What is the difference between a briefcase you keep forever and one that lasts a year or so? The answer could be as simple as a word. But not just any word: one chosen by the person doing the purchasing.
Yes, we are talking about personalisation. And yes, though it has been a niche business for a long time, it is becoming increasingly mainstream.
According to Anita Barr, Selfridges’ director of men’s wear, “Personalised clothing may once have been seen as the preserve of the wealthy but today’s everyday market is more demanding.” Recently, for example, Selfridges held a “monogramming weekend” and sales of men’s brands William & George and Smyth & Gibson rose 65 and 38 per cent respectively. Selena Gibson, co-owner and founder of shirt makers Smyth & Gibson, says, “Over the past year we have witnessed demand for personalised shirts increase dramatically.”
Phil Lis, a City of London lawyer, explains the allure of personalisation. “I see my monogrammed shirts as the logical next step from having my name sewn into my shirts and socks at primary school. A tiny bit of stitching in the right place makes all the difference; it personalises your shirt in a subtle way and makes you feel that you can stand out even when you’re wearing the office uniform.”
The phenomenon extends beyond shirts and monograms. Prada sunglasses can be made individual via initials or symbols on the arms; Gucci’s Seventies Collection of vintage-inspired bags can be embossed with initials; Hermès has a Silk Twill service that marks significant events on a tie; and jewellery website Astley Clarke offers an engraving service on six pieces from its Silhouette range, including a sterling silver pebble-like locket with a star-set moonstone cabochon, and has etched song lyrics and lines from poems on its products.
Then there is leather goods czarina Anya Hindmarch, who launched her new bespoke website last week. Online Hindmarch offers accessories that can be made to measure or bought as they come – wallets, coin purses, the “Ebury” day bag, notebooks and briefcases, all of which can be embossed. Thus far she has created a leather bookmark printed with the words “Dad, can we get a cooler car?”; a wallet for a man’s 21st birthday with the words “beer” and “career” stamped on each side; and accessories carrying messages from a man who knew he was dying for his wife to read after he’d gone.
Hindmarch says that “Commercially, personalisation is very difficult – a really commercial business is like Henry Ford, one model in black and lots of them – but I get more of a thrill in making something that is personal.” She adds that it combines “the ultimate in efficiency and high-tech with being lovely and old fashioned”.
Personalisation also directly connects consumers to the spirit of a brand. To get to the Mon Monogram service on the Louis Vuitton website, for example, you pass through a reminder that personalisation has been a tradition here since 1854, and a montage of sepia images that could be titled À la recherche du luggage perdu. Customers can customise three styles of bag – a case on wheels, a holdall and a bowling style – with initials and stripes in different colours (initials or monograms can also be hand painted or hot stamped in stores).
“The ultimate luxury is something that is made for you and has a story so you don’t want to throw it away,” says Hindmarch. “It’s not fashion, it’s not of a season. It’s a memory of a moment.”