Via Montenapolene is the Milanese equivalent of 5th Avenue in New York, Bond Street in London, Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills or the Champs Elysses in Paris. It is the most exclusive and expensive street in the Quadrilatero della moda, the city’s fashion district, where all the leading designer brands have their high-end boutiques.

Ordinarily, it is not a place for humble yachting journalists, but once a year in May it plays host to an event known as ‘Montenapoleone Yacht Club’, when most of Italy’s superyacht builders set up shop for an evening in the street’s fashionable stores. This year marked the third edition of the event, which is now well entrenched in the yachting calendar, and the street was lined with billboards featuring yachts designed by Germàn Frers, who has an office in Milan.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m quite happy to schmooze with friends and colleagues over champagne cocktails and hors d’oeuvres on a balmy spring evening. But I am a little confused about what upmarket handbags and handmade shoes have to do with boats?

I fully realise that as Italy’s richest city, Milan offers ripe territory for a branding campaign. I also realise that haute couture and yachting are both luxury industries and share a similar clientele. Indeed, at a corporate level their modus operandi often intersect, as in the case of the LVMH group, which as well as the high fashion brands Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Fendi, owns Feadship’s Royal Van Lent and Princess Yachts.

But my question is this: should superyachts be branded as fashion accessories? Fashion, after all, is fleeting. It is what we are offered by designer labels four times a year, whereas we are repeatedly told that the best yacht design is ‘timeless’. The relatively young superyacht industry has yet to perfect its branding and marketing strategies, whereas the automotive and fashion sectors have had decades to fine-tune their formulas. Marketing is about push; branding is about pull. It is what remains after the marketing has come and gone.

What does all this have to do with Montenapoleone Yacht Club? Many wealthy visitors to via Montenapoleone can easily afford a Breguet watch, a Fendi frock, or even the Audi R8 Spyder displayed in the street this year. No doubt some of them can also afford a superyacht. But riding piggy-back on the brand appeal of a luxury car maker or fashion house won’t determine whether a client becomes a loyal shipyard customer or not. 

I’m not suggesting that the yacht builders expect people to walk off the street, even via Montenapoleone, and actually buy a boat (or do they?). What I am suggesting is that for the industry to enjoy anything like sustainable growth it will need to attract new owners who appreciate the product beyond its fashion status and engage with the very special life experiences it offers. In other words, the most important thing is the lived experience of the brand. Let’s face it, there are young UHNWIs out there who are more into Billabong and Vans than Versace and Larusmiani.