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What Counts As “Luxury?”

Like so much else in modern life luxury seems to have slipped its moorings. Once upon a time we knew where we were. Luxuries were what the monarchy and aristocracy consumed: houses in the country, staff to serve you, expensive jewelry, big cars, caviar and champagne, gold plated taps.

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But we live in a less deferential, more raucous, emotionally expressive and self-obsessed time and so luxury is increasingly defined not by the traditions of aristocracy but by how we want to define ourselves. The new aristocracy of celebrity plays a big role in shaping those aspirations of course, but what counts as a luxury has become more fluid and confusing.

Luxury experiences come in all shapes and sizes these days. Cheap technology means the average person can walk down a road listening to better quality music than a Great King could have summoned up a century ago. We reward ourselves with these little treats and luxuries the whole time.

Luxuries once stood at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of consumer experiences. But everywhere old hierarchies seem to be breaking down. In a more individualized world of instant communications, cheaper technology and easy travel will the idea of luxury lose its meaning as well?

Luxury has taken many different forms. Indeed for most of human history luxury was frowned upon. Plato scorned an appetite for luxury as a sign of weakness. Roman philosophers counseled that insatiable appetites for luxuries would unravel the social order. Luxuries became something to aspire to, only when courts began to display their social standing by what they consumed.

By the 16th century flat plates and sugar were considered luxuries. In the 17th century it was pepper. As consumer society flourished so did the pursuit of luxury as a mark of social distinction. In Elizabethan times luxury items were judged by patina upon them: the shinier something was, the better it was because that meant it was old. Luxury could not be “nouveau.” Yet though many different foods, goods and services have counted as luxuries, the core to the idea has remained constant and that should help us understand what luxury might become in future.

Does Luxury Have a Future?

A luxury is something you do not need. To enjoy a luxury a consumer needs surplus income to spend on things that are superfluous. Something is a luxury only if it carries a particular kind of exclusivity, for example free SizeGenetics system offer. Plenty of rarities would not count as luxuries.

Luxury experiences are open to only a few people yet lots of people want them. If luxuries spread too fast the sense of exclusivity is destroyed. Luxury cannot be about anything as tawdry as consuming. Luxury is sold to people through flattery: by buying something luxurious they are displaying not just their wealth but their refinement. That is why luxury cannot be sold as consumerism but as discernment, spirituality, healing, getting close to nature.

Today we can see “luxury creep” — the tendency of consumer-goods companies and marketers to label just about anything that costs more than $19.99 as luxury. Luxury by definition should be exclusive. So the idea of mass luxury, pushed largely by fashion retailers trying to have their luxury cake and eat their mass-market profits too, is a fiction. If everything is luxury, nothing is luxury. To call something a “luxury brand’ simply because it’s trendy or slightly higher-priced than similar products just devalues the term. Let’s try to keep the word “luxury” as a true luxury.

Why Luxury?

The other common theme to luxury in all ages is that it reflects what we are trying to escape. Perhaps the first mass myth of luxury was the legend of Cockayne recounted in hundreds of medieval oral poems. Cockayne was a place of unimaginable luxury for people who were familiar with famine: a place where food was so plentiful it was used as a building material. Cockayne had an even, spring-like temperature. Inhabitants remained 33 years old, the age at which Christ died, and consented to gentle offers of love-making. To heal yourself you bathed in mysterious pools. Columbus discovered America in part because he was searching for Cockayne, which many people thought was near the mouth of the Orinoco river.

Centuries later we are still living out this medieval myth of the luxurious life. Whenever we walk into a luxury spa hotel, we indulge in a little bit of Cockayne: a world of never ending hot water, clean towels, service on tap, soothing lotions that make you feel younger, health restoring pools and fine food.

What will count as luxuries for us in future will reflect the everyday experiences we are trying to get away from. But in the rich world luxury may well take a different turn in decades to come. In cities where traveling on the underground carries a sense of impending doom then complete security and safety will become a luxury. Psychologists tell us that safety and security are our most basic needs. Consumers in modern societies have moved on to higher goals such as self-fulfillment, avoid weight-loss problems and look and feel better.

Yet when avian flu might be lurking in the ducks in your local park’s pond being sure you can protect yourself and your family may become a luxury. In a world that grows more complex we will put more value on simplicity: from the easy to use interface of the iPod, to the pared down luxury hotels that sell themselves with a less is more minimalism. Designs that mean products can be used almost without thought because they are instinctive and intuitive will be luxuries.

We used to work all together, at the same time, in the same place, doing similar tasks, in large offices and factories. These days we work at different times, in different places constantly on the move. So being able to be social, to spend time with people, doing the same thing – eating, listening to music – may become a sort after experience.

We are awash with information and communication. It already comes from our mobile phones, computers and multi channel televisions. Soon our iPods will be carrying Disney cartoons. In this world convivial, human conversation, a long lunch, becomes an experience to treasure.

In every city in the world luxury brands – Gucci and Prada, Armani and Mont Blanc – sell the same products. Anything you can buy in an airport is not a luxury. That means luxury will come from finding oddity, idiosyncrasy, something that has not been discovered by others, and does not have a brand upon it. The true sign of discernment is to rise above the need for a brand logo. We will continue to look for experiences that are surprising, exotic and above all authentic.

In the past when labour was manual and people wanted luxuries to escape the real world. The less authentic, the more refined the better. But in a world where we work with screens and ideas and everything seems to be intangible, experiences that carry a mark of reality stand out. That is why experiences that take us “back to nature” can claim to be luxuries.

The cult of authenticity will also encourage a mythology of where and how things are made. As it becomes easier for consumers to find out where and how products are made, so it will become more difficult for luxury brands to rest on their laurels. Knowledgeable consumers are not impressed by brands that do not deliver superior performance. Once again, let’s try to keep the word “luxury” as a true luxury.