Luxury brands continue to sell at an ever-growing rate. They also tend to their visual identities and the way they are presented as brands more than any other industry. But what do we actually mean by luxury? Here is an attempt to get a handle on the world of luxury and catch a glimpse of the future.
For some, luxury is a five-star hotel, for others a cup of single-estate coffee – and for others again, it is no more than an afternoon of dolce far niente in a deckchair. That our idea of luxury changes over time is not a new notion – what we consider luxurious has always been dependent on the spirit of the age and the rarity of an item. Pepper, sugar, salmon, and later fridges, cars, mobile phones – all were once prized and expensive articles, but these once exceptional phenomena have since turned into standard-issue kit. So what exactly is “real” luxury these days? And who is it for?
An attempt at a classification
In order even to find our way through the multifarious world of luxury, collating its differing manifestations and more effectively codifying the changes in luxurious consumption, we shall make use of a model built around archetypes. It is based on the various ages of man and maps these metaphorically onto the world of luxury. When deploying this model it is important to appreciate that the process of maturation as set out describes the changes in the idea of luxury not only within individual life-stories but also across entire societies as well. In summary, the phases of luxury manifest themselves as follows.
1 – The infantile phase
The first phase of consumer luxury consumption is characterised by a hunger to consume that is satisfied by what is available. Put metaphorically, the child – and/or the junior consumer – takes everything he or she is “fed” or that catches the eye. The overriding principle is that “more means more”. This kind of consumption, characterised by childish dreams, is to be found in young, emerging luxury markets where people think they need to make up for lost time and there is a desire for upward mobility. There is simultaneously a lack of knowledge about how this newly acquired wealth should be spent, and on what kind of lifestyle.
2 – The adolescent phase
This assumes a certain solvency, but is dominated by escalating competition (peer pressure). The dream of (further) social climbing increasingly gives way to a fear of social descent. The “more” now becomes a “must”. Goods that send a message become more important, and the important questions involve how and where you live, how big the car (and the second car) is and where the children go to school. Worrying about how to keep up, especially in the sense of comparison with the neighbours and/or social peers (“keeping up with the Joneses”) is what drives broad swathes of the middle classes, especially in the USA.
3 – The maturity phase
In the next phase, “luxury fatigue” sets in. This is characterised by diminishing marginal utility of material goods – in other words, the realisation that the more frequent and unhampered the process of purchasing, the greater the reduction in the feeling of happiness derived from acquiring a product. Or to summarise: “more is (always) less”. As a result, the consumption of luxury is transferred from products to experiences, as experiences are infinitely protractible – from a simple restaurant visit, through a luxurious spa weekend to the ultimate adventure expedition. The majority of sated, prosperous societies are currently engaged in this phase of experiencing luxury – and yet a new phase is already looming: someone who has everything has nothing to yearn for, which makes the question “what’s next?” all the more pressing.
Our society is getting ineluctably older – and this is of central importance for luxury.
4 – The next stage of luxury
If we follow our archetype model through, we find ourselves on the threshold of the “senior citizen” phase, and this term is appropriate in two ways. For a start, the demographic facts have long since been clear: our society is getting ineluctably older. This is of central importance for luxury, not least as its most important target demographic, the baby boomers, will be approaching pensionable age in the next few years – and will thus finally have time on their hands that can be spent pleasurably (having time that can be used wisely is the greatest luxury of the senior citizen phase). Spent pleasurably, certainly – but also used for a meaningful purpose, as with greater age and an awareness of one’s own mortality, the question of meaning automatically takes centre stage. The term is doubly appropriate because there are of course others who count as “seniors” in the metaphorical sense of the model – those who have experienced the preceding phases in their own lives, passing through the stages “at the double”, as it were. They have grown up with a stronger awareness of the need for sustainability (this is especially true of the “millennials”), but are also the children of new technologies: they don’t need their own car to demonstrate their social status any more, just a smartphone that provides access to a networked world – and represents their control of the future.
Ostentatious self-denial: instead of “I can afford that”, the watchword is now “I can afford to do without that”.
If we look to the phenomena accompanying this, the senior citizen phase (to slightly overstate matters) is based on the principle of “less is more”. The “less” describes on one hand a rejection of the old, materialist kind of luxury, but on the other the ability to extract the maximum use and enjoyment from what is necessary; or more precisely, the ability to live a life that is boiled down to the essentials – but also to be able to read and decode these.
5 – Ostentatious self-denial
The aesthetic of this “new luxury” can be condensed to a term that until recently was unfamiliar in the luxury lexicon: simplification. This new strategy of simplification involves ostentatious renunciation: instead of “I can afford that”, the watchword is now “I can afford to do without that”. Nowhere is this reductionism more directly apparent than in gastronomy, and especially in Scandinavian cuisine, where it is practised in multiple award-winning restaurants such as “Noma”, “Fäviken”, “Frantzén” and other hostelries in the restaurant hit parade. If Scandinavian design meant stripping down formal language, Nordic cuisine goes to town on the very essence of things: natural products are left as pure as possible and cooked over an open fire. The prep work is carried out in full view of the guests – bones are sawn up, roots are thrown in, lichen is turned into a dish. This brings to the table natural products whose very existence was previously undreamt of, let alone their edibility. The interior is spartan and the menu offers only one option – diners have no choice but to go with it.
On a product level, simplification means showing that you need show nothing. For visual appearances, this means that logos disappear, such as in the “quiet shop” in London’s venerable Selfridges department store. The shop collects “quiet” special editions by Levi’s, Heinz, Marmite and Clinique, all of which are stripped of brand names, with only the design but no markings. The thinking behind it is that the people who know the brands will recognise them anyway, and this is exactly the principle that will shape such distinctions in the future.
6 – Initiated through knowledge
But what exactly do you have to know to read the codes of the new simplification and to speak with authority about the new luxury – and thus (and this is always the point) to belong to it? Instead of status symbols, what counts are new skills: knowledge of how things are made, prepared and fashioned. Nowadays we look up to, even admire, those who know the techniques and ingredients required for cooking a French coq au vin or an Italian bollito misto, but what has long since clearly been the case with food is equally true of other domains: the path to true expertise and connoisseurship is long and particularly time-consuming.
And it’s no longer just about dissipation, it’s also about disappearance.
There is a certain teasing element in the equation “time = luxury” – it means having time on a higher level, on the basis of being freed of materiality. But even there you can be bored – so what expertise is required for a full and rich experience of time and to rediscover leisure? The “School of Life” in London, founded by Alain de Botton, investigates the “how to” aspects of a good life: “how to spend time alone”, “how to have better conversations” or “how to make a difference”. The question of meaning is never far from the titles of these promising offers.
7 – Genuine de luxe
Considerations of craftsmanship and tradition are nothing structurally new for luxury, although this new foundation in “the real” is not just to be found in the manufacturing process of a product. “Performing the real” demands a different, not primarily interest-driven (i.e. sales-driven) interaction with consumers of luxury. “Genuine de luxe” is accompanied by new kinds of sale, a new relationship between seller and purchaser. Curated consumption, based on an idea of an identical sense of style, is leading the way: the sellers, who are generally creative types themselves, don’t have the same budget, but have a better awareness of style and taste that is at least as nuanced as the customers’ – and this is what puts them on an equal footing.
8 – From lifestyle to deathstyle
And finally: as the “less is more” principle was already hinting – we are moving away from a “birthing culture”, in which everyone is hungry, towards an “ageing culture”, in which the majority has had enough and consumption consequently declines. Here, luxury is no longer all about dreams, but about memories as well, and it’s no longer just about dissipation, it’s also about disappearance – this life is already being viewed from the perspective of moving on, and this is what we mean by “deathstyle”. It’s not about spending one’s last days contemplating shuffling off this mortal coil and joining the choir invisible, but rather an existence that is led more thoughtfully and meaningfully with an awareness of one’s own ephemerality. Those who begin to prize experience in old age will find it easier to adopt this attitude and in the best circumstances will fear nothing other than death – and perhaps will not even fear that very much any more.