The question of the meaning of ‘luxury’ looms large over every use of it these days, and it is alas a much abused term fast losing any meaning or value. Adding word’s like ‘true’ and ‘real’ go some way towards redefinition but the word already means too many different things to too many people: so my ambition on these pages is to illustrate a particular and personal definition of luxury. And I chose Coco Chanel’s wonderful definition of what luxury means as my benchmark:
Over the coming months I will be digging into this definition, exploring the meaning of vulgarity, using this definition to explore various luxury sectors, and consider how the world today affects and impacts on the concept and value of luxury, and how the world of luxury impacts on the world today. From poverty to sustainability, from the importance of craftsmanship and design to the responsibility of the individual luxury consumer to ensure that consumption and expenditure are measured and considered.
…if something is bereft of meaning it is little more than matter.
A few years ago my grandfather passed away and I was left a leather sponge bag full of miscellanea cleared from his dressing table. Cufflinks, dress studs, a Dunhill cigarette holder, a battered silver ‘jumbo’ Dunhill table lighter, monogrammed pocket squares and more. Nothing of any real monetary value but a wonderful lot to have. At the bottom of the collection sat a nondescript wristwatch; strapless, tired, broken-faced and in need of repair it carried no manufacturers marks on its face. I always intended to get it going again but I didn’t get around to it until recently when I stumbled on it again whilst searching for a collar stud: some Googling identified it as an ATP (Army Timepiece) meaning it was likely to have been the watch issued to my Grandfather during WW2. To the local watch shop it went.
The watch, fully repaired and with a new glass, now takes pride of place on my wrist, its smooth Omega movement almost imperceptibly ticking away. And it got me thinking about the value of meaning in something: this small mass-produced watch with its faded brown face and no financial value has become one of my most treasured possessions. It is undoubtedly a charming item in itself but it’s the watch’s meaning that makes it cherished. And before you think ‘he’s talking about sentimental value’, I’m not, this feels fundamentally different – it’s a heady mix of empowerment, pride and elevation. Sentimental value is about clinging to something past, almost a regret, when in contrast ‘meaning’ is somehow stronger, empowering even.
My experience forced me to question a few things and I drew a stark conclusion that if something doesn’t have meaning then it is in effect little more than ‘matter’ – a collection of atoms shaped to form something.
Every guardian of a luxury brand knows that truly discerning consumers are looking for something different, something with value over and above the base metal or the price tag – something with meaning. Brand soul, and spirit are of course important but I feel that meaning has to be the single most important attribute any item has – it is meaning that engenders an item with soul, it is what makes it truly emotionally engaging.
Craftsmanship, heritage, legacy, materiality, design, scarcity, narrative and sustainability and more are all elements that play a part in establishing ‘meaning’ in a brand or a product.
Establishing meaning at brand level takes a long time (think Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermés) and needs constant attention, and there are myriad brands which in their constant striving for newness have lost this vital asset.
And I would argue that meaning can be embedded at product level relatively easily if the right mix of elements are injected into the product and the range in which they sit. And increasingly products are ‘the brand’. That said this is a careful balance, and there are many brands that have forced meaning into a product too heavy handedly and this has compromised the value of the brand overall and therefore their products going forward.
All too often luxury brands focus on products that empower their customers by simply showcasing wealth or rank but ignore that that status derived endorphin hit will only ever be transient. By making something more meaningful and therefore more emotionally complex and engaging, the perceived value of that item grows and so too does the perception of the brand itself. And basing a relationship on something so skin deep means that relationship building and loyalty are almost impossible to keep – add real meaning and you’re building a different kind of deeper relationship with your customers: one that engenders loyalty and enhanced respect and value.
As discerning luxury consumers become more selective, as the scarce and different become easier to discover, the meaning of a product and the brand behind it is becoming more and more important. Of course it is impossible for a brand to exactly emulate my relationship with my little watch, however if they can bottle even a scintilla of it they will be achieving a more valued place in their customer’s hearts.