how luxury brands embraced personalisation

It was the subtle diaphanous shading of the 17th-century walnut tree, felled in a storm back in 2007, that first caught Ioannis Papagiannakopoulos’s eye. That and the “not for sale” sign discreetly placed beside it in a humidity-controlled storeroom where high-end carmaker Bentley keeps its panelling samples. 

“They told me they’d used it just once in a special, one-off edition a few years ago,” says Papagiannakopoulos, a 42-year-old maritime executive. “Let’s say, in a polite way, I started pestering them until they said I could have it.’’

The veneer is not the only bespoke feature in his new Bentayga EWB Mulliner V8. The luxury car, which retails at £250,000 (before additions), also includes a specially designed badge for the driver’s seat, a “nautical”-themed linen interior, and a cobalt blue exterior finishing inspired by Yves Saint Laurent’s Jardin Majorelle villa in Morocco. 

Explaining his decision to personalise the already super-deluxe car, Greek-born Papagiannakopoulos muses on evocations of the Adriatic — as well as a desire to “feel at home” whenever he sits behind the wheel. 

He is not alone. Offering to give products a personal touch has become a huge business for luxury brands in recent years. According to recent research by consultancy Bain & Co, the personal luxury market — the so-called “core of the core” of the luxury segment that includes handbags, shoes, watches, jewellery and fashion — was valued at £362bn in 2023, a rise of 4 per cent on the year before.

The main driver of growth in the luxury goods market is now ultra-wealthy shoppers, as inflation, luxury price rises and geopolitical uncertainty depress the spending levels of those in the next category: “accessible luxury” shoppers, who had driven growth in the sector over the past decade. 

With the ultra-wealthy, even the sky is not necessarily the limit (think: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin space rocket). It is a fact that Feadship, a Dutch manufacturer of super yachts, has taken on board. It will not even use the term “customise”, given it implies there is also standardised production. Instead, to quote a company spokesperson, its clients are offered “carte blanche to create whatever they desire”. 

However, for the next tier down of luxury manufacturers, customisation presents a boon: their high-end clientele go away feeling happy, as the owners of something unique, while they themselves secure a premium price without having to redesign their product from scratch. It is a neat balancing act that luxury coachbuilder Mulliner has been perfecting since its origins as saddler in the Elizabethan period. Acquired by Bentley back in 1959, the company’s team of designers, engineers and artisans now operates as the elite carmaker’s personal commissioning division. 

Part of that role sees it produce limited series one-offs, such as the just-released, £1.75mn Batur Convertible (total vehicles manufactured: 16). But another part involves guiding soon-to-be Bentley owners through its myriad of colours, materials, and features — the most exclusive of which carry the bespoke “By Mulliner” label.

“In total, there are something like 40bn options,” explains David Parker, the division’s chief commercial officer. “So, with around 15,000 cars a year, we have several lifetimes ahead of us before we get through them.”

Parker credits rapid advances in digital technology, coupled with a growing willingness on the part of buyers to engage online in a “co-creation” process, for a recent surge in customisation requests.

Today, more than seven in 10 new Bentley cars roll out of the showroom with at least one bespoke addition. Even customers who, such as Papagiannakopoulos, travel to Bentley’s workshops in Crewe to see the options for themselves have “always had a go themselves” online beforehand, Parker notes.

Lamborghini is another luxury-car maker to have embraced the personalisation possibilities of technology. Through its online Ad Personam service, buyers of its Huracán and Aventador supercar models can now log on and select from an array of alternative leathers, colours, materials, seats and rims. For the undecided, there’s even a dedicated studio at the Italian carmaker’s Bologna headquarters where staff will walk them through their options on a cutting-edge digital configurator.

A stylish showroom featuring a camouflaged-painted Lamborghini sports car in the foreground. The room is modern with a wooden floor, and the background showcases a wall with a variety of colorful material samples hanging in a row
A Lamborghini showroom with personalisation swatches on the wall

Not every whim is indulged, though. Try requesting a politically sensitive or potentially offensive logo for your trim or bonnet, and Lamborghini will “politely suggest a different direction”, says Ad Personam’s chief, Marco Valentini. In general, however, the brand likes to think it keeps an open mind. Tastes differ, after all. While traditionalists will insist bright pink is “not a colour for a Lamborghini”, customers in Asia-Pacific just love it, he says. 

Similar tech-driven trends can be seen in the luxury fashion market, with the introduction of online personalisation services, such as Gucci DIY and Burberry’s Trench Bespoke.

And if the futurologists prove right, luxury fashion devotees could soon be enjoying fittings in AI-powered virtual reality showrooms. But, while the impulse to customise appears to be growing universally, customers’ motivations for doing so still differ widely. Showing off is certainly part of it. In today’s age of social media and celebrity obsession, simple “limited editions” no longer quite cut it. To stand out, every Hermès Birkin bag now needs its own personalised monogram and every Rolex watch its own specially configured face.

That said, the value of ostentation can be overstated, argues sought-after Brazilian architect and designer, Arthur Guimarães. Indeed, for many wealthy individuals, personalisation has emerged as a counterpoint to the prevailing culture of flamboyance and commodification, he states. “In an age where luxury has been commodified and flaunted on digital platforms, true connoisseurs of elegance seek solace in the understated, the timeless, and the exquisite,” the São Paulo-based designer explains. 

A stylishly dressed man wearing a navy blue suit, black turtleneck, and a patterned pocket square. He stands with one hand in his pocket
Arthur Guimarães, Brazilian architect and designer: ‘Personalisation has emerged as a ‘counterpoint’ to the culture of flamboyance’ © Marcus Steinmeyer

For this more discerning class of wealthy buyer, the habit of customising luxury products has much more to do with a private appreciation for qualities such as “artistry”, “craftsmanship” and “attention to detail” than it does with a desire for public display, he believes.

Consider the recent refit Guimarães completed of a Gulfstream G650 jet, replete with custom-made fabrics from Milan-based Loro Piana Interiors and made-to-measure tableware. Do not expect to find any images on Instagram: the UK banker who owns the jet cherishes his privacy “with an almost reverential fervour”. 

Another factor driving the desire to personalise can be found in the word itself — namely, the pleasure that people find in putting their own “personal” stamp on an object that they greatly value. To this discerning shopper, personalisation is less about setting themselves apart, and more about feeling an item belongs uniquely to them. 

A pair of luxurious reclinable white leather seats in the cabin of a small jet
Inside a personalised Gulfstream private jet © Aurélien Bergot

Again, aircraft provide an illustration. Hector Torres, head of interior modification at Clay Lacy, a Los Angeles-based private jet management service firm, recalls a client who loved going on safaris. The jet-owner had taken an aerial photo of a herd of zebras and wanted the image imprinted on a bespoke carpet for the aisle of his plane. 

“The black and white colours of those zebras running through the field in a mass — he just wanted that experience every time he walked on to that aircraft,” Torres recalls. 

Other slightly left-field requests from wealthy customers include a ceiling print of a star-studded night sky, a painting by a favourite artist hung in the passenger cabin, and a set of sofas identical to those a client already had in his house. “It comes down to them wanting to put their own touch on the design,” Torres explains. “When these folk fly in their airplane for 10 or 12 hours, they want it to feel like an extension of their home.” 

This same home-away-from-home desire feeds into the personalisation of services, too. Here, little gestures can go a long way. The hotel that ensures it is always your favourite champagne in the ice bucket, for instance. Or the restaurant that recalls your food allergies without ever needing to be reminded. 

The feeling of being more than “just a guest” carries huge weight for many wealthy individuals, observes Zack Bates, CEO of Private Club Marketing, a California-based consultancy firm. What they want, instead, he suggests, is to visit a private event venue or luxury destination for the first time and “feel like a member when they walk in”. 

A spacious and elegantly decorated living room featuring cream-colored sofas with an array of colorful throw pillows. In the middle is a sleek gold coffee table with a reflective surface, displaying books and decorative pieces. Large windows provide natural light and a view of palm trees outside
The salon of a Feadship superyacht © Karel Ham

This sense of being “in the fold” lies at the heart of Blrv, a new venture set up by Bates that allows well-off travellers to step into the clubhouses of a host of world-class golf courses — from Pebble Beach in California to Le Golf National in Paris — and immediately enjoy the full member’s experience. 

It is a simple model: Blrv invites its affiliates to provide a full list of their private preferences, which it then sends on ahead of them to whichever venue they choose to book. A black-credit-card provider might know what car its customer drives “but not much else”, Bates points out. “We know that they’re allergic to these particular foods, and these are the wines they prefer, and that they use Titleist clubs and hit Pro V1 golf balls,” he says. 

Back behind the wheel of his Bentley Bentayga, Ioannis Papagiannakopoulos could hardly be happier. Every time he drives his new car, he feels like he’s back home on a Greek island, he says. Only the English weather spoils the illusion — but then, desirable though it would be, some things can never be personalised.

This article is part of FT Wealth, a section providing in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investment

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