When I first embarked on the endlessly fascinating journey of exploring what we have come to call “luxury”, the world was an entirely other place. Mobile phones and the internet were still in their infancy, and there was no social media. Buying things generally meant going into shops. Nobody seemed to know, let alone worry much, about the terrible conditions some workers had to endure. Most of us knew nothing of the damage that microbeads and palm oil, carbon emissions and the ubiquity of plastic were doing to our planet. Words such as sustainability, ethics and climate change belonged in the philosophy and geography departments of our great universities. Yoga was a fringe activity for the fey, and “wellness” had not yet become a global industry worth $4.5tn a year.
Luxury itself still mostly revolved around conventional notions of designer clothes, fine furs, exotic cars, champagne, fancy foods such as smoked salmon and caviar, glossy jewels and – in the world of travel – opulent interiors and obsequious flunkies. Above all, intrinsic to the idea of what constituted luxury was the premise that it had to consist of objects or experiences that only the very wealthy could afford.
Today you can buy cashmere in Uniqlo, champagne and smoked salmon in any supermarket. Conversely, in travel, the world’s richest – Bill Gates, Greg Carr, Paul Tudor Jones – seek simple food and an untrammelled wilderness to wonder at. They can get fancy food and 800-thread-count sheets at home. What they want are things rarer still: pure air, silence, starry skies, an absence of social media and, as every purveyor of bespoke travel will tell you, an opportunity to give back. They expect their children to visit the local schools and orphanages, they want to know their money is helping preserve rare species or transform the lives of the local communities they visit.
The appeal of “stuff” has lessened. Special experiences matter more. It’s why, for instance, a company like LVMH is buying up hotel groups such as Belmond, which it snapped up earlier this year, and building up its leisure portfolio. Tacked on to the search for transformative experiences is the desire to learn.
“There’s been a paradigm shift from the search for experiences to reach for something beyond – an accumulation of knowledge, if you like,” says Adrian Cheng, executive vice-chairman and general manager of Hong Kong-based New World Development, and the man behind innovative retail concept K11 Musea in Hong Kong. “The very rich, when they travel, want to understand, to learn, to reflect on history and to gain an insight into other cultures.” Cultural-retail experience is the new buzz phrase. At K11 Musea, Cheng offers a range of cultural programmes, from guided art tours and green tours to live music, design workshops and cooking classes.
One of the most marked changes in the 25 years I’ve covered luxury has been that of the consumer. Those with the wherewithal to buy luxury have become younger. And the new consumer wants adventure and wellness. Many of the new young rich are looking for “meaning” in their lives – “frantic and frazzled” is how one owner of a serious and very expensive medi-spa described many of her customers.
In fashion, the luxury industry has had to contend with the rise and rise of leisurewear. Think of one item of clothing that has defined the past decade and one must surely consider the legging. It was once despised as the death of style, but there now exists a multibillion-dollar business that serves only this niche market. And the demand seems insatiable. Dozens of luxe leisurewear labels have emerged in the past 10 years, and almost all heritage brands have dabbled in sportswear.
Along the way, the omnipotence of streetwear brands, such as Supreme, Palace and Off-White, have transformed the once-staid menswear market. Founded by Virgil Abloh, Off-White completely disrupted the traditional codes of luxury when it launched in 2012 and was, according to Lyst’s Year in Fashion report, the most searched for brand this year. Vetements, the streetwear label founded by brothers Demna and Guram Gvasalia in 2014 that scandalised the industry in 2015 with a £185 DHL T-shirt. But at the close of the decade both Abloh and Demna Gvasalia are ensconced as creative directors at Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga, respectively.
Meanwhile, Gucci’s staggering €8bn revenues of late have been predicated largely on the success of the trainer – another great luxury leveller. Brands that failed to follow the sneaker have found themselves falling out of favour, and choosing a designer trainer today is almost as difficult as settling on a new pope.
The new generation of luxury consumers are tech savvy and time impatient. They want the internet to meet their material needs, yet still expect exceptional service. Today, if you log onto Net-a-Porter or any of the bigger online suppliers you can chat in live time, discuss sizes and get styling advice on demand. Deliveries to many urban centres are now met within minutes. The arrival of TOSHI (only in inner London so far) has added yet another layer to the online experience. With your new dress, handbag or pair of designer shoes arrives a real person to check that they fit and to offer accessories that might further appeal.
Even more tech-oriented is Gen Alpha (those children born after 2010, when Apple launched the iPad and Instagram was founded). They have never known a world without smartphones or social media. Statisticians reckon some 2.5 million of them are born every week, and they already have astonishing purchasing power. Described by Adrian Cheng as the most “virtual savvy” group of all, Gen Alphas are flush with pocket money and ready to spend it. They dress their online avatars in designer clothes, using fashion gaming apps such as Ada and Drest, and have remarkable brand awareness.
Happily, demand for the more traditional symbols of luxury – the Hermès scarf, the Cartier watch, the Vuitton handbag – haven’t disappeared, as those labels’ revenue figures make clear. But there’s an increasing focus on narrative. And provenance. Craft skills and savoir-faire have all become key in the luxury conversation. There is always a place for the truly beautiful. It was Stendhal who described beauty as “la promesse du bonheur”, and luxury goods are, after all, designed to make people feel happy.
But the last word should go to Franca Sozzani. Speaking about luxury and ethics in the industry a few years before her death in 2016, the much‑loved editor of Italian Vogue declared that there was a new luxury. “Ethical is a way of thinking, a lifestyle… It means respecting nature and the environment, it means fair trade… We don’t need to kill a crocodile or a leopard to live in a luxurious world. We need to carry out research in a new way, using different textiles and leather and embroideries and making more sophisticated, elegant, unique fashion… Uniqueness, quality, diversity, the respect for nature, for the environment, fair trade and sustainability. These are the new words for luxury.”
Luxury still has a power. It’s unusual, ephemeral, evolving – and incredibly potent.