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'How to Spend It' EIC Gillian de Bono Talks 20 Years of Luxury

The editor of 'How To Spend It' looks back on her 20 years at the helm of the 'Financial Times'  luxury publication.

When it comes to special interest magazines, the bar to entry can't get much higher than it is for How To Spend It, the lifestyle magazine published by the Financial Times. Filled with deep dives on everything from luxury watches to cushy getaway spots, the magazine's mission is pretty straightforward: The Financial Times helps people accumulate wealth, and How To Spend It advises that .001% on, yes, how to spend it.

In honor of its 20th anniversary -- coming up on November 29 -- the magazine is putting out a special issue called How To Give It, in which every item featured will be auctioned off by Christies, with proceeds donated to Save The Children. So we hopped on the phone with editor-in-chief Gillian de Bono to talk about all the ways in which she's seen the luxury industry change over the last two decades. 

Given that you have 20 years of experience studying how luxury customers spend their money, I really just want to ask you broadly, 'What's changed?' So let's start with the Internet.

It’s been an enormous shift. The magazine has grown up with the Internet. That’s changed how people shop and not only how they research, but how they’re buying. They’ve become much more knowledgeable. Now they can really understand the craftsmanship, now that all that information is widely available. And now brands want to educate their readers. There's certainly a lot more connoisseurship with the consumers. With that came the rejection of the overt logo. Luxury is a lot more subtle now in terms of how it portrays itself and how much branding there is. There’s much more talk of "stealth wealth," which was not talked about 15 or 20 years ago.

And then, of course, with the internet comes e-commerce. To what extent has that changed the way in which your readers shop?

People will never stop loving going into fabulous stores. Now that luxury brands are making their stores really enticing, it's about having a really brilliant experience during that buying hour in the store. It's partly the architecture of the store, but a lot of these stores have an experiential quality to them. An art gallery somewhere within the store, or art displayed throughout, or tech built into the shopping experience. I think what's happened is that stores have fought back and are making the whole experience of visiting a store [more appealing].

In China, for instance, what the Chinese would do before they came to Europe [to shop], is they would do a lot of their research online. There's a very synergistic relationship between online and bricks and mortar. The two feed into each other. 

What brands do you think are doing the best job with their in-store experience?

It’s difficult to pick out brands, to be honest, and it all depends on the staff and they will vary from store to store. I remember going to a very swanky store on Bond Street one Saturday and being completely ignored by the staff. They didn’t have a reason to single me out, but I thought that if they treat their customers like this routinely, that's not good.

You cover everything from travel to cars and food, but what are the biggest changes you've seen in fashion specifically?

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When I joined How To Spend It, the big conglomerates hadn’t acquired so many luxury brands and there was a feeling of more independent brands and niche brands. That is the holy grail for luxury consumers. They want under-the-radar brands. They want to have a feeling that they’re wearing something others aren’t, and that expands to bespoke and made to measure. They want something that has an element of limited edition and rarity over a brand name.

That’s what we’re seeing progressively. Brands are doing that to hold onto their customers. They’re bringing out limited edition lines or things that are customized or a dress for which only three are available — one in Europe, Asia, the US. People love to feel that they have something nobody else has. Uniqueness has really developed over the last 20 years and the need to have something that’s just yours.

As a spending-focused publication, adding e-commerce to your site would make a lot of sense, but How To Spend It's site is still quite features-driven with very few direct shopping opportunities. What are your thoughts on using the site as a point of sale?

There is always a difficult question to answer when you have a reputation to integrity and are an independent editor, and then move into retailing. I felt very strongly that when you're trusted to give independent editorial, then to sell the products you're effectively recommending, when those readers know you're getting a profit... it's very tricky territory. It's something we've consciously not moved into. 

It's important for us to maintain the same values as a website as for the print version. I don't want a How To Spend It-lite for a different kind of reader. We know our readers read the site and the magazine. It’s a different experience. I wanted it to be as in-depth and as intelligent as our magazine. We have some web-specific columns. We have added an element of fast reading and instant information, but the focus is very narrow for those pieces; it’s in depth, it’s in line with the magazine. I don’t think I particularly want it to turn into an e-tailer. I think it’s incompatible with what we’re achieving.

With the recession in 2009, how did your approach to editorial change? Or did it at all?

We made very few changes. I removed one column, which was sort of a humorous column about the wealthy spending, and I felt it was inappropriate. In its place I put a column about philanthropy, raising charity. Apart from that really very little changed, and that was really carefully thought through and discussed with the needs at the newspaper at the time. If you’re wealthy and you lose 20 percent of your wealth, it’s not going to stop you from eating out in fine restaurants and going on holiday and buying a new watch. It’s not going to change those buying decisions. It will change if you [were going to] put in an order for a super yacht.

Tell me about the process of orchestrating the upcoming issue dedicated to Save the Children.

We’re devoting the whole issue to raising money for Save the Children, a charity that’s set up in the UK but now operates in 120 countries. It’s something nobody has attempted before. We’ve now got to the point where we know it’s going to work. Everything photographed will be auctioned for charity. We worked with 83 different companies, requested very specific products and got their agreement to have it posted online. About half a million pounds of loot that will be auctioned for 13 days by Christies. And the magazine itself will be exactly as you’d expect it. It won’t be turned into an auction catalogue.

That sounds like a lot of work.

I have to say, the whole process was fraught with difficulties... you’d have to have another hour with me. It wasn’t for lack of generosity. Normally when you ask if [a brand] will support it, they pick the pieces that go to auction. We were rather more demanding; we said we need a particular item to feature. It wasn’t always what they wanted to feature. And of course there was Christies' contract with Save The Children and a contract with each of the sponsors, and when you get two sets of lawyers talking about contracts, that can be quite painful. Everything has been fine now, but it was a huge challenge. I think they’ll be very pleased with the results. I think we’d be quite careful about thinking about taking it on again. It’s been in process for eight months. We’ve still got another month go to.