Ask a hundred different people to define “luxury,” and you’ll probably get a hundred different answers. Fewer more relative concepts exist, especially in a digital age where opinion is democratized into a heat-seeking missile, programmed to destroy entrenched hierarchies. If you can successfully stage manage such an elusive notion, however, you will be rewarded richly—very richly.
I was recently witness to this at a luxury branding conference that took place in a world disrupted by the usual suspects: digital media, globalization, and the questionable taste of young people. Bright-green badges with the conference’s title, “In Pursuit of Luxury,” occasionally clashed with the otherwise dapper outfits of the audience—a mix of academics and members of the fashion industry. They were assembled at New York’s LIM College, where the school motto reads: “Where Business Meets Fashion.”
“How The Super Rich Spend Their Money” was the title of Sue Thomas’s first PowerPoint slide. Thomas teaches fashion at Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University and was one of the first speakers at the conference. Her presentation parsed out the $1.1 trillion global market for luxury goods by category: Roughly a quarter of the total was composed of clothing and accessories, nearly half by cars, and the other categories were dedicated included hotels ($187 billion), food ($49 billion), private jets ($24 billion), and yachts ($9 billion).
For an industry that specializes in creating value by manipulating the nebulous psychology of luxury branding, a lot of money rides on interpreting evolving shifts in technology, commerce, and ethics. Enter the academics, who first wanted to simply define “luxury,” which is itself a slippery and relative term. After all, one person’s indulgence might be another, richer person’s idea of poverty. Questions outnumbered answers this early in the day, but everyone agreed when Anamari Vänskä from Finland’s University of Turku declared, “Luxury is not what it used to be.”
This shift has been partially caused by technology, which democratized the process of becoming a tastemaker. “What’s different now is that someone at home on YouTube can instantly amass millions of followers,” explained Jacqueline Jenkins, LIM’s dean of graduate studies. This kind of influence once had to be carefully cultivated and earned, but it now can be manufactured. “How long will the self-invented tastemaker model last?” Jenkins asked. “We’ll see.”
“Too many people feel like it’s a field of celebrity,” added Thomaï Serdari, a marketing strategist and business professor at New York Univeristy. “They get sucked in, but they don’t have the cultural depth.” She compared these feckless newcomers to older icons like Karl Lagerfeld, whose voracious reading habits made him an unparalleled trend forecaster. A PowerPoint slide of Lagerfeld—an “ultimate maker” and not just a “worker bee,” she explained—proved an apt metaphor, depicting him in a perfect suit and walking through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, his lips pursed.
Later in the day, eyebrows furrowed when the issue of craftsmanship surfaced. Globalization demands higher-volume manufacturing. This in turn has lead to sometimes shoddier production standards for brands whose Fifth-Avenue flagship stores have become little more than backdrops for tourist selfies.
When this problem is coupled with the earlier complaint about celebrity fetishism, it creates a whole set of new issues. “Today, everybody wants to be a designer, nobody wants to be a tailor,” one panelist said. Yussef El Amir, who worked for the International Monetary Fund before joining Bergdorf Goodman as a tailored-clothing specialist, pantomimed different stitching techniques—some shallow dips, others long pulls—and lamented that few people today know the difference. David Loranger, whose doctoral dissertation examines the cultural heritage of Scottish kilt making, nodded in agreement.
There were also concerns that industrialization was homogenizing other parts of the industry. Robert Reid, from the International University of Monaco, held up three photos of brand showrooms—one high-luxury, another mid-tier, the last lower-end—and challenged the audience to correctly identify them. “Is the middle one Gucci?” someone asked. “Okay, just because we’re guessing—that’s a problem,” Reid sighed. (The correct answers were Prada, Michael Kors, and the Coach factory outlet).
But not everyone was so sure that homogenization is a problem. In fact, some argued that this mirroring was one of the signifiers of luxury. “There is an element in which knowing luxury involves sameness, not difference,” replied John Armitage of the University of Southampton in his presentation on the epistemology of luxury. “You kind of need to know, don’t you, that you’ve entered a luxury space,” he continued. “At one level, it has to look the same as the others.”
Things got queasy when Fabian Faurholt Csaba and Else Skjold, both from Denmark, the world’s fur capital, showed photos of conditions at different fur farms around the world. In Denmark, a man cradled a mink in his arms like a newborn baby, while in China, a boot dug into the bloody fur of another. The stark difference in conditions was meant to illustrate that some ethical quandaries have no clear right answer.
The mood lightened when Vänskä took the lectern to discuss luxury markets for pets, a subject that grabbed her interest after noticing luxury brands like Burberry start kids’ lines. Her clever slides used expressions like “McDonaldization of Luxury” and showed Paris Hilton walking through a $325,000 doghouse. This brought giggles, but things darkened again when she quoted from George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”