In recent times much has been written about the strategic opportunity that Australia’s geographic location and proximity to Asia has offered purveyors of luxury products and services. Long considered by Europe as an exotic antipodean outpost, Australia has always sought to embrace its European heritage while advocating the virtues of American style commercialisation. Over the decades, this curious sensibility has produced adventurous and ambitious business leaders that have not only contributed to a unique global dialogue on luxury, but have interrogated and challenged its modus operandi entirely.
In 1986 the luxury menswear landscape in Australia was a blank canvas. While Paulina Porizkova adorned the September cover of US Vogue and Apple released its first and only clothing collection, Greek born entrepreneur John Poulakis was celebrating two birthdays. The first, the 28th year of his birth, the second, the first anniversary of his ambitious retail venture Harrolds Luxury Department Store. Located initially on the ground floor of Melbourne’s iconic Rialto building, the menswear store had been catering to a rising class of well-heeled and discerning Australian gentlemen that aspired to European tastes and artefacts.
Prior to Harrolds’ inception the year prior, the luxury brand experience in Australia had only ever really addressed the consumer touch points leading to purchase, with the ultimate goal being to sell a given product or service. With little consideration given to the context, story or experience of fashion, the changing attitude of customers along with their latent desire for self-actualisation and self-fulfilment, led Poulakis to ask one simple but potent question; what defines a luxury retail experience?
In acknowledging that the purchase was only the starting point of an extraordinary and lifelong engagement for customers seeking a greater emotional connection with the brands and products with which they were engaging, Poulakis would propose the answer by expanding Harrolds’ customer journey creating a far more curated and enduring experience.
A decision that would stand him in good stead over the resulting three decades as he relentlessly sought to deliver upon the luxury promise through the creation of exceptional service cues and the extension of the stores remit beyond the presentation of fashion. Fast forward to 1998 and theorists B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore would be the first to publish a paper supporting what Poulakis had been doing intuitively for years, the paper would be titled The Experience Economy.
The pioneering culture developed by Poulakis followed a key premise articulated by Pine and Gilmore; experience is a stage, the products its exquisite props. As clothing and self-presentation are still largely a visual language, tapping into an ancient but enduring legacy necessitating conspicuous markers of identity, Harrolds were not only becoming the touchstone for customers wanting to access European labels such as Balenciaga, Valentino, Balmain and Saint Laurent—but along with them—the wealth of ideas, knowledge and emotional rewards that each of their worlds delivered. Poulakis quickly recognised that if old luxury was about the ‘thing’, then his new definition of luxury would be about his customers ‘experience of things’. “If customers were to be encouraged to return to Harrolds, then the presentation and sale of our products would need to be married to memorable exchanges,” Poulakis reveals. “We acknowledge that shopping with us is a unique theatre of experience, a seamless amalgam of personal exchange, knowledge, desire and transaction.”
Following the 2015 appointment of Harrolds’ retail operations director, Lee Whittle, the curation of this theatre has been embraced and amplified even further. Maintaining that the Harrolds experience must transcend the promise of its package, the measured, affable and quick spoken Brit is quick to site that “Harrolds’ customers expect the best. It’s a brand that demands a story be delivered with a commensurate level of service,” he explains during our conversation in Harrolds’ immaculately presented Brioni store-in-store in Melbourne.
Lee (as he prefers) oversees each of Harrolds four retail destinations while ensuring that all staff successfully complete an intensive six week training program that immerses them into the culture of the business, while interrogating their knowledge and understanding of each customer. “Knowledge is everything,” he explains. “We expect each member of our team to know their customers, to anticipate their needs and to appreciate their interests. It’s incredibly important to have knowledgeable people taking our clients through a range so that the experience is seamless, enjoyable and considered.”
Since the beginning of this century luxury brands such as Harrolds have redefined how they communicate and engage with their customers. Having long grappled with the changing beliefs of the traditional customers, the emergence of a new and unique generation of luxury consumers has changed the playing field entirely. Traditional marketing strategies, like artificial celebrity or commercial endorsements are slowly giving way to subtler forms of social and cultural currency. “Customers are looking at the edges of luxury—seeking the niche, the new and the next. They want to share their knowledge with their peers and engage with brands that reflect their own deep and genuine engagement with fashion, design, culture and the arts,” explains Lee.
Prolonging the pleasure of consumption through the design of unique service rituals, and suspending time through intelligent architectural narratives and store design, are all ways in which Harrolds control the ritual and ceremony of engagement with their customers. It would come as no surprise to a seasoned Harrolds customer when, in 2014, The Business of Fashion (BOF) and Pitti Uomo, Italy’s pre-eminent trade fair for men’s fashion, declared Harrolds to be one of the top 30 menswear retailers in the world. It was the only Australian store to be honoured in the list and a true testament to a culture that, as Lee explains, “is no longer a monologue, but a multilogue on global fashion”.
Exceptional service, of course, is largely non-visual, and thus difficult for many to imitate from the outside looking in—perhaps why domestic competitors have generally languished in their attempts to replicate the Harrolds magic. In asserting their unique standing however, Harrolds continues to invest in developing relationships with their customers that not only acknowledge their emotional and intellectual desires, but simply makes the process of buying clothes enjoyable. “The Harrolds philosophy,” Lee notes with a grin, “is fun. Harrolds is committed to helping customers discover and engage with brands whose message and DNA align with their own personal tastes and preferences. We aim for that engagement to be extraordinary.”
But what does it mean to be extraordinary and how can it be embedded within the actions and culture of a brand? Within the context of Harrolds, being extraordinary has meant overcoming the constraints and limitations of everyday life, moving beyond the pragmatics of function and rationality and into the realms of emotion, aesthetics, hedonism and the sacred. “Extraordinary for Harrolds is about being unique, without comparison or equal,” notes Lee. With Harrolds set to open a fifth store at Pacific Fair, Gold Coast, Queensland this year, the growing footprint will continue to speak of the businesses capacity to deliver memorable and considered retail experiences. In doing so, it will of course prompt Lee and the entire Harrolds organisation to question once more, what defines a luxury retail experience? We certainly look forward to the answer.