HEAD INTO ANY STORE in Tokyo’s Ginza district or London’s Bond Street and a sales associate, very likely in head-to-toe black, will appear. His name might be Brian and he will be wearing a suit issued to him before his first day of work. The suit might not fit that well but it won’t matter as he works at Louis Vuitton and no one is there to look at him or his clothes. What matters is the luxury dress code he participates in: a set of sartorial rules designed to exude harmony and professionalism and ultimately, to seduce customers into buying. These uniforms position luxury sales associates as facilitators, waiters or even doormen in the shopping experience; they are seen and not heard, guiding the purchase process.
In an increasingly online world, luxury brands have refined and perfected the offline experience to the tune of €253 billion.1 To do so, they know a customer’s connection to a brand must be emotional, ‘profound’ and ‘nearly sentimental.’2 Today’s stores are de facto cultural spaces, exhibiting sculpture alongside shoes and offering lattes as well as personal shopping. So, how does the utterly somber, and often dowdy, luxury retail uniform, factor into this business equation?
On billboards, and in store windows and magazines, fashion houses dole out eccentricity, sexuality and individual expression as essential components to their identity and success. From catwalk to handbag and perfume diffusions, each brand’s unique fingerprint belies the fact that the in-store experiences it offers, right down to the uniforms, are strikingly consistent. Inside, you’ll find a narrative deeply entwined with the sartorial symbols of conservatism, starting with a list of architectural and atmospheric details. From the generic background music, to the expanses of glass and metal, each store uses the same ingredients in only slight different ways. This includes clusters of black-clad sales associates, solicitous but not overly familiar. They are the brand’s informed counsel.
The luxury retail uniform’s function is therefore logistical but not fashionable. It tells customers: ‘I work here’ in any country or language. The uniform delineates everyone’s role in the ritual. Whether a sales associate greets you at Burberry in Mumbai or Hermès in Shanghai, he or she will be dressed in corporate attire: a pantsuit or a skirt suit, flat shoes, tan hosiery and a tie for the males. If dresses are an option they will be shifts with generous silhouettes and sensible, knee-length hemlines. Interpretation is not left to associates. Burberry, for example, outlines how to wear each item in a 72-page handbook, according to Jeck Chou, a store manager in Toronto. Small details provide the only clue to each brand – a tan Burberry scarf tucked into a jacket, or a tiny glinting gold ‘G’ on a Gucci loafer – in much the same way a hotel’s brand subtly appears on the pocket, or cuff, of its lobby staff. Black – the colour of clergymen and women, of humility and devotion – is a constant. Indeed, Chou referred to a sense of ‘fraternity and solidarity’ created by the uniform. Black also ensures the sales associate never takes the focus away from the merchandise, the most important actor in this retail scenario. If you leave Louis Vuitton having remembered everything other than what the sales associate who helped you was wearing, the uniform will have done its job.
In this way, fashion houses are more like banks or law firms, their uniforms less a fashion statement than an ethos expressed by dark-hued synthetics. Unlike military, athletic or even school uniforms, the luxury retail dress code has taken a decidedly anti-fashion position. Luxury brands hew closer to the business model and global success of corporate chains than to the bohemian haut monde they depict in their marketing. These brands, and their uniforms, offer consistency, control and the distant echoes of tradition.
Jordan MacInnis is a writer in Toronto.
Bain & Company, ‘Bain & Company’s Spring Luxury Update Finds That Sound Demographics are Projecting a New Wave of Growth Ahead,’ May 24 2016, http://www.bain.com/about/press/press-releases/spring-luxury-update-2016.aspx ↩
A. Ilari, ‘In Luxury, Success Requires More Than Just Product,’ The New York Times, April 5 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/05/fashion/luxury-goods-retail.html ↩