Mister Stephen Briars, the new Creative Director of The Conran Shop speaks with Luxury Design about his new role, customer experience, and luxury.
Franck Demaury : Stephen Briars, could you please introduce yourself, your story, your professional path ?
Stephen Briars : I’m the newly appointed Creative director at The Conran Shop. I’ve worked since I was sixteen, went to college, and flunked out. I like to do and think. My career has taken me from C&A, to Paul Smith, as Visual Director At Louis Vuitton in Paris, through to Creative Director at Urban Outfitters.
Franck Demaury : How do you define luxury? Design ? High quality ?
Stephen Briars : Luxury is an interesting conversation these days. Everything is marketed as ‘luxury’. Luxury apartments, luxury holidays, luxury ice cream, and on and on and on. It has become a much over-used term, and is really just a word used by marketing teams to make you think you are paying for a product or service that isn’t basic. It’s easy to confuse premium and luxury.
For me, there are a number of ingredients that are required to define an item as luxury. Heritage, craftsmanship, good design, longevity, durability, material quality, service, and experience. I think if you miss just one of those ingredients, its just faux-luxury. Does it create a lifetime memory, if it doesnt, it’s definitely not luxury….
Franck Demaury : During your career thus far, which have been your bigger difficulties and your bigger satisfactions?
Stephen Briars : People to both. My career as evolved as a ‘lead’ creative, particularly in brands where creativity tends to be at the forefront. It’s a huge responsibility to protect, and evolve a brand’s DNA. The biggest difficulty is that many people see the function of creative as simply a support service, rather than defining your very existence. If you mix that with a propensity for many middle managers to aim for the gutter rather than the stars, then you have an issue. If that philosophy elevates to higher management then you’re in trouble. And it seems everyone wants to be a creative director.
The satisfaction comes when your boss allows creative to flourish and empowers you with trust to deliver the expertise. I’ve had some great bosses, that allow you to deliver, and that creates tremendous energy and desire within a team. The challenges arise usually when management changes. When you’ve evolved and pushed a brand so far far forward, and your new boss thinks the artwork of a Central Saint Martins graduate needs ‘a border round it’ you know its time to move on…
Franck Demaury : You worked for Urban Outfitters, Louis Vuitton and Paul Smith, what does it bring to you?
Stephen Briars : I’ve been lucky enough, and certainly flexible enough to work for and understand the essence, of many brands, from luxury to High St, and everywhere in-between.
Paul Smith brought out that real conviction of creative application. Through the very ascendant years of the 90’s/00’s it was fascinating to encounter both a brand and its founder. Here was a brand, privately owned, no shareholders to please, with Paul at the helm. Creative was everything. Profit was a result of doing good things, not just numbers on a spreadsheet. The freedom was incredible, and to this day I believe and think in the values and philosophies of the brand at that moment. When the numbers start to take over, I can still find reason in his words.
Louis Vuitton was a very different beqst. I’m extremely proud to have worked for the company, and when I look back on it now I wish I’d stayed a little longer. Under the custodianship of CEO, Yves Carcelle, I saw in him similarities of management thinking to Paul Smith, an essence of what really mattered, the preservation of a 150-year-old brand, and how subtly you could change. The thought process was largely the same, but significantly higher budgets, meant that you could think and deliver in a very elevated and cultural way. Here was a brand where I felt everyone was qualified and intelligent, and that in itself makes for a much more qualitative judgment. Vuitton brought to me a sense of how elevated a brand positioning could be, a true understanding of cultural difference around the world, and the integrity of information required to make intelligent decisions.
Back in 2009 Urban Outfitters was another brand with big ideals. This was an unusual set-up. Based in London in a European division of an American brand. The brand in Europe was largely independent of US input. A change at the top of the organization saw a desire to expand strongly in the territory. From 17 stores in 2010, the brand expanded to 47 in four short years and creative was at the forefront. I was heavily involved in design, layout, instore display, product merchandising, event management, and PR, and this meant we had a very singular dynamic, and fast co-operation and co-ordination. The evolution of their ecommerce set-up became our focal point once the store programme slowed to a virtual halt under new direction.
Over all, these very different experiences at brands pitched at very different levels of the fashion sector allow me to switch tracks very easily in daily conversations and actions, it has given me a very global view of a certain type of business.
Franck Demaury : Describe your function in Conran Shop
Stephen Briars : Hugh Wahla, our CEO, says it simply and eloquently. A brand has two central pillars – content (product), and experience. I get to control the experience. At any point, and at any level. If the customer glances the Conran Shop, the tone of voice, the elevation of its message, its visual code, its interaction with the world should be consistent.
A brand has two central pillars – content (product), and experience
My job is to steer that experience into the future. Through the magnificent impact of Sir Terence Conran I now have to decide and shape the brand image, to decide what to keep and what to jettison, to evaluate our strength of concept over the last forty years, and to resolve its misguided steps. My remit covers the stores and our burgeoning ecommerce sites.
Franck Demaury : Where do you find inspiration ?
Stephen Briars : You really have to quote Paul Smith’s very famous phrase on that one – « you can find inspiration in anything, and if you cant, look again ».
Inspiration really can come from anywhere. Travel is the most amazing thing. In our daily lives much of our own city takes on a familairity. To step into another country reawakens your senses, and it may be the simplest of things –a use of colour or typography, municipal signs, architecture, history, and so on. I get excited by seeing an old Kodak sign in Barcelona, The colour of the walls at the David Hockney exhibit at The Royal Academy, the pattern of rust on a steel surface, an ivy clad facade in Tokyo, an old postcard print, a students work in Milan, traffic cones, a stuffed cat, a heicopter in the park…
You can find inspiration in anything, and if you cant, look again
Books, magazines, american tv programmes, and so on. I cant pinpoint what it is exactly, but instinctivley you just know it when you see it in compostion or context with the world around it.
Franck Demaury : What’s your representation of The Conran Shop?
Stephen Briars : I believe we need to entertain and inform. To build on the intelligence of our founders vision to curate the best edit of design and products. We need to re-establish ourselves as an authority in our proven sector. Simple, Considered, functional, innovative design presented in a premium way. We need to tell that story through our showrooms across the world and to continue our storytelling through our websites and digital audience.
Franck Demaury : To your point of view, what’s need consumers today?
Stephen Briars : We’re living in a disruptive moment. Governments are in turmoil, people are in permanent angst, big brands are overly commercialized, few engage, those that cannot achieve relevance are failing, many are at the behest of their corporate paymasters, over production, high consumption. The next generation of customer is highly stimulated, highly reliant on technology. The pursuit of material possessions has morphed into a desire for experience. Fast information, real food, craft coffee, small production, niche travel, and our memories are made of this. To engage you have to be genuine, offer something that goes deep into the soul, something that engages. Niche is king.
Franck Demaury : How could you define the “customer experience”?
Stephen Briars : I think we all want to be loved, surprised, or recognized. Let’s break it down. Does the barista at the coffee shop remember your name?, Do they give you a free coffee now and then? Have you ever checked in for a flight and been upgraded to business? Did your favorite store send you a card for your birthday? Did the Hotel manager leave you a note in your room and a complimentary bottle of wine? What do you remember?
Experiences create memories, and memories are priceless. I want you to remember that time you bought something from Conran. Great customer experience feels genuine, untouched by your marketing team, and seamless in its execution. Our potential audience demands different touch points now. So much of our life is determined by our thumbs, so the physical experience of a brand has to be heightened in a way. At Conran, we are surprised that people buy a €13,000 sofa on their iphone, so that experience, traditionally engaged face to face starts to evolve also. Personally I think instagram is a wonderful, wonderful thing, and its transforming us back to a very visual and image based way of communication with the world. In many ways it transcends language. The fact that you can interact with people all over the world with an instant image is a marvelous thing.
Franck Demaury : What are the next steps of development of The Conran Shop?
Stephen Briars : Since September 2015, Hugh Wahla, our CEO has been building his team. I came on-board in February this year, and we will engage with our new Product and Merchandise Director in September. That appointment will complete the team and allow us to focus entirely on our core skills and our path ahead.
Franck Demaury : To your point of view, is it better to be a designer in 2016 or before?
Stephen Briars : I think the world used to be simpler. Design was much more about the idea, the personality, and competing in a more local way. Lets be honest many designers have been and gone, some very ‘of the moment’, some for five years or so, and others that have stayed the course. They had Ideas so original that they resonated across generations, and then those designers who were smart enough to see the potential of trade in other markets, progressed slowly, organically and by opportunity. I don’t think it was necessarily better, just different.
Fast forward to 2016, and technological advancements have made the possibility of a great idea happen in different ways. It is so much more achievable. Any idea today immediately has the world as its consumer. Its just a case of getting it seen, and getting it right.
Franck Demaury : According to you, design, sales and digital could and should co-exist?
Stephen Briars : It has to. Design is the idea, sales market the money and digital is simply another outlet, another store. It’s nothing to be afraid of. I think many retailers struggle with digital simply because they were not very good retailers either. Ignore digital at your peril. This isn’t a method of communication that is going away. The magic is finding the right tone, and the right content. Lets be clear, by digital, we can address both e-commerce and social media. You have to embrace your website from a viewpoint of both content and experience too. Its easy to sell something online, look at ebay or amazon, these are the equivalent of hypermarkets. Luxury brands, premium brands and niche retailers will simply offer you something more beautiful and more engaging. Social media should be the expression of your brand, not a channel to monetize and milk dry. It’s the seduction that takes you to the store, whether real or virtual, its your personality and character.
Franck Demaury : Who is your favorite designer. How does this person inspire you?
Stephen Briars : Without hesitation I’d say Charles and Ray Eames. The recent exhibition at the Barbican in London, brought together their story from a personal and professional context. What comes across is the pure imagination of that 1950’s moment, inventing furniture so unusual, so timeless, in a studio environment in an age where everything was conceived, sketched and produced as if it was hand-built.
The fact that those stunning lounge chairs were production made, yet hand finished, gave a curious imperfection to the whole process. Their pioneering work in other areas, film, video, exhibitions, books – and especially their design sensibility has stood the test of time and seems refreshingly smart even by todays standards.
Franck Demaury : What is your biggest pride? Personally? Professionally
Stephen Briars : That’s such a difficult question. My work has been so varied. I can look back at previous projects and see we got it just right. I look at other ideas and think why the hell did we do that? I still get a kick out of seeing ideas recycled, to think that fresh eyes may think it cool, whilst not knowing where it was copied from. At LV it was perverse to see banked creative ideas still being used a couple of years later. Ultimately, you’re leading a team, so many hands and eyes, and ideas, get you to the conclusion, it’s a collaborative effort. Personally the biggest kick is seeing those hires, those team players, going on to greater things.
The Conran Shop
Founded by Terence Conran in 1974, The Conran Shop’s roots are in London, where it was responsible for the revival of the historic Michelin House building on Fulham Road, Chelsea. The Conran Shop has since grown with stores in Marylebone and Paris to become a leading luxury retailer offering a covetable edit of furniture, lighting, home accessories and gifts from some of the most iconic and up-and-coming designers from around the world.
Discover The Conran Shop here