On or about December 1910 human character changed.Virginia Woolf, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (1924)
History is rarely a linear and logical progression of events. The insular and exclusive world of luxury brands is a case in point. If you were to name the biggest and most famous luxury brand today, most of us would think of Louis Vuitton which sells clothing, leather goods and related accessories. By sales, it ranks as the world’s largest luxury brand.
Yet this was hardly inevitable. If I were alive a century ago, I would have proposed a completely different company as the leading luxury brand of the time and for the foreseeable future. That company is Alfred Dunhill – the very first brand to recognize and harness modernity as a cultural force.
Formed at the dawn of the 20th century, Alfred Dunhill should have been what Louis Vuitton has now become – the 21st century’s foremost luxury brand catering to the travel-oriented lifestyle of today’s wealthy consumers. Its first incarnation – Dunhill Motorities – was actually founded right at the end of the 19th century in 1893.
Unlike any other brand at the time, Dunhill captured and embodied the electromechanical gadgetry and inventiveness of modernity, its sparkling materiality and almost insatiable drive toward temporality, movement, speed and scale. Dunhill was at the vanguard of the modern lifestyle and aesthetic that had been emerging at the turn of the 20th century.
What was this emerging age of modernity like? Think of the time-bending syncopations of jazz, the first “motion pictures”, the jangling but thrilling propulsion of early automobiles, the exciting, jaunty dance sensations of the Roaring Twenties, the first piloted, powered, sustained flight of the Kitty Hawk, Lindbergh’s daring solo transatlantic flight and the early towering skyscrapers of Chicago and New York.
Dunhill transmuted all of this into a lifestyle of motoring (both automobiles and motorcycles), flying (early aviators), portable timekeeping (stopwatches) and gentlemanly leisure (smoking pipes, cigars and cigarettes).
In terms of materiality, he employed a palette of metals (pipe and cigarette lighters), glass (motoring goggles) and leather (motoring helmets). All the while, the company did not neglect traditional materials and craft. Instead, it integrated traditional materials such as leather, wood and brass with the new.
In her essay Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown, the novelist Virginia Woolf signalled that writing fiction in the 20th century had fundamentally changed. In particular, she noted a distinct change in the human subject, in the nature of subjective experience. Her now famous observation has come to represent the advent of literary modernism or, more broadly, modernism in all of its forms.
As Woolf notes, “All human relations have shifted – those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature.” The precise date is not important but suffice to say it happened around the turn of the 20th century.
The changes Woolf describes echoes similar shifts in the fine arts, crafts and performing arts and the consuming public’s tastes and habits. Viewed through modernity’s scientific, technological and economic achievements, the modern experience was like no other. The “modern” was a sensory, material and subjective landscape different in kind and in degree from all of its predecessors.
Alfred Dunhill’s genius lay in the fact that he was a Delphic mirror of this stimulating environs, acutely aware of and inspired by the zeitgeist around him. He didn’t need to create mood boards for inspiration. Modernity itself was his mood board. As an inventor and designer, he reflected, refined and distilled that subjective experience into material objects that modern consumers desired.
Fast forward to 2021 and it is perhaps a small miracle that Dunhill is still with us. The brand is no longer owned and run by the heirs of the family, a common fate among family businesses. It is now owned by Richemont, a leading luxury holding company.
It is noteworthy that Richemont, in particular the founder Johann Rupert, continues to hold onto Dunhill. Noteworthy because it is a small brand in terms of sales and retail footprint compared to the rest of the Richemont portfolio and most likely not a significant contributor to the earnings of the parent company.
So why hold onto Dunhill? My understanding is that Mr. Rupert does so because he loves English tailoring. This is of course an excellent reason to own Dunhill. Many of us love the heritage of Savile Row tailoring and Mr. Rupert should be commended for keeping Dunhill and its remarkable legacy intact.
But even more than tailoring, let’s hail Dunhill for what it really represents – the world’s first modern luxury brand.
For a copy of my forthcoming ”brand biography” of Dunhill, please check again in May 2021 or follow me on Instagram (@sleeve.head).