Introduction: Why Meta-luxury?
Luxury, as a concept, has been used in many different ways. As a term, ‘luxury’ has amassed a multitude of meanings and, in that very process of accumulation, its true meaning has become diluted.
The word luxury has its roots in Latin: luxus, meaning ‘abundance’ and ‘sumptuous enjoyment’. Roman history relays a number of accounts of the term, often with the decidedly insalubrious connotation of sinful enjoyment, or with a pejorative tone, deriding the extravagance of the nouveaux riches. The Greeks had a number of words for luxury, each with its own subtle, or in some cases less subtle, connotations.
Today, the generic, middle-of-the-road definition sees luxury referring to those goods whose price makes them exclusive, affordable only to a limited number of affluent individuals. While in principle this concept is sufficiently precise, it is in fact rather blurred. How expensive? How exclusive? There is certainly a strong degree of subjectivity in its interpretation, which makes it difficult, for instance, to establish the boundaries between the idea of a premium and the concept of luxury. High price is possibly a necessary, yet certainly not a sufficient, condition for luxury. The phrase ‘reassuringly expensive’ is rather un-reassuring. To make matters even more confused, the first decade of this century saw the rise of ‘accessible luxury’, an oxymoron that became the way in which many businesses, in different sectors, went on openly to define their models, before that idea was swept away by the 2008–9 economic meltdown.
In other cases, the idea of luxury is defined through a number of specific product categories, such as jewellery, fashion, perfume, wines and spirits. While it is true that the conventional idea of luxury is normally associated with these categories, this also would appear to be a circular and self-defeating logic – the idea is defined through products that are in turn defined by the idea. It is a loop that can be supported only by an assumption – that certain products and services are excluded – which is of course subjective and debatable. Can a €50 bottle of perfume distributed in self-service stores be considered in the same way as a €500,000 highly customised car? Apart from such contradictions, defining luxury through certain categories would appear to be a rather static definition in a fast-changing world. As new products and services evolve and as behaviours change and cultures blend as never before, this type of definition seems to originate from pure convention rather than from true conviction. As such, it has a high risk of becoming – or being – outdated.
Some would suggest that luxury is about a product that represents one, or the absolute, pinnacle in its respective category. And yet, everyday language – be it in a business, academic or other context – contradicts this notion. Many of the so-called luxury brands off er, as part of their portfolio, products that are, fundamentally, commodities. Consider, for instance, eyewear. In most markets, sunglasses and frames are designed and produced by a handful of manufacturers, each licensing a selection of brands that very often occupy the same competitive space. The obvious result is an offering that is standardised – extremely similar products that fail to clearly outperform competing alternatives under any quality criterion, and are thus easily substitutable.
Could luxury be associated with products that exist in limited quantities? Not unless we come to accept that the vast majority of those that are universally referred to as global luxury brands, in fact, are not. A radical and highly debatable position.
Luxury products and services are sometimes described as those for which the brand represents a key driver of purchase – to an extent where it is the dominant force in attracting demand and commanding a substantial price premium. While there are certainly elements of truth in this line of thought – and we will look at this in greater detail – this is a somewhat forced simplification of reality. The importance of the brand is neither necessary nor sufficient to outline luxury. On the one hand, brands have been shown to play a major role in categories that escape any acceptable notion of luxury. In the case, for example, of mid-price fashion, or leading global denim brands, there is no doubt that the brand itself almost always plays a primary role in securing choice for these companies. Yet, none of these could be defined as luxury brands. Of course, the opposite is also true. Certain customised, one-of-a-kind, extremely expensive products owe their success not to a well known, established brand, but rather to their intrinsic technical performance or aesthetic qualities. Th is is typical of those circumstances in which the craftsman meets the connoisseur.
All these definitions of luxury also imply that the idea is a relative one. Price, quality, category of origin, volumes and brand importance are all parameters that are difficult to assess in the absence of a benchmark. We describe a product or service as being expensive as a consequence of the price of similar products, and as a function of who we are and where we live. Which means, quite simply, bidding farewell to an absolute definition of luxury.
The difficulties encountered in approaching the term ‘luxury’, however, are not just a question of definition. They also originate from prejudice and interpretation, and that is partly due to the very lack of clarity surrounding the term. To some, ‘luxury’ conveys much more than an objective meaning, and goes on to imply a moral judgement – unnecessary, exaggerated, ephemeral, arrogant and socially unfair. To others, it seems simply to have the stigma of the déjà vu, the stereotypical, the predictable. It appears shallow and vacuous, conjuring images of glittering shop windows, high-heeled shoes and catwalks.
As we have seen, the term ‘luxury’ has been overexposed, overstretched, deformed and diluted, and as a result is now worn out beyond recovery. We believe there is no longer the opportunity to reshape its meaning, and to bring back a deeper, comprehensive and universally acceptable sense to it. Every year brings to the shelves new books on the subject, new conferences convening discourses on variations on the theme of luxury. As a result, every year seems to bring up new new definitions, with the ultimate result of making the word ever more meaningless.
Th is book could indeed have focused on the quest for yet another definition of luxury. However, we feel there is little value in adding to an increasingly theoretical, and potentially endless, debate about what luxury really is. Th is book therefore takes a different approach.
We observe the existence and rise of an increasingly prominent space of offer and demand, whose cultural, market and business traits transcend the current banal notion of luxury. And, rather than trying to redefine luxury accordingly – a hopeless task – we simply coin a different name for such a paradigm.
It is a paradigm resurrecting authentic art and science, and bringing together craftsmen and connoisseurs rather than manufacturers and consumers. It is about métiers, numbered series and ateliers rather than positioning, volumes and networks. It is about signatures as we knew them rather than luxury brands as we have become accustomed to know them. Ultimately, it is about a culture in itself, based on the quest for the absolute.
In seeking to express, in a concise and effective way, what stands beyond luxury – more precisely, beyond both the debate about luxury and the common notion of luxury – we turn to one of the cornerstones of Western culture.
Aristotle’s Metaphysics, centred on the subject of existence and the nature of being, stands as a pinnacle in the history of human thinking. One of the most influential works ever conceived, its intellectual power shaped the course of Greek, Arab and Christian thinking, across both the arts and the sciences. Today, the term metaphysics has come to indicate the branch of philosophy focusing on the same, fundamental, topics.
It is ironic that a masterpiece of that scale should be passed on to posterity with a name that is certainly not the author’s intended title, and whose origin is debated. The term combines the Greek terms meta (‘beyond’, ‘after’) and physika (‘physics’) and is thought to have been introduced in the anthologisation process in Alexandria. Whilst certain scholars once believed that the title had been applied to works concerned with what is beyond physics, today’s most widely accepted etymology is much more earthly: archived in complete editions as the work following another of Aristotle’s works, titled Physics, Metaphysics simply denoted ‘the book after Physics’.
Th is very ambivalence is to us a good reason to coin the term meta-luxury.
The term ‘meta-luxury’ would seem to capture, in an effective and memorable way, the double intent of this book. On the one hand, we wish to move away from what we feel is a tired debate. On the other, we want to explore a rising paradigm that does not deserve to be defined through a word that has become meaningless and empty. Meta-luxury is a form of luxury that escapes the clichés of so-called luxury. It is about luxury beyond luxury.
It is about the culture of excellence.
Chapter excerpt courtesy of Palgrave Macmillan