In the luxury market, unique customised items are one way of luring the rich. Italian entrepreneur Lapo Elkann explains how his firm is changing everyday items.
Mass production came of age in the 20th century, with the promise of cheap products available to almost anyone.
But the price of achieving this was uniformity. To keep costs down, items on the assembly line needed to be largely identical.
“Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black,” said pioneering car maker Henry Ford.
But not even he could completely snuff out all desire for individuality. At various times during its production life, the famous Ford Model T was available in a range of colours, not just black.
A century on from the introduction of Henry Ford’s assembly line, we may now be entering the era of “mass customisation”, where a growing number of items such as handbags are offered in a huge range of variations to suit individual tastes.
From the cleaner to the chief executive, “freedom of expression is something that everyone wants,” says the entrepreneur Lapo Elkann.
Today, he continues, “personalisation is something that you can find at the low end of scale of products, at the medium, and at the high”.
Yet at present it is still the luxury field that offers the most striking examples of bespoke products. Mr Elkann believes it is a market that has plenty of potential for growth.
Amongst the items that his Milan-based Garage Italia company has customised are yachts and private jets, as well as cars.
Examples of the latter include multi-coloured versions of BMW models, inspired by the design ethic of the Memphis group, founded by Ettore Sottass.
Mr Elkann says the exercise was a kind of antidote to “an era where there is a lot of bad news…[which]makes you think ‘grey’; we said let’s make people think in colours, because colours mean energy… passion …liveliness.”
A more esoteric example of the company’s work is a Fiat 500 covered with erotic illustrations taken from the Kama Sutra .
Racier elements of the design are covered with the word “censored”, which disappear as the temperature rises, thanks to the special heat-sensitive paint covering the vehicle.
For Mr Elkann, the key to success in the field of high-end customisation, or “transformation” as he prefers to call it, lies in understanding the customer, and helping them to understand themselves.
“It’s not only about doing the product, it’s about feeling, living, sensing, and creating the story which they dream about,” he says.
The world of luxury is one that Mr Elkann knows well.
His grandfather, Giovanni Agnelli, led the growth of Italian car maker Fiat into a huge global enterprise.
Early in his career, Mr Elkann worked as an assistant to Henry Kissinger. After working at Fiat for a time, where he helped to relaunch the Fiat 500, Mr Elkann went on to found a string of businesses of his own, including sunglasses maker Italia Independent, as well as Garage Italia.
Mr Elkann has also collaborated with Ferrari on a “tailor-made” project, which allows customers to add an element of personalisation to their cars.
Nevertheless, it has not been all plain sailing for Mr Elkann. He has faced a number of personal setbacks, including a battle with drug addiction.
He says he has learnt a lot from his experiences.
“You need to balance inner self and outer self, and if you don’t find the balance of both, you go against the wall,” he says. “Rigorous honesty with yourself is a key point”.
But despite these challenges, Mr Elkann’s enterprises seem to continue to make progress.
Life of luxury
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According to Peter York, who has been an adviser to many large luxury businesses, Mr Elkann’s background is one that is likely to help him, “because people will think you’re a person of style and heritage so you’re likely to get it right”.
This is important, Mr York says, because clients in the field can be exceptionally demanding and may be more likely to trust suppliers they believe really understand their needs.
Those trying to make a viable enterprise in the luxury customisation market need all the help they can get, adds Mr York, because it’s “quite a risky business – real customis ation is very expensive and very time consuming”.
Success will partly depend on achieving the highest quality of craftsmanship, continues Mr York. This is as essential now as it was in the earliest days of the automobile, when the first cars were luxury, hand-built items.
However, Mr York says that the growing “commodification of luxury” products means that the market for high-end bespoke products and services is only likely to grow. He agrees with Mr Elkann that, for those who have the skills, reputation and nerve, there is money to be made in the field.