Luxury Ever Get Along?

One seeks rarity, the other ubiquity—no wonder they’ve struggled to join forces.

It sounded like a match made in PR heaven, like the coming together of two deep-pocketed stars in a glorious Hollywood-style merger. But just as the marriage of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie has recently gone to dust, luxury and technology are struggling to reconcile their differences.

We should have seen it coming. After all, luxury technology is a contradiction in terms. True luxury is predicated on scarcity and permanence, technology on ubiquity and transience. Though its meaning has been diluted from overuse, luxury is niche and built on a foundation of exclusivity, on the notion that there are special things in life that are worth aspiring to. Technology, on the other hand, is in the business of making quality more affordable to a lot of people. There’s also no getting around the fact that technology is digital, but luxury is analog. Nobody wants a virtual It bag or a digital diamond.

Instead, what we’ve got so far are uncomfortable 3-D-printed fashions (witness the clunky offerings at the recent, second annual Silicon Valley Fashion Week), ugly watches that nobody wants to check their e-mail on (rose-gold bands notwithstanding), networking sites where the dateless elite can meet, and emojis of champagne bottles and Rolls-Royces. The eyesores on the red carpet at last year’s tech-themed Met Gala—all LED-enhanced gowns and robo-couture getups—suggest that Steve Jobs has done for luxury what Coco Chanel did for the French Resistance.

Related: For more on fashion's foray into wearable tech, read the article »

“For the longest time, fashion felt that it was doing its job in keeping tech out because it just wasn’t chic enough,” says Lauren Goodman, a longtime New York fashion editor and Silicon Valley transplant who was recently named the first style editor at tech bible Wired. “Now everyone is sniffing each other out, but a lot of brands didn’t wake up and smell the coffee until it was too late.”

In their rush to play catch-up and court increasingly connected customers, high-fashion labels like Diane von Furstenberg have partnered with tech giants in ill-advised collaborations and are falling over themselves to gain a toehold in social media, sometimes to comic effect. (Hate to break it to you, guys, but a video of a factory visit in Italy posted on Instagram is not cutting it with millennials.)

Call me old-fashioned, but there’s something off about seeing prestigious legacy brands adding gamelike elements to their apps. And don’t get me started on labels creating Snapchat filters meant to evoke a scent.

Luxury resides in the present, not on social media. If you are simply recording it you are not living it—you are like the wedding photographer who gets lost in the mix. But if these brands were paying attention to what people are posting on these platforms, they would notice that the prescriptions for moving forward are hiding in plain sight.

“When I am asked what’s next in digital,” says Virginia Heffernan, author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, “my answer is always the same: anti-digital.”

Heffernan isn’t suggesting that technology can’t be useful in better targeting, entertaining, and informing consumers—after all, she claims that the Internet is among the greatest contributions to mankind. She is quite rightly pointing out that an inevitable outcome of the digital revolution has been the fetishization of objects and experiences that can’t be translated into ones and zeroes. From hipsters learning how to butcher their own meat or make their own ukuleles to the wholesale resurgence of interest in live music at a time when free music has never been easier to access, consumers are clearly craving unforgettable, one-of-a-kind sensory encounters with the material world. This is a space that luxury brands can enhance and should be filling with confidence instead of being scared by tech.

“People will pay a premium for anything that is against the disposability, the searchability of the Internet, anything that can’t be rewound, that happens and then is over,” Heffernan adds.

Venerable brands known for their unerring quality and time-held craftsmanship should be pumping up their messy, real-life provenance and competitive points of difference rather than trying to be all things to all peo- ple across all platforms. After all, the visceral, the man-made, and the hard to find are exactly the qualities that luxury companies have been peddling for decades.

Heffernan offers an example, involving the insurance company Acuity, which serves as a worthwhile parable for luxury brands. In 2010, Acuity, for rea- sons best known to the firm, decided to publish its earnings report in pop-up form, which is painstakingly involved because the book must be sewn by hand, and turned to a noted paper engineer and craftsman who toiled on the project for months. The result, Acuity’s “A Storybook Year,” included modern retellings of children’s fairy tales and became an unexpected word-of-mouth hit on the insurance convention circuit and beyond.

There are also lessons to be learned from the fine-dining realm, where plugged-in restaurateurs are using technology in smart, unobtrusive ways that recall the Arthur C. Clarke musing: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Nick Kokonas, a former investment banker and a co-owner of Alinea, the award-winning restaurant in Chicago helmed by visionary chef Grant Achatz, agrees. “From the online booking process,” he says—Kokonas is also the CEO of Tock, a proprietary reservations engine he created and has sold to 151 restaurants worldwide—“to the experience of the meal itself, where we have worked with immersive sound, for example, at every turn we want the technology to be in the service of the guest experience. But if there is one rule I have, it’s that you should not be aware of the technology.”

In other words, if luxury brands want to proceed with their dignity intact, they would do well to view technology as an important box to check rather than as a paradigm shift they need to embrace. The key to avoid coming across as desperate is to let it happen naturally, says Bob Chavez, CEO of Hermès. (Hermès is experimenting with ways to enhance the digital experience in its stores, including tablets that allow access to catalogs of products and bespoke services not available in stores, and a new, digitally enabled boutique in Palo Alto, California, slated to open in 2018.) “Some people question whether there can be anything natural to technology,” Chavez says, “but as in any new relationship, the key is not to try too hard.”