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What is Luxury? Attempting to Define the Impossible

Photo by Julie Graham

By: Ellie Roberto, Executive Editor

What’s the first brand that comes to mind when you think of “luxury?” Louis Vuitton? Chanel? Fendi? If you answered with one of these brands, you’d be correct. However, can a  subjective concept such as luxury really be defined?  

Before the end of the 20th century, luxury fashion houses dictated what consumers wore and the trends they followed. If a woman could afford Chanel in the 1950s, she would most likely wear head-to-toe Chanel almost daily. It’s rare today to see someone walk down the street wearing entirely one brand. Instead, people tend to express themselves through a variety of brands and often become major influencers for large fashion houses.  

For years, luxury has been considered to be at the height of fashion,  worn by members of high society  and seen on the runways in Paris and Milan, but much like the word wealth, luxury can mean many things to different people. Over time, high-end fashion, or luxury fashion, has grown to include Off White hoodies, Yeezy t-shirts and Nike sneakers, which in previous years, would not have fit into the exclusive definition of luxury.

Over forty years ago, a group of European luxury brands created the luxury strategy; a marketing strategy designed to expand luxury brands’ consumer base beyond their few exclusive clientele while maintaining their places in the luxury sector. The luxury strategy contains 24 anti-laws of marketing that cement an exclusive definition of luxury in the eyes of the consumer. The anti-laws include, “Make it difficult for clients to buy,” “Luxury sets the price; price does not set luxury” and “Keep raising the average price of the product range.”

In tandem with the messages expressed in these anti-laws, some high-end brands have gone as far as burning their excess inventory to maintain their products’ exclusivity  and avoid being sold in outlet stores. One of the luxury brands most known for destroying their products is Burberry; however, in 2018, the company announced it would stop destroying unsold stock. 

Luxury products are associated with durability, high-prices, craftsmanship, heritage and rarity. Some see luxury as only attainable by the happy few. In a 2011 blog, Vogue Italian editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani echoed some of these attributes in her definition of  luxury: “Craftsmanship is luxury. A product is lux when it is handmade, tailored for few. Luxury meaning exclusiveness.”

Brands with a deep-rooted history, such as Chanel and Hermès, reside in this common definition of luxury; however, those definitions of luxury reflect old world, elitist principles. They lack reference to the bottom-up influence we see in the fashion world today and the representation of variety in human experience, This is why the definition of luxury is shifting; it’s a  threat to high-end retailers and brands.

The key idea of  luxury is exclusivity, but it’s being diversified with mass  production as more and more brands offer the quality experience of other high-end items, often at lower  prices. To maintain relevance to the modern consumer, traditional luxury brands must find a way to merge streetwear with their already defined historical image  that will appeal to the new generation of luxury fashion  buyers.  

Social media and technology have changed the speed at which consumers find and purchase fashionable items. In the digital world, it’s easy to view collections from multiple designers simultaneously, allowing one to pick and choose who they shop from.

On Instagram, Tik Tok and Snapchat, users can watch haute couture runway shows virtually and then mimic what they see on the runway in their own ways using other luxury or  non-luxury items. This creates diversity in individualized,  luxury-like styles that are fresh, rebellious or fun. The old luxury was material things, while the new luxury is more abstract and includes how clothes make people feel.

Luxury is a pleasure. With this new inclusive definition in mind, can it be said that eating an extra slice of cheese pizza at midnight is luxe? Or hitting play on another Netflix series episode? Aren’t these considered exclusive experiences too? What can be luxury? Louis Vuitton menswear artistic director and CEO of Off-White, Virgil Abloh, has an answer to this question. He says, “If you covet it, it’s luxurious to you. For a 17-year old kid, that Supreme t-shirt is their Louis Vuitton. It  doesn’t matter if it’s $30.” 

The modern definition of luxury is desire, and it’s not exclusive.

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