Luxury, in all forms, is defined by the emotion it stirs. If Louis Vuitton didn’t provoke grandeur, their bags would be mere leather and twine – and raw materials aren’t worth two months’ rent.
The same holds doubly true for cars. After all, this isn’t just two months’ rent we’re talking about: if you want a customer to spend north of six figures when a used Camry would do just fine, only aesthetic pleasure will overcome cold, hard rationality.
When it comes to the business of luxury cars, the automotive world has evolved to borrow tactics from the fashion industry in order to stir emotion on a seismic scale. Done right, this apparel-automotive crossover doesn’t just move the audience; it immerses them. At this year’s 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, MI, three automakers combined the best of both fashion presentation and luxury car prestige to create truly spectacular emotional experiences.
Mercedes-Benz doesn’t just borrow from the fashion industry – it creates it. The world’s oldest luxury car brand has long sponsored Fashion Weeks around the world, lending both its capital and its unshakable image to runways from Australia to Berlin. It’s no surprise, then, that the German brand knows how to create spectacle.
At this year’s Auto Show, Mercedes opened with a bang: an 8-piece jazz ensemble caught the beat, and just like that, the show began. Like any proper catwalk, a parade of shapes, colors, and designs soon followed. Mercedes showed four vehicles in total, ranging from the gregarious GLA45 AMG (a hatchback with a spoiler!) to the altruistic Concept EQ (an all-electric SUV!), the athletic E-Class Coupe (an athletic commuter!) to the beautiful-if-objectively-terrifying AMG GT C Edition 50 (a 550hp supercar! Exclamation point!).
One by one, some of the most gorgeous vehicles on the planet took the stage before retreating behind the curtain. Then, after each had curtsied, all four took the stage for a grand finale. All the while, the band played on.
Compared to its other Teutonic contemporaries, Mercedes stood out because it didn’t just show – it entertained. Thanks to CAD software and robotic manufacturing, having beautiful cars alone has (thankfully) become table stakes for the premium market. What matters then becomes the intangibles those cars symbolize: the image, the lifestyle, the ownership experience. Just as Burberry engages its customers with varied collections that fill every need in their life with a desirable, iconic brand, so does Mercedes. Just change the scarf for a turbo.
As an established sponsor of New York Fashion Week, it’s no surprise that a resurgent Cadillac eagerly embraces the values of the fashion world. This year, America’s luxury brand stole the show with a front-and-center feature of the Escala concept car. Positioned directly in front of the hall’s main entrance, the Cadillac booth rises like an iceberg, a massive video wall draped in stark white replete with light hardwood accents. Levitating above the water line is Escala: a sleek, grey, architectural four-door with lines as stunning as they are few.
While “put the thing on the stage” is hardly innovative, Cadillac’s Escala wows thanks to the elegance and confidence of its presentation. Like an Armani Privé show, Cadillac’s latest concept doesn’t lean on bright colors or bawdy showmanship to get its point across. Instead, it stands on stage alone: bold, sharp, a testament to the skill of its designers. It is, in many ways, automotive couture. The Escala shines because of – not in spite of – its understatement.
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To many suburban families, Lexus and luxury are synonyms. The very phrase “Lexus crossover” evokes an image of comfort and affluence that comes with mid-life security: whiz-bang interiors, school carpools, designer handbag. When Toyota launched the Lexus brand at the 1989 Detroit show with the first-ever Lexus LS 400, it was a competitor brand with a mission to win over these same luxury customers. Over the three decades since, Lexus has catapulted up the sales charts by sycophantically focusing on those values it has come to symbolize: innovation, function, and unyielding luxury.
So, when it came time for Lexus to launch the newest generation of their flagship LS sedan, they simply returned to their roots.
Just like the designer handbag on the arm of that same Lexus persona, the only proper way for a luxury brand to refresh an icon is through sheer spectacle. Lexus’ 2017 Detroit show was no exception.
With all the might (and budget) of the Toyota Motor Corp, Lexus constructed a light-and-sound experience for the ages. Bass boomed; strings swelled; a jet black catwalk straight out of Milan Fashion Week bisected the speechless audience. After a brief speech telling the history of Lexus LS, the theater plunged into darkness before a sinister orange glow crept across a 180° video screen.
Suddenly, the room crackled and hissed – a ring of fire flashed across the screens as smoke filled the air by the stage. On screen, a faceless figure forged flame into fenders. From these molten strokes, a shape formed: the iconic Lexus spindle grill. From this grill, came a body; and from this body, came the molten silhouette of the all-new Lexus LS. Then, silence.
For all the crowd knew, the fire on the screen was real: judging by their breathless awe, the oxygen in the room must’ve burned away.
Finally, with the room approaching vacuum, a single shape pierced the thermobaric silence: from the back, up a ramp, and down the catwalk, drove the world premiere 2018 Lexus LS.
Stunned gasps became camera shutters, and once more, the room was aglow.
Fashion critics may pan spectacle without purpose, yet when done well (and for a deserving-enough occasion), there is nothing like it. Fendi’s recent show on Trevi Fountain comes to mind: an iconic luxury brand celebrating the city that made it an icon with an experience not soon forgotten by those lucky enough to attend.
While Lexus had to forge its own environment from a convention center floor, the effect was felt all the same. And, considering the significant role Detroit has played in catalyzing Lexus’ U.S. growth, it’s safe to say the Motor City was the ideal venue for such an effect.
In an era of “Autopilot” modes and ride-sharing apps, it is more essential than ever for luxury car makers to stir emotion in their audience. Considering the fashion industry’s historic ability to create aesthetic experience, it’s no wonder that luxury brands like Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, and Lexus align with some of fashion’s most awe-inspiring tactics to create breathtaking experiences.
The result? Art in motion, both on stage and off.