Luxury is like Porn: Easy to Recognize. Difficult to Define.

Luxury is like Porn: Easy to Recognize. Difficult to Define.

While we all recognize luxury, definitions are hard to agree on. Some define luxury by a list of attributes, others by price, and still others by exclusivity of distribution.
— Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited (DTTL), Global Powers of Luxury Goods 2014

As our global corporate overlords continue to play Game of Thrones with the world's various ritzy brands, more has ended up in the hands of the 99%, resulting in a bottom line as shiny as the merch - the 75 largest luxury goods companies generated aggregate sales worth $172.2 billion. 

Nice numbers, certainly, but they also make it hella hard to answer this simple question:

What is luxury?

  • cushy comfort that's beautiful and really expensive: eg. a fancy hotel or pricey cruise
  • an item that is spendy & lovely to have but not necessary: eg. Champagne or handmade chocolate
  • something that gives you a lot of pleasure but cannot be done often: eg. playing hooky from work

Cambridge Dictionaries Online

Luxury is lifestyle. What do my friends feel like when they come into my home? Do I have art walls? A comfortable environment?...Crestron systems that control black-out shades and window glass that can go from clear to opaque with the switch of a button are very popular. It’s about privacy and comfort. You can check out the whole environment of your home from an iPad now. When you’re traveling, you can check in. It’s a nanny cam turned into full-blown security. People want to know that when they are home, they are safe.

In short: beauty - both the art on the walls and the environment in which it’s showcased - and comfort that comes with feeling safe.
— Nick Segal, president and founding partner of Los Angeles brokerage Partners Trust
A good or service that is not considered a necessity but is considered as something that brings pleasure or happiness.
— InvestorWords
In the year 1901, there were only 2000 people with cars in Paris. So having a car was a luxury, whatever the car. Now you have more or less 600 cars per 1000 people, so it’s no longer the car, it’s the brand. The brand is the source of luxury.
— Jean-Noël Kapferer, co-author of The Luxury Strategy

"The drive of digital and social communications has brought luxury brands to a host of new, younger consumers in a truly global fashion," continues Kapferer. "Emerging centers of wealth have changed the profile of the affluent, and in turn the profile of the luxury consumer." Like today's car-owning Parisians compared to their counterparts from a century ago. "At that time, luxury was segregation," says Kapferer, however, now that it's not the item but the brand which is coveted, it's meant that more people than ever have their sights trained on the good life. "People think they have a right to the dream of the rich - a small right but a right nonetheless."
Although the "new" luxury is being enjoyed by more people, according to Kapferer, it still fundamentally remains inaccessible. Which is key, because it reflects something really interesting driving this elusive concept. "When you buy a very expensive watch you expect to keep it all your life. And this is why the notion of performance is not that important, because if performance is 100% the reason to buy, then as soon as something comes along that is better, you will upgrade." Like your beloved iPhone or Samsung tablet, both of which will be obsolete within two years, prompting you to upcycle. "Premium products don’t stay premium for a long time," he adds. "So premiumness is essentially about death, fashion is also. In fashion you are fashionable and then you are unfashionable."  

Not so with luxury. "Luxury," continues Kapferer, "is a way to remain, and that is why throughout history people have invested huge amounts of money in luxury goods. Luxury is a way to fight against time."(Which is probably why rich people collect stuff to bequeathe to museums in their name, thereby ensuring a form of immortality.)

I was reminded of something Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood character observed in the first season of House of Cards:

Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years, power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.
— Lesley Scott