In 2016, a flesh-colored gown embellished with thousands of hand-sewn Swarovski crystals – and once worn by Marilyn Monroe – was sold for $4.8 million, becoming the world’s most expensive item of clothing ever for public sale. She had worn the sparkling dress at a fundraiser in 1962 at Madison Square Garden while singing Happy Birthday to President John F. Kennedy. Sure, it was hardly a cheap dress to begin with, but it was Monroe’s powerful personal brand and memorable performance that made the gown so valuable, not its material. Swarovski crystals are, after all, not diamonds. But the allure of glamor they have.
This is an iconic example of how, in case of luxury, buyers pay for what a product stands for, rather than the actual costs of the material and production. And in this realm, Swarovski crystals and Wolford lingerie are able to draw in global customers from the top tiers of their markets, making them the most successfully branded Austrian fashion products.
Here’s a closer look at how these businesses maintain brand consistency, while venturing out into uncharted territories.
Daniel Swarovski opened his doors 125 years ago in Wattens, Tyrol. It was not just a product that he launched, but a brand as well. Swarovski crystal is, in fact, glass, thus more susceptible to chipping from wear and tear than diamonds. But Swarovski didn’t position his product as secondary on the market. Instead of selling crystal as low-price imitation, he turned it into a brand on its own, “high-quality, yet affordable, jewelry.” As the company remained family-owned, the founder’s branding remained intact. Glossy ads and lavish retail environment have only added to the aura of luxury.
However, Swarovski is not just a sales platform of jewelry. Beyond targeting individual customers, the company has systematically reached out to other businesses, designing, manufacturing, and selling crystals to designers on and off for more than a century now.
When Nadja Swarovski joined the family business in 1995, she was determined to re-establish connections with the fashion industry. “I just copied what my grandfather did,” Swarovski told Fortune magazine last year. “My Christian Dior was Alexander McQueen.” They set up a showroom in New York and invited creatives to see all the different variations of crystals. “It was all about demonstrating to the design community what has been done before and what can be done in the future,” continued Swarovski.
The fashion community seems to love crystals. “Once the looks have Swarovski on them, they are elevated” stated Sophia Neophitou, creative director for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, and longtime Swarovski collaborator.
Tights Are No Longer Mundane
Wolford was not always a luxury brand. When it was founded in 1950, the company produced hosiery for the masses. As skirts went up through the 20th century, legwear became increasingly central. Wolford has always worked hard to create a wide range of products, catering to various needs. They crafted the first seamless tights back in the ’50s, then the first hosiery that was sheer all the way to the waistband, and the first one with an adjustable waistband.
Entering the luxury market came with growing prosperity in the 1980s. Soon after, Wolford’s expensive and well-crafted tights were discovered by American fashion editors. “So have designers like Thierry Mugler and Isaac Mizrahi, who have clad runway models’ legs in Wolford,” wrote Eve M. Kahn in The New York Times in 1992.
Throughout the ’90s, renowned German photographer Helmut Newton created the strong imagery of the “Wolford woman.” He photographed models at the seaside wearing nothing but lingerie and tights creating provocative, memorable images. He changed the perception of hosiery: From their war-time scarcity, they had come to be seen as modest items. But now they were presented daringly as sensual clothing – bringing publicity, and a higher corporate profile.
Wolford’s ready-to-wear collection is also popular. The comfortable and versatile tube dresses and contour forming bodysuits became the favorites of celebrities like Kim Kardashian, who wore it during her whole pregnancy, a perfect “product placement” for the company. Still, 50% of their revenues come from legwear.
Even established companies struggle to withstand economic turmoil. During World War I, grinding machinery was scarce. Luckily for Swarovski, the technology used to manufacture jewelry stones was useful in making tools, and in 1919, the family registered under the brand name of Tyrolit. A century later their sawing and drilling equipment is produced on five continents.
They also produce lenses. Wilhelm Swarovski, son of the founder and hobby astronomer, crafted a new design for binoculars in 1935, putting two telescopes side by side, in such a way as to sharpen the user’s three-dimensional image. This led to the production of other optical instruments, such as rifle scopes, that ended up saving the company during World War II, when markets for luxury products had all but disappeared. Today, the company reports that Swarovski Optik is the world’s leading manufacturer of precision optical instruments.
Wolford’s struggles have been more recent. After some years of continued losses following the 2008-9 financial crisis, the Chinese conglomerate Fosun became the majority shareholder in 2018. However, Wolford will remain an Austrian brand, promises Andreas Röhrich, director of product development, innovation and sustainability. “But we will have access to their market: Asian customers are looking for European quality products.”
Although the values represented by diamond jewelry and clean drinking water campaigns could seem irreconcilable, some brands find a way to be luxurious while embodying the ethos of environmental sustainability. Nowadays, consumers are drawn to businesses that give back, hoping that they will drive social and environmental change. Also, today’s professionals and celebrities prefer to work with a socially responsible company.
“When I wear my Atelier Swarovski jewelry, it makes me feel good knowing the process behind it is totally clean,” said actress and Swarovski brand ambassador Penelope Cruz in an interview for Harper’s Bazaar in March. In collaboration with the company, the actress has designed a fine-jewelry collection with fair-trade gold, embedded with man-made diamonds and rubies. “Conscious luxury, responsibly sourced,” says the slogan. Previously, Swarovski had sworn off diamonds, as the mines ones are still linked to worker exploitation and environmental degradation. Lab diamonds are bio-identical to mined ones, but free from any association of abuse. So Swarovski makes them in the laboratory, “inspired by nature, created by science.” It was “simply the next right step for a company,” says Nadja Swarovski.
Another area where Swarovski has taken the lead is water resource management. Daniel Swarovski built his factory in Tyrol because of the easy access to water, and hydro-powered machines are still essential to the operation.
With long supply chains and energy-intensive production, the fashion industry is the second greatest polluter of freshwater in the world, according to a 2019 United Nations study. So, Swarovski developed systems for recycling and reusing water in production, and in 2000, launched a community investment program, Waterschool, providing educational programs in communities around the world on sustainable use of water, proper sanitation and hygiene.
Although the efficient use of water is a topic at Wolford, the main focus is on replacing products that soon end up at landfills. “The question in 2013 was: How can we survive in the future?” said Röhrich. It became clear that the make-consume-dispose linear system was highly problematic. The goal was to develop pieces that are recyclable.
The entire supply chain had to be recreated from scratch for their new collection as they were aiming to eliminate waste and maintain a continual use of resources. The new system is circular, instead of linear. First, clothes are produced from materials that can be recycled.
Second, Wolford asks customers to bring the no-longer-needed pieces back to their stores. Then the company transfers them to an industrial compost station where they are transformed into biogas and humus – ready for a new production cycle.
The production of the new collection living up to the “Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard” has been arduous. “This is not only a marketing story, as we’ve spent five years developing a completely different product,” reported Röhrich.
Both Swarovski and Wolford insist that their eco-conscious activities are not just to appeal to environmentally savvy consumers. “We have come to the conclusion that innovation and quality now mean sustainability,” said Röhrich. “It’s not that we are trying to be a ‘green’ brand. We want to be a good brand.”