How heritage brands like Rolls-Royce maintain the luxury lead

Rolls-Royce Phantom VIII Champagne Chest

The Phantom is a rare concept. Or perhaps more accurately, the Phantom concept is rare, even within luxury brands. Rolls-Royce’s pinnacle motor car is seldom completely redesigned. Revised and tweaked, yes. But the proportions, its scale and presence, the impressive stance, the visual grandeur, no. In fact, the Phantom has only seen eight redesigns since it was conceived in 1925. Given the speed of change within the consumer landscape, this is impressively restrained. And it shows confidence.

Phantoms are purposely made in very small numbers. Each product will be intimately personalised alongside the customer. The process will involve a team of Rolls designers and crafts people, perhaps industrial and product designers and even artists from outside the industry. Phantoms are therefore one-of-a-kind products and will, most likely, be loved and cherished and passed through generations. If luxury is increasingly about time, experience, intimate moments, rarity, then Rolls has truly hit the zeitgeist.

These images are from the revised Phantom VIII. The original car was first shown in 2017, so naturally it has had to undergo some technological revisions. And since hand-made is one of Rolls-Royce’s most powerful propositions, the cars you see here demonstrate the brand’s craft expertise, show what is possible at the hands of its skilled artisans at its home in Goodwood, UK. This includes the ‘gallery’, a unique feature for the brand that sees an artwork of choice displayed behind glass across the car’s facia.

At a time when even some of the most luxuriant brands are struggling to maintain the attention of their consumers, Rolls-Royce sales have been on the up for a number of years, new products are entering the portfolio, and most surprising of all for such an old, heritage brand, the average age has dropped to be as young as 43. Surely, Rolls-Royce must be doing something right. To understand how, we caught up with head of exterior design, Felix Kilbertus.

Rolls-Royce Phantom VIII with rose gold Spirit of Ecstasy

Designing the Phantom surely involves delving deep into the now and future of luxury. As a designer, what does luxury mean to you?

I see true luxury as the result of many things done correctly rather than a goal itself; it is an emerging property rather than a specific material, code or symbol. I find it very hard to describe what luxury means today. It is multi-layered and complex, and it is great fun to see what meanings luxury can take on nowadays. There is a light-heartedness that I particularly cherish when things seem to start with someone saying: “Wouldn’t it be nice if …”.

Rolls-Royce operates in the broader world of luxury — a world far beyond motor cars. What do you learn and take from other sectors?

We learn a lot from the luxury industry and the shared attention to detail, the importance of true originality and the quest for personal expression. We can learn about beauty, pure form, elegance, expression and extroversion from fashion. But what I would take from it most is how it makes us feel and what it says about us as individuals. Architecture, as a discipline, is of particular interest. “Think like an architect” is a motto we like to remind ourselves of.

Can you explain how this inspires you?

What we mean by that, beyond not taking the easy route of the automotive commonplace and its styling clichés, is to really think about the spaces we inhabit as humans and pay attention to the expression of volumes, shapes, lines and materials. Architecture is a much older practice than car design, possibly more said, thought and written about in the centuries before the car was invented than industrial design or automotive design during the last century.

The automobile has impacted our societies and cities, yet architecture has been an even deeper source of inspiration. As designers, we work in the long tradition of the applied arts, where craft, science and technology directly meet our human needs and ambitions.

Rolls-Royce Phantom VIII revised for 2022

Rolls-Royce is deeply invested in the arts, championing emerging talents through the Muse program, including highly provocative contemporary art, and supporting numerous arts organisations. What do you gain from these interactions?

Art is a great source to draw inspiration from, for both the aesthetic beauty traditionally at the centre of fine art and the conceptual work that helps us understand the underlying changes in the world. Contemporary art tends to occupy itself with subjects long before the questions it asks have found answers in society.

With an increasingly younger client base, how does Rolls-Royce design respond to new codes, expectations and expressions of luxury?

Our clients are surprisingly young, with an average age of just 43. And so were our founders, who started our company over a century ago. In this sense, I feel the marque is now closer in spirit to those pioneering years than ever. You realise this by looking at the incredible expression of our early Phantoms, many of which sported unique and even eccentric body styles, colours, materials and features.

How does this then influence your design thinking?

We look at our cars as canvases for self-expression. Phantom is certainly special in this regard. The ‘gallery’ epitomises this, literally reserving an exceptional space for pure artistic expression. Of course, this extends beyond that one canvas to the many surfaces on the interior and exterior, turning the whole car into moving art.

As one of the most respected brands within the high luxury landscape, what are the opportunities to evolve the scene to be less about material value, and more about the value of time, craft, shared moments, even experiences?

Rolls-Royce is known for its impeccable craftsmanship; we are known for our choice and execution of materials, our components’ durability and reliability, and the finishes’ authenticity and beauty. Since this is a certainty, we can comfortably move beyond this aspect and invite clients into our ateliers and workshops — into our global centre of luxury manufacturing at Goodwood.

Has the centrality of craft impacted you as a designer?

Meeting the minds and hands behind the object certainly has made me see our products and brand promise differently. I can see the same fascination in the eyes of our clients when visiting us and discovering this focus and dedication. The experience makes a big difference: seeing and feeling where things come from, how hard it is to make them, and the unique skills needed to produce something properly. It creates a deep connection, a sense of origin.

This is luxury as experience at its pinnacle…

In exceptional cases, our patrons will embark on a long journey with our creative team, sometimes lasting many years. The memories made on the way are an integral part of the final product, as nothing is left to chance, with every detail discussed and created to measure.

The car’s interior design can easily show new luxury by applying ecological materials and showcasing handcraft. But as head of exterior design, how do you express a more progressive luxury through form language?

This is a very good question. One aspect of progressive luxury in exterior design is expressed through the sheer quality of shape and execution, ensuring things can last aesthetically and materially for a long time.

Another aspect is the absence of superfluous elements — our models have no nameplate on the exterior, for example — allowing for a certain purity, letting large surfaces simply speak for themselves. Yet another is great attention to proportion, as flawless proportions avoid the need to distract the eye away from compromised areas with great stylistic effort. Serenity, purity and effortless proportions create the subtle desirability that makes our cars last for a long time.

Images: Original artwork on display in the Phantom VIII ‘gallery’, with rose gold Spirit of Ecstasy, and sporting new wheel designs for 2022 © Rolls-Royce Motor Cars.

Spinach Branding is a specialist branding agency based in London. We work with established businesses and start-ups around the world to build and refine their brands. See how we work and get in touch to discuss your brand.

Rolls-Royce Phantom VIII gallery
< Back

Back to Top