When The FT opened its 2012 ‘The Business of Luxury’ summit to the news that PPR had restructured the entirety of its Luxury powerhouse into Luxury goods and Luxury lifestyle, the mood was uncertain. Industry spokespeople gathered on stage to address the avalanche of Luxury houses redefining themselves as ‘Luxury lifestyle brands’, but their discomfort was plain. As they delivered hollow-sounding dictats and dubious clichés on the nature and limitations of Luxury – as they collectively struggled to define where Luxury ends, and the lived experience begins – they were giving voice to the central difficulty of any discussion of Luxury. It’s not neat.
Luxury is the industry of desire. And desire is never in short supply, with the Luxury industry so far this year peaking at a global value of 200 billion Euros according to Bain & Co.. Like desire, the concept of Luxury is fluid, emotive and highly subjective; and, while always commercial, Luxury is never simply transactional.
As the things we covet change, so Luxury exists in a state of constant evolution. But there are some things that remain inherent. Luxury is always about, rarity, mastery, authenticity and escapism. As Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts knows only too well, ‘ubiquity is death to Luxury’. Luxury marred by compromise and mass consumption is no longer Luxury. Luxury is inherently elitist. It is never about the common experience. Burberry’s fight to re-establish itself as an iconic British Luxury brand in the last five years has been a battle, above all else, to re-capture the elitism of true rarity. Today, with a centralised design ethos, tightly controlled British production process and doubled revenues (£3bn in 2012), the peerless quality of the product is once again beyond question. Like the designer Nancy Gonzalez, who breeds her own reptiles to ensure the quality of her ‘precious skin’ accessories, or Loro Pianas, who owns silk farms in Myanmar, or the Parisian Ateliers who opened their doors to the public for the first time this year to show the world their painstaking work ethic, Burberry’s focus on (conspicuously) cultivating and protecting this inherent value – without compromise on any level – is the key to its restored status. The integrity of the narrative intact, the Luxury consumer can safely surrender to the escapism the product offers; the departure from the every day. Whether we seek this through art, travel, or fashion – Luxury is always about seeking uncommon transformation.
Now, as the industry transition powerfully demonstrates, Luxury is about experience, not simply ownership. The systems of production, provenance and mastery that define a Luxury product must find translation in the immaterial, or risk falsification. So when it comes to travel, what does it mean to talk about Luxury? When personalized experiences can be mass-designed with a few clicks and ‘bespoke’ is everyone’s game, what constitutes a Luxury experience? In the ongoing fallout of a global economic disaster, there are more people than ever driving demand for experiences that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. As Bain notes in this year’s Luxury Goods Worldwide Market Study, the year-on-year increase of "HENRYs" (High Earnings, Not Rich Yet) is driving the mass commodification of the global Luxury industry, with this new demographic now outnumbering the ultra-affluent by ten to one. The rise of these newly cash-rich middle-grounders the world over are pushing the standards of excess in ever more elaborate directions. But as 'excess' increasingly becomes a by-word for Luxury in our consumption-obsessed media, and 'Luxury' is plastered on everything from Sainsbury's all-butter mince pies to loo-roll, we can see exactly what Luxury is not.
The 'Ultratravel' breathlessly lauded by The Guardian just last month features a 21-day round the world trip, (available from 'luxury-travel specialist Captain’s Choice') where travellers will tour the globe by private jet 'for a night of revelry in Rio; an amble through Cambodia’s fabled Angkor Wat; big-five spotting in the Serengeti, and more' for a modest £34,850; while the ‘epicurean’ souls can indulge in a gourmet getaway that promises you a place at the table at every three-Michelin-star restaurant in the world. That's 100 restaurants, and six months of solid feasting. The price: £182,000 per couple. It smacks, not of desire or rarity, but vulgarity.
And Luxury is never vulgar - because, at its core, Luxury is not about expenditure. And, while it has no upper cost limit, it can't be secured by price. This new breed of made-to-measure excess can give you the world in 21 days and you can do it in style; but even the unimaginable feels stale when package deals buy identikit experiences. Luxury is not about a package tour of global clichés for the super rich. Today's most coveted experiences aren't just about unimaginable comfort or quantity or speed. They're not even about a key to the entire world. As ever with Luxury, they're about rarity; mastery; authenticity; and escapism.
So in our chartered, repackaged, digitally mediated world, what is truly rare? When you can go almost anywhere on earth and still pick up an email, what currency does escapism – the true departure from everyday experience – still hold? A Luxury experience today means more than access; more than comfort. It means escapism in its truest sense, without compromise or easy replication. As we increasingly live out our lives in front of screens, as our experiences become increasingly mediated, we increasingly expect comfort – but we crave an ever more elusive sense of authentic involvement in the world we live in. Luxury experience today is about moving from voyeur to participant. It’s about a golden handshake into the world's most closely guarded and unique cultural experiences; having a front seat to the things that you should, by rights, have no claim on.
Witnessing the unique coming of age ritual of the Mursi tribeswomen in Ethiopia as she 'elegantly displays her timeless traditions and mystical beauty' for example (writes Billionaire.com), is just one of the ways in which Ethiopia's niche travel industry offers its very select clientele a departure from their own reality and their own perspective. Others have more established visions of Luxury escapism; The Soneva Resorts dwell on some of world’s most secluded islands, and are now world famous for their unique antidotes to hectic western living.
But if Luxury in the modern age continues to evade easy definition, it is perhaps the closing lines from Billionaire.com which get closest to capturing the spirit of today’s Luxury-seekers: ‘the select group of visitors… are granted access to an understated yet overwhelming experience, without a hint of mass tourism. In the travel world, that is luxury redefined'. More than anything, it is this implicit validation which cuts right to the heart of what we desire from Luxury above all else. Luxury gives us more than the relationship between brand and consumer. It offers the self-validating dynamic that exists between creators and connoisseurs; Luxury’s inherent worth validates your own: your discerning taste, your excellence, your inherent sophistication. And that's the key: true Luxury marks you out from the crowd; and ultimately, isn’t that the transformation we’re all seeking?