Let's Talk about Luxury
There's a lot that's been whirring about recently on the topic of luxury- what it means, where it's going, and what place it occupies in our societies. Vanessa Friedman wrote a few weeks ago about the challenge of articulating the definition of luxury in the context of our troubled present-day global dynamics:
What new natural disaster is about to hit; what unexpected political event will unfold; what tweet will send ripples around the globe? What will fall from the sky to unsettle the consumer, disrupt exchange rates and demand new corporate strategy?
Because these many layers of meaning cannot be disaggregated. People do not make purchases in a vacuum.
- Vanessa Friedman for The New York Times
In a separate piece, Robin Givhan questioned the negative perception of luxury culturally ingrained in America and called for a more nuanced view of it, beyond the commercial and capitalistic; one that encompasses artisanship, craftsmanship, and slowness.
The result is that luxury has become disengaged from its historical context: no legacy, no sense of craft, no understanding of the raw materials, no appreciation for inventiveness. It’s all just a bunch of really expensive stuff in the minds of its critics. The perception is that luxury products are only tools for lording one’s status over others, not also demonstrably better products. In the sea of generic marketing campaigns that categorize everything from stainless-steel appliances to candles as “luxury,” the term has been devalued.
- Robin Givhan for The Washington Post
To my mind, these pieces point to a phenomenon I have been feeling in some way or another for some time: the shifting sands of luxury. In a world of material plenty (for many, but not all, which is a separate issue), at a time in which fashion has become so democratized and accessible, and in an era where the connection between product and process has largely dissolved, what does luxury begin to mean? And for those who access fashion as a medium for achieving a feeling of luxury, or the mindset of it, how can we establish a relationship with what we buy that enables us to inhabit a feeling of genuine luxuriousness and not just the patina of it?
To begin to understand what luxury really is, I think we have to take an unlikely step: we have to dissociate the concept of luxury from price, from product, from label- in short, from any of the obvious identifiers. And then we have to sit with the question not of what is luxury writ large, not what we are told is luxury, but what is luxury to me? What makes me feel luxurious? Why is feeling luxurious a worthwhile pursuit?
Like the concept of style, luxury has been subjected to a set of forces intended to make it easier to understand and possess by commercializing it. To my mind, this has had the opposite effect: linking luxury to a brand name or a price tag or a logo actually dilutes our understanding of what luxury is. Because like style, luxury is subjective, it's personal, and it can't be bought. At best, we can buy the illusion of it; something intended to provoke a sense of luxury in us, but the feeling of something being truly luxurious has to first exist within. I think you can safely swap out elegance for style or luxury or glamour or whatever, and Diana Vreeland's statement holds true.
Despite the fact that luxury is personal, the definition of luxury is responsive to a set of universal forces that work to shape our collective wants and needs and beliefs at this moment in time. That's why I suspect a lot of us are feeling the same questions and struggles around fashion at present. And it's why the fashion industry is struggling to solidify the definition of luxury today. So many of us who love fashion are feeling like there's too much out there, fashion is moving too fast, advertising accounts for too much, we're not sure how our clothes are made or where they're made. What's the link between price and process? Between brand name and to the kind of attention to detail that was once the definition of luxury? Between logo and longevity? It's not clear.
Vanessa Friedman talked about the phenomenon of "what's next" in her piece by making mention of a Bloomberg news article entitled, "Gucci Loafers Are Everywhere. What’s Next?” If Gucci loafers are emblematic of the industry's current definition of luxury, that in and of itself speaks to how little the fashion industry of today grasps the true meaning of luxury. I'm not sure yet fully how I define luxury in my life, but I have a sense that it's found in discovering and accepting self, in taking ample time, in being creative, in exercising one's individuality, and in learning how to make meaning and find joy in life's moments. When you conceive of luxury this way, it becomes clear that no matter the case, a price tag actually devalues luxury, because true luxury is priceless. At the moment we fully understand this, when we've internalized luxury, I say buy the shoes! Pay attention to craftsmanship and quality and the intention of the maker. Luxury is defined by those things; it can't exist without them.
When a luxurious frame of mind meets a luxury product, that's a moment of beauty in world very much in need of celebrating the beautiful.