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WHITE’s Alexander Laible accompanied Rupert Wild to
Condé Nast’s Luxury Conference in the South Korean capital.
A report on the lasting impressions he came away with.

IT’S APRIL 19, and a pleasant spring evening in Seoul. As the sun slowly sets over the Korean megacity, things are just getting underway in the garden of the Shilla Hotel – a spectacular setting for the occasion on a wooded hillside. Black-clad waiters are serving ice-cold drinks and caviar canapés, fairy lights are twinkling in the trees and the guests at the 2016 Condé Nast International Luxury Conference are gathering for the first get-together of the event in cocktail attire. Balmain’s head designer Olivier Rousteing is sipping a gin and tonic. Diesel’s artistic director Nicola Formichetti is saying hello to Jonathan Newhouse, CEO of Condé Nast. Despite the almost 18-hour flight, I can’t wait to see what the next few days will bring. This year’s Condé Nast International Luxury Conference, or CNI Lux to use its official Instagram hashtag, is being held under the motto “Future Luxury”. For two days, top-calibre speakers from all over the world will be talking about how an entire industry is preparing for the future in the age of globalisation, digitalisation and social media. As in Florence last year, the conference is being hosted by Suzy Menkes, a veteran fashion journalist whose fame extends well beyond industry circles. After writing articles and opinion pieces for the International Herald Tribune for 25 years, she now works exclusively for Condé Nast.

WHITE COMMUNICATIONS – as at the 2015 event in Florence – is one of the official sponsors.

So why Korea, why Seoul as the venue for the CNI Lux 2016? What is it that accounts for the region’s charm? The next morning Suzy Menkes, the woman with the trademark pompadour, provides the answer when she steps onto the conference stage dressed in a silk coat embroidered with cranes. South Korea – and especially the Seoul metropolis – are booming. In the Asian world, the country and its capital are regarded as a kind of gateway to the future. Seoul is characterised by a strong, “inspirational cultural energy”, as Suzy Menkes puts it. There is for instance a wave of “K” versions right now – Korea’s own interpretations of various cultural disciplines, including K-fashion, K-art and K-pop. (Gangnam Style, the catchy and unforgotten song by South Korean rapper Psy, is a prime example of globally successful K-pop.) But thanks to its model company Samsung and numerous car makers, Seoul is excellently positioned when it comes to technology and digitalisation as well. South Korea is in the middle of a huge boom. An appropriate setting, then. Menkes invites her first guest to join her on the stage: Olivier Rousteing, 28, head designer of tradition-steeped Parisian fashion house Balmain, best buddy of the Kardashians and friends with every supermodel of our times. His topic: the power of social media. He himself, he reports, has an Instagram account with almost three million followers. It seems safe to assume he knows what matters.

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    An enthusiastic welcome for the K-Pop stars

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    Rupert Wild with top Condé Nast managers Moritz Von Laffert (Germany) and Jonathan Newhouse (international)

So what does matter, then? While the word he brings into play might sound old-fashioned to some, it has lost nothing of its validity: honesty. Followers, he argues, are anything but stupid – and they pay very close attention to the authenticity and charm of every single post. Rousteing shows us a few of his own posts: a couture dress next to a morning bowl of cornflakes, a selfie with Kim Kardashian along with another that shows him looking sleepy-eyed on the couch in his Paris apartment. It’s this mix that matters if you want to attract followers and keep them happy. He makes that very clear. Because for him – even if not everybody can really afford Balmain – it’s all about using Instagram as a multiplier for the story he wants to tell with his interpretation of Balmain: “Work hard and live your dream.” The fact that social networks are an excellent way to convey dreams and visions – and thus ensure they experience an enormous amount of attention within the industry as a result – is a key (if unsurprising) insight at this conference.

Top models Sasha Luss and Liu Wen speak about the hugely important role Instagram meanwhile plays both for them personally and for the sector as a whole. Up to 1.5 million likes for a post about lip gloss! It’s understandable that the industry has taken a liking to this lucrative platform.

Nicola Formichetti, however, head designer at Diesel and the stylist responsible for Lady Gaga’s legendary meat dress, urges caution. His level-headed and slightly sarcastic assessment: followers are “pretty easy” to buy. The most important thing, he says, is not to lose sight of the art, the design and thus the beauty of the product itself.

And to make sure that doesn’t happen, the day brings more fascinating and illuminating presentations by names such as Jason Wu (womenswear designer at Hugo Boss) and bag designer Anya Hindmarch. But they’re not the only speakers to make a lasting impression. The famous Korean plastic surgeon Sanghoon Park explains that plastic surgery has long been part of everyday life in Korea – and is therefore a serious competitor for luxury products when it comes to consumers’ purchase decisions. A Chanel bag versus a new nose. Sanghoon Park’s lecture sheds light on a phenomenon with growing significance for the beauty and fashion industry – and ends with the observation that “Not everybody can be born beautiful.” A good thing his target group knows who to turn to in such a case: his global network of Park clinics certainly speaks for itself. It emerges during the two-day conference that in fact Asia’s buying public is very modern and self-determined in general when it comes to participating in luxury and fashion. People here want to consume – but they want to have a say as well.

Angelica Cheung, editor-in-chief of Chinese VOGUE and thus something like the Asian equivalent of Anna Wintour, shares an amusing anecdote. One day, she says, she ventured to give her daughter some styling advice, which the latter promptly ignored. Not to be discouraged, her mother pointed out that, as editor-in-chief of VOGUE, she knew what she was talking about and there was no reason for her daughter not to trust her. “Be that as it may,” her offspring replied. “You might know all about Vogue style, but what do you know about my style?”

Her daughter is actually more likely to read VOGUE ME anyway, the edition aimed at youngsters. But it’s not only the magazine that provides friendly advice and support with styling issues as a kind of mantra: it’s the preferred approach for any Korean brand when it comes to developing new target audiences.

Because according to Angelica Cheung, today’s generation of youngsters is the first to grow up without experiencing poverty and be armed with a new definition of self-confidence and self-determination.

In the evening too, at the big cocktail reception that Condé Nast is hosting in the Dongdaemun Museum designed by Zaha Hadid, the general consensus is that, when you think about the future of luxury, it essentially comes down to two things. Firstly, the need to recognise and accept the changes and democratisation that have taken place (as a result of influences like social media) in a sector that once considered itself exclusive. And secondly, storytelling. The machinery of longing demands to be fed – charmingly, intelligently and continually. Something has to happen in consumers’ minds, dreams need to be encouraged and desires generated. When I take a photo of me and Olivier Rousteing at the cocktail reception, he wants to okay it before it’s used. Storytelling, it would seem, is also something that calls for careful monitoring. Afterwards, he vanishes into the Seoul night in his limousine. He’ll no doubt be posting a thing or two on his Instagram account later this evening. His favourite hashtag is probably also the key insight I take away from the CNI conference: fashion never stops.

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