Friday Chronicle #30: What is Luxury? From paganism to consumerism

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Luxury-definition-history

Luxury is a very universal concept that has been part of humanity and civilisation for centuries. It is a very complex definition that has been evolving century after century. Luxury has determined and defined kings and conquerors from the masses, it connected humanity with sacred and has developed a multi-billion dollar industry. Here is the eye of the cyclone, let’s take a few minutes to pause and to interest ourselves in the definition of luxury, past, present and future.

Luxury, from sacred to paganism and consumerism

In a more traditional way, here is how Thesaurus define luxury:
definition-of-luxury

We tend to say that luxury is a 17th century definition. Nevertheless we can track luxury from even the paleolithic period. It is an universal phenomenon. During those times, luxury had 2 main roles:

  • The social recognition
  • The link to the sacred 

In the first role, luxury was about richness and conquest. Kings and conquerors were leaders and therefore they would accumulate richness thanks to their domination. It is a way to define one’s place in society. From there, it evolved towards the external signs of richness and power. Bourdieu’s Distinction spoke widely about it. It is aligned with the traditional definition of luxury you can find above.

Luxury is neither random nor contingent, it inevitably and necessarily accompanies inequality among men, it is the transcription of the hierarchy between the nobles and the peasants. Luxury is then the correlate of the unequal organization of society.” – Gilles Lipovetsky

The second role, and to my eyes the most interesting one is the connection to the sacred. It is a connection between humans and the invisible forces, especially around celebrations. Spending by excess can recompose the origin of the world that is always built by chaos, destruction. The rebirth goes through a tremendous and generous amount of energy that has no limit, almost by magic. We can thus observe that luxury is not born solely from the evolution of economic and technical forces. Our historical conception of luxury is too materialistic: religion is one of the reasons for the emergence of luxury as evidenced by the symbolism of carnival where we start to spend so that abundance is possible. Luxury makes it possible to ally oneself with invisible forces, with the dead who envy us. The ritual is identical with the gods that must be filled with gifts and sacrifices. Placing religion and our consideration for the gods in high standards, pushes every single of us to cherish and to dedicate a generous amount of richness to please the gods. The generous actions of offering richness to the gods are also a comforting and reassuring gesture that soothes the soul.
Luxury-and-sacred
For several centuries, luxury was associated to what was precious and unique. It was in any case something very special and probably unusual. In the 17th century, luxury was associated to aristocracy and craftsmanship. The Aristocrats would associate themselves to a certain lifestyle and specific elements of distinction. From perfumed gloves to tremendous luxury castles, their way of living would differentiate the poor from the rich, the privileged ones from the mass. As one strong elements of this was the rarity degree of something, craftsmanship was at honor. This definition of luxury lasted until the 19th century. From this moment, it was Haute Couture that redefined what was luxury. In the past, craftsmen and luxury would follow a request, a wish or at least someone would place an order that needed to be fulfilled. The modern age of luxury, associated with a name, with an exceptional individuality, with a commercial house rich in prestige, sees the couturier delivered from his former subordination to the customers triumph and affirming his new power to direct the fashion. The golden age of the artist-couturier is born: it will last more than hundred years. It is not only the richness of the material that is the luxury, but the aura of the name and reputation of the big houses, the prestige of the brand, the magic of the brand. With haute couture, luxury becomes for the first time a creative industry more for women than men. This luxury is also modern because we witness the birth of the schema that opposes the model to the copy. For the first time, and against a background of industrial logic, a model is copied to a few hundred copies.
Charles-Worth-first-couturier

Luxury today, a big deal

We estimate the global luxury market in 2017 up to $289 Billion (source: Worldwide Luxury Market Monitor). This represents a good increase of 4% compared to last year. A big portion of this number comes from Luxury personal luxury goods, including high-end fashion, hand-bags and jewelry.

The growth we expect in 2017 will be driven by strong sales in accessories, jewelry and beauty products in mainland China, where the sector had been hampered by a slowing economy in that country, as well as in Europe. After what we could call the “Trump Bubble”, The American luxury market is not going very well. Tourism is declining, especially because of the travel restrictions. Brazil and LatinAmerica are also passing by difficult times with all the corruption cases. So Europe and China will definitely be the leading regions to drive sales in the luxury market.

China-and-europe-luxury-markets

If we look at region after region this is what we could say: In Europe, recovering tourist flows and increased consumer confidence will drive growth 7 percent to 9 percent at constant exchange for the region’s luxury market in 2017. Sales will grow 6 percent to 8 percent in mainland China, Bain forecast, as efforts to bring prices in line with other regions encourage consumers to make more luxury purchases at home.In the Americas, struggling department stores in the U.S. – the world’s largest luxury market – and slumping tourism are expected to curb luxury sales, which are expected to decline as much as 2 percent. Through 2020, sales of personal luxury goods will grow 3 percent to 4 percent per year at constant exchange and we can see the rise of new luxury brands that probably will embrace new forms of luxury, which might represent a strong competitive advantage. We tend to consider three forms of luxury:

  1. Accessible luxury
  2. Semi-accessible luxury
  3. Unaccessible luxury

The first form is generally an appealing segment that should allow anyone to have a little taste of luxury. It concerns fragrances, make up, handbags and accessories as well as cosmetics. You might not be able to purchase a Hermes Kelly bag but you can buy a Hermes fragrance, which allows you to get into the brand territory. The second luxury called “Semi-Accessible” is related generally to luxury ready-to-wear fashion collections like Dior or Chanel. It is not for every purse but you might be able to buy some items, even in sales. Last but not least, the “unaccessible luxury”. This is for sure a completely different game. It is the world of luxury yachts, high-end jewelry or even a Rolls Royce.
luxury-yacht-sales-and-charter

Three interesting luxury trends to watch-out

While understanding the past and the present of luxury, let’s have a look into its future. Here are three interesting trends that might shape the future of luxury and for some of them, it has already started.

Hyper-Luxury, separate true luxury from glitters

A Hermes Kelly bag, a Bulgari emerald ring, or a Serge Lutens Fragrance? No thank you. Not luxury enough! In deed welcome to the era of the Hyper-Luxury. The luxury industry has changed quite a lot. Consumers looking for premium products and services get more demanding and a real segmentation has happened. Some of them are looking for hyper exclusive products and services. Hyper luxury consumers are no longer happy being targeted as common luxury consumers, they want products expensive enough to match their status.

Hermes-Ultra-Rare-30cm-Matte-White-Himalayan-Crocodile-Birkin-Bag

However, conversely, the common luxury consumer is finding it harder to keep up their prestigious lifestyle. Millionaires and billionaires are leading the way. How do we define this new luxury segment? Hyper luxury represents products that are rare, exclusive, extremely high quality, often handmade and unapologetically expensive. The very (very,very) rich luxury consumer has a deep desire for very expensive goods and destination shopping which only they can afford. One of the side effects of this phenomenon is the fact that designers and retailers are obliged to increase their prices in order to meet the needs of this new market. Recently we could see brands like Louis Vuitton who would bring a strong difference between a $1’000 bag in good quality leather from an Aligator skin handbag at $40’000.

From Standardization to the unique piece

One of the most interesting trends that has been constantly growing in the past 10 years is what we call personalization. People have enough of the standardization. The uniqueness of luxury supports the idea that you get an unique piece of art, like a painter original art work. There is only one David by Michelangelo. French luxury shoes brand JM Weston have a service in their manufacture called “Commandes Spéciales”, basically there is no limit to the choice of your shoes. Exotic leathers and precious metal treatments are possible, adding a “zero” to the bill of your mocassins. This represents the ultimate personalization in terms of shoe making. You can choose every single detail of your shoe, making the final combination unique.

JM-Weston-commandes-speciales

Luxury is eco-responsible now

The luxury industry has taken little care of the planet for decades. While sourcing the wildest materials around the globe and increasing the Co2 footprint for years, Ecology is now a strong topic that should be part of our daily lives as a foundation. Luxury brands need to adapt as their customers will more and more adapt their purchase behavior based on this.

45% of all luxury customers tend to take more in consideration an eco-friendly brand during their shopping sessions” – Forbes, 2016.

A very good example is the Fragrance and Fashion brand Thierry Mugler (Clarins Group). For more than 20 years, they have developed refillable flacons for their iconic fragrances, meaning that you do not need to throw it away once it is empty. You can go to a perfumery shop and refill it again. According to the brand this action saved more than 15 million flacons from the garbage and all the recycling efforts.

Mugler-La-Source

They are launching this year a new fragrance called AURA MUGLER that follows the same principle. You can either refill your flacon at the point of sale, or purchase an environment friendly refill that is easier to recycle.

Aura-Mugler-Fragrance

Aura-Mugler-Perfume-Line

In conclusion, there is not one luxury but several manifestation of luxury. Each one has a specific purpose, a self-expression reason and sometimes we would be surprised about what people consider as a luxury item. Sometimes spending quality time with friends and family is a luxury that some people would dream to afford.

José Amorim

Info sourced at LuxuryActivist Chief editor. All content is copyrighted with no reproduction rights available. Images are for illustration purposes only.

José Amorim

José Amorim has been working in the luxury industry for more than 15 years. In the past 8 years, he joined his personal passion for digital culture and his luxury background to develop digital strategies for premium brands. He is the founder of LuxuryActivist.com and is happy to share his passion here.