Designs on life

As custom becomes key, luxury brands are breaching new frontiers in the world of limited edition automobiles.

Simran Dhaliwal | Print Edition: July 25, 2010

A luxury product is supposed to be a guarantor of exclusivity and membership of a very, very select club. But what do you do when the millionaire's club keeps getting bigger? When every other person has a Birkin bag and Vuitton luggage? When plain vanilla luxe products, be they shoes or clothes or stationery or spirits, just don't cut it anymore?

If you're a smart brand, you stop, reconsider and go-in a new direction. Like luxury brands such as Hermes, TAG Heuer, Paul Smith and Versace are doing. What comes to your mind when someone says Hermes? Most likely, saddles, fine leather and statement scarves. One mention of Paul Smith and you start thinking in stripes, while Versace put you in mind of rich apparel and home furnishings.

Well, it's not just that any more. For, with their fingers firmly on the public pulse, these brands have moved out of their comfort zone and into their second, and third, gear. Their new target: the automobile industry, which is only too happy to collaborate with the haute houses on creating limited edition cars. It's not a totally new phenomenon: companies have done it before, but never on such a scale, and with such single-mindedness. Consider the line-up:

Bugatti and Hermes, Fiat and Diesel, Lamborghini and Versace. Actually, it was TAG Heuer that got the ball rolling-back in the early 1900s. In 1911, company founder Edouard Heuer received a patent for 'The Time of Trip', the first-ever dashboard chronograph. In 1933, the brand launched Autavia, the first dashboard timekeeper for cars and planes.

This year, to mark 150 years of TAG, the watchmaker collaborated with electric carmaker Tesla Motor to create the TAG Heuer Tesla Roadster seen at the Geneva Motor Show. Tesla chief designer Franz von Holzhausen created the car, with an avant-garde design which incorporated a Meridiist mobile and a one-fifth second Heuer limited edition stopwatch. The car's foucault field grey colour scheme embodied the spirit of both companies.

Jean-Christophe Babin, president and CEO of TAG Heuer said of the collaboration: "We believe high-performance drivers are increasingly looking for products that are efficient, socially responsible and stylish. TAG Heuer and Tesla are two of the few companies achieving these ideals today."

Hermes' design on the automobile is easy to understand. The brand has been associated with travel (horse carriages) since the early 19th century. In the 1930s, it created bespoke interiors for auto players Bugatti and Delahaye. Collaborations with Volvo, Peugeot, Renault and Eurocopter's choppers followed.

But in 2008 came the big one. Reviving an 80-year-old partnership with Hermes, Bugatti released a special edition of its sportscar. The Bugatti Veyron Fbg Par Hermes took its name from rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Hermes' headquarters, and had modifications made to both its interior and exterior by the luxe label.

The Hermes monogram was added to the front grille while the wheels featured a single 'H' at their centre and the car name was engraved on the fuel filler door. The interiors were all done up in Hermes leather, and the door handles were reminiscent of the ones you see on Hermes trunks. Besides these, the car carried a wallet designed to fit inside the centre console and a suitcase proportioned to fit inside the trunk.

Hermes didn't stop with Bugatti. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the deux-say-vay, also in 2008, the Parisian player created a special version of the 1989 Citroen 2CV6. This was done up with swathes of Hermes' trademark grey-beige leather contrasted with white on the front and rear benches and leather trimming on the door facings, rear view mirror, gear knob, steering wheel and driver's sun visor.

That was also the year when Lamborghini teamed up with Versace to offer a special edition of the Murcielago LP640. To create the super roadster, Versace's designers joined forces with designers from the Lamborghini Design Centre and specialists working on the 'ad personam' project-a Lamborghini programme that allows clients to create personalised sports cars. The Murcielago LP640 boasted a transparent engine hood. The white exterior was plastered with Versace's Greek motif, while the interior carried hand-embroidered, white nappa leather on the seats, dashboard and centre console.

In 2009, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Smart ForTwo, Hermes came back to work with the American brand to custom-build 10 smart cars in new colours, including the French brand's trademark orange. The exterior wasn't touched but the door panels, dashboard, seats and handbrake were wrapped in leather and the Hermes signature canvas.

Diesel may not be in the same luxe league as Hermes and Paul Smith, but it's got followers around the world. So there's no ignoring its collaboration with the Fiat Cinquecento, also known as the Fiat 500, on creating a limited edition of 10,000 units in the last two years.

A joint effort between the Fiat styling centre and the Diesel creative team, the car's notable features include 16-inch Diesel logo alloy wheels, yellow painted brake calipers, Diesel side mouldings and flared rear view mirrors. The seats are encased in denim with a yellow stitching. Also, a small pocket on the front seat sides is reminiscent of the fifth pocket on Diesel jeans.

For luxe companies, fatto a mano is a way of life. For auto aficionados, customised fun has only just begun.

Art cars were embraced by the world in 1967 when John Lennon painted his Rolls Royce in Day-Glo colours. But the concept was actually born when the artist Larry Fuente painted his 1960 Cadillac and glued jewels, beads, female mannequins and plastic ducks onto it. BMW was among the first brands to pursue art cars seriously. The concept of the BMW art car was introduced by Hervé Poulain, an auctioneer and ardent racing driver from France. In his quest to link auto with art, he asked his friend and artist Alexander Calder to paint a rolling canvas on a BMW 3.0 CSL that he would race in the 1975 Le Mans endurance race.

Since then, many established artists, including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and Jenny Holzer, have put their impression on BMW cars. The latest addition to the list is Jeff Koons, who worked on a BMW M3 GT2 for the 2010 Le Mans. In 1998, Paul Smith made waves with his witty mini skirt featuring a bold black-and-white print of a Rover Mini.

This got Rover's attention and Smith was commissioned to design a limited edition Mini model for the company. In true Paul Smith style, the designer tore off a part of his shirt and gave it to Rover as a colour swatch for the car. The Blue Mini was finished with rich black leather interiors and citrus green details (reminiscent of the lining in Smith's otherwise conservative suits) and created quite a sensation when it came up for sale in the UK and Japan.

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