There are all kinds of arguments as to what constitutes luxury, but in the modern landscape its definition seems to be more open to interpretation than ever before. The classic definition was: “anything the elite can afford which the poor cannot”. This attitude is now outdated as the democratisation of luxury has made it more accessible, especially among the middle classes.
“To enjoy luxury a consumer needs surplus income to spend on things that are superfluous.”
If wealth is still the indicator for luxury, then it must shift amongst the complex social hierarchy that exists today, e.g. a computer might be a luxury for a person working minimum wage but a new Bentley at a millionaires’ party might only be considered the norm. By this rationale, wealth alone cannot dictate the boundaries of luxury.
“Something is a luxury only if it carries a particular kind of exclusivity.”
Exclusivity in the luxury market has been diluted by cheap travel, fashion and technology. It was once considered exclusive to be able to travel to Monaco but now budget airlines carry people there for less than the cost of a decent meal. The insertion of luxury into the mainstream market also dispels “a sense of belonging to a particular group”.
Of the many dictionary listings that try to embody in one sentence the meaning of luxury, one is that it is something which is “not essential but conducive to indulge or comfort”. If luxury is not essentialthen surely the meaning is entirely subjective and varies according to the values of the individual. A sentimental childhood toy wouldn’t be described as essential and could therefore be considered a luxury.
All of these inconsistencies bring us back to the original question: “what is luxury?” Luxury is a fluid ideal that is ever changing and evolving. It has identifiable core parameters: creativity, exclusivity, craftsmanship, precision, quality, innovation, premium pricing. However, the context within these parameters can be shifted to reflect social change. We know this simply from looking at its history. The luxury industry began life as small, family-owned workshops which were gradually and successfully transformed into a global market powerhouse that exists today. This example alone shows us that the laws of luxury are more than capable of adapting to a new environment.
In emerging regions where people are experiencing wealth for the first time, luxury can be used to show success publicly; an expensive car or a tailored suit demonstrates a level of success far removed from their humble beginnings, telling the age-old “rags to riches” to story. In the West where wealth has been passed down through generations, luxury is used to reflect growing social and environmental concerns. Philanthropic stalwarts such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson consider their charitable activities as a luxury.
If there is really one word that binds luxury together though, for my money it has to be “escape”. In a world dominated technology, industrialisation and speed, time and nature will be considered luxury commodities. When once exclusive brands start appearing at every international airport, striving for truly unique, signature goods free from tawdry logos will drive the luxury industry full circle to its artisan roots. As budget airlines make more of the world accessible to the masses, the affluent will turn to more exotic and authentic lifestyle experiences.
So in answer to the riddle “what is luxury?” it is whatever you want it to be; whatever you value and whatever you use to define, express and represent who you are.