Walpole Editorial | Back Story by Helena Lee, acting Deputy Editor, Harper’s Bazaar

“For storytelling is essential for that paradox of luxury – a story well told renders a brand timeless yet relevant. In this age of uncertainty, we cannot help but be drawn to those compelling brands that evolve the cultural conversation, and are bold in their ingenuity while staying true to who they are.”

In today’s Walpole Editorial, Harper’s Bazaar’s Helena Lee discusses how ‘stories transport us and connect us’; and how – from Fortnum & Mason to Manolo Blahnik – the best brands have an intriguing tale to tell.

In October 2016, I’d landed my dream job. I was already the features editor of Harper’s Bazaar but I was coming back from maternity leave unsure of exactly what awaited me. I prepared to face into the maelstrom of deadlines and dramas, when I was charged by Justine Picardie, my visionary editor-in-chief, with overseeing the magazine’s year-long 150th anniversary celebrations. As luck would have it, what was really required of me was a two-month immersion into the archives where I surrounded myself with dust-laden, back-breaking bound volumes, made friends with the chief librarian and plunged into a century-and-a-half of Bazaar history.

And my, what treasures there were to behold: Truman Capote delivering a paean to Greta Garbo, Colette observing the liberation of Paris from her apartment window, Chanel looks photographed by Man Ray against a backdrop of birds sculpted by Alberto Giacometti for this purpose. Leafing through the pages, we stumbled upon poignant short stories by Martha Gellhorn and covers by Jean Cocteau. We discovered that some of the best travel writing was, in fact, penned by our then unknown food columnist Elizabeth David. This was storytelling at its very best, through words, through pictures, weaving together the threads of multiple disciplines, and resulting in an alchemic blend of beauty and profundity.

But it was Bazaar’s own story that I learnt most about; that we were at the epicentre of fashion, culture and the arts; that we were cultural commentators, creative facilitators, talent spotters; that feminism and the fight for equality lay at the heart of the brand – a legacy established right from our founding editor Mary Louise Booth, who campaigned against slavery and for women’s suffrage. These stories all confirmed what I had sensed about Harper’s Bazaar and, in turn, what it stood for.

The most fruitful – and enduring – luxury brands are rooted in storytelling, a skill the British particularly value and are exceptionally accomplished at (for we are the nation of Dickens, Woolf and Hardy – all Bazaar contributors, I hasten to add). Creativity is one of the best exports we Brits have, and storytelling the manifestation of it. We often discern whether a brand is for us through intangible means. Yes, there is form, and there is function but we are charmed through our emotions. Stories add texture and provenance, express wit and confidence, indicate authenticity and originality and creativity. As Elif Shafak said at a Bazaar Summit: “We connect through stories, this is how, as humans, we operate. Stories transport us and connect us: they matter.”

Take Fortnum & Mason, a constantly evolving 312-year-old store, inventor of the Scotch Egg, supplier of the Royal Household and purveyor of fine teas. “Products can be brought to life with great storytelling,” says Ewan Venters, the store’s former CEO. “A delicious example includes our Royal Blend tea – blended following a request from King Edward VII who asked for ‘…the finest tea in all of the land’. Not ones to say no, we set off around the globe, from India to Sri Lanka and China, gathering rare leaves along the way, resulting in this splendidly smooth blend, which has remained unchanged 100 years later.” The store has become so synonymous with such quality brews HM The Queen opened the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon in 2012, and today benefits from Gen-Z’s environmental concerns, who are choosing Fortnum’s loose leaf tea for flavour and its sustainability credentials, resulting in sales that have risen fourfold in the past seven years.

“The golden art of rich storytelling is something we have discussed across our three historic hotel properties over the past few years,” agrees Paula Fitzherbert, the group director of communications for the Maybourne Hotel Group, whose innovations include partnering with the likes of Diane von Furstenberg and Christian Louboutin to create Claridge’s Christmas tree. “We very much focus on the emotional touch points that we believe guests want to relate to and this covers everything from behind-the-scenes sneak peeks to visuals from our deep in our archives, to extraordinary events in our ballrooms, that allow people to dream,” she says.

Indeed, scintillating storytelling is not just the preserve of heritage brands. Erdem Moralioglu’s spring summer 2020 collection pertinently drew on the multifaceted life of Tina Modotti, the Italian photographer, actress and activist, who used her outfits as a mode of self-expression in troubled times. And last year, we were bewitched with Manolo Blahnik’s exhibition at the Wallace Collection, where pastel-hued shoes designed for Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette were juxtaposed with paintings by Fragonard. We remain enthralled by Blahnik’s vision because of his continuing conversation with the past, a conversation that informs his future and transcends periods of time, adding yet another layer of magic to what we already know about his flourish and eccentric originality.

“Remarkable brands have three identifiable characteristics: icons (the best-in-class products), heroes (inspirational people behind the brand) and legendary tales,” says Laura Tan, the co-founder of the brand agency Notable. “In a world where enriching and unique experiences are increasingly valued over mere objects, legendary tales are becoming ever more important. They are the new luxury currency; we are collecting stories over possessions.” She cites The Fife Arms, Stella McCartney and Allbright as being adept at imbuing deep narratives in their products or services.

When I eventually emerged from the depths of the archives, I saw that the foundations of Bazaar’s own narrative had been firmly laid. The values, spirit and passion we had been founded upon were still resonant; it was our turn to continue that story. For storytelling is essential for that paradox of luxury – a story well told renders a brand timeless yet relevant. In this age of uncertainty, we cannot help but be drawn to those compelling brands that evolve the cultural conversation, and are bold in their ingenuity while staying true to who they are.

The 2021 Walpole Book of Luxury will launch at The Londoner on Thursday 1st July.