Such are the well-heeled times in which we live that from the lowliest style blogger to the loftiest business tycoon, we all have the luxury of arguing about luxury.
How very meta. And on-point. After all, is true luxury driven by usefulness - or something else?
“Luxury is now for the masses and the classes,” insists PPR Chairman François-Henri Pinault, noting that as we all continue trying to luxe-up every aspect of life, the future will be paved with a diversity of lifestyle products available at a variety of price points. Which kind of misses the point, according to many. "If we look at the sheer array of creations that exist under the same nomenclature, how can a branded t-shirt produced in mass volumes and made widely available, be articulated under the same aegis as a unique, one-of-a-kind creation, bearing the signature of the craftsman?" wonders Rebecca Robins, a director at the brand consultancy Interbrand and co-author of META-LUXURY: Brands and the Culture of Excellence. She holds the economic crisis responsible for this definitional transition; by calling the notion of value "into question as never before," this time period represented "a point at which we saw a radical reassessment of what we value and why." (image)
Including slippery, shapeshifting notions of what constitutes luxury. "It's not something people need, but it's what they want," notes Marc Jacobs. "It really pulls at their heart.”
Which is why people line up all night for the launch of a new Apple toy like the iPhone 6, but not the arguably superior Samsung Galaxy S6. Avidly collect Birkin bags and amass a collection worth more than $1 million - a good used one goes for at least $3,500 at auction - but be blase about similar designs made from decent leather at a much more decent price point of around $350.
And what is it about these two brands that tugs at the heart? A good story. It doesn't matter that one is old (Hermès) and one new (Apple). Yes, the products themselves have to be well-made using top-quality inputs, but the top luxury brands that enjoy charging hefty premiums effectively tap into something deeper within us that develops early in life. "There’s now suggestive evidence that our faith in the authentic — especially when the authenticity is supported by effective marketing campaigns — is a deep-seated human instinct, which emerges at an extremely early age," writes Jonah Lehrer in an interesting piece in WIRED, pointing to a fascinating experiment conducted by two psychologists on children ages 3 to 6.
The 43 kids were shown some tachistoscopes with flashing lights and buzzers attached and told this contraption was a machine that could copy stuff. When the children were given a stretchy toy and a "copy" they watched being removed from the pretend copier, over 60% of the time, the kids actually preferred playing with the duplicate instead of the original. But not when their favorite stuffed toy or blankie was involved. Their "attachment objects" elicited the exact opposite response. A group of the children refused to even let their attachment objects anywhere near the "copier" and those that did insisted the resulting duplicate was an inferior bootleg. "Even though the children were assured that the objects were identical, they intuitively believed that the copy wasn’t the same. It lacked a history, a bond, a sentimental attachment. It was inauthentic."
So those that argue on the side of luxury being about putting the product first and letting the business strategy part follow are, I think, correct in pinpointing why these brands are able to charge such premium prices: because we believe in them. Like Apple "When I see that logo, I don’t see a functional object," continues Lehrer. "Instead, I’ve learned to respond to everything that isn’t functional, all those subtle connotations conveyed in the glossy ads. While I might listen to bootleg music on my iPhone, I want the phone to be genuine. I want that Apple logo to be real. Why? Because the brand has effectively woven itself into my emotional brain."
Which is why smart luxury brands position themselves beyond just being sellers of fancy stuff to, like Tod's, restorers of national monuments (their work with Rome's Colosseum), creators of film schools (Louis Vuitton) and founders of fashion colleges (Condé Nast). On a less grand but no less meaningful scale, Valentino, Dior and Chloé have all created exhibitions showcasing their archives as a way to celebrate their heritage. By promoting themselves as platforms for philanthropy, education and cultural leadership, these brands conjure up a kind of "mythology" around their ascent. “It makes the brand irreplaceable, rather than disposable," continues Robins. "Something truly unique. Consumers today are looking for something with meaning and longevity and this is the way to achieve that."
Or, in other words, an adult version of those kids' blankies. "Although we outgrow stuffed animals, we never get beyond the irrational logic of authenticity and essentialism," adds Lehrer. "There are certain things whose value depends largely on their legitimacy. There are many blankets in the world. But there is only one blankie. The best brands are blankies."
This post was about the Supremium fashion tribe - spendy, style-conscious fashionistas that enjoy jetsetting, globetrotting and shopping their way across the globe. For more of my posts about the Supremiums, CLICK HERE. To learn more about each of fashion's four mega-tribes that I track, START HERE.