definition of luxury

The Elusive Definition of Luxury


“Luxury is multi-faceted and cannot be contained by easy one-sentence definitions”


Unpopular as it might seem these days, I prefer to know what I am talking about before I start talking about it. When discussing the topic of luxury, the challenge is to come up with a definition for it that satisfies it in the most comprehensive way possible.

I have read many definitions and seen their contradictions. According to HEC professor and author Bernard Dubois: “No systematic study has been undertaken to provide an in-depth, consumer-based, empirical definition of the domain of this complex construct.”

And yet here we are, trying to do just that.

For me, Luxury is an objective category of goods and brands intended for a privileged class of consumer. Luxury is exclusive, rare, and difficult of access. Luxury exudes craftsmanship, artisanal, aesthetic, and artistic design, and a rich cultural heritage. It is generally extremely expensive, and thus beyond the reach of the vast majority of consumers.

Luxury is something of which many are aware and aspire to possessing, yet remains elusive. Luxury is of the highest quality but does not strive for perfection. The aim of luxury can be to provide hedonistic pleasure or to confer high social status.

The reason I say “for me” here is due to wide disagreement on the definition of luxury. The word is flexible and is sometimes used to enhance more ordinary goods and brands. But it would seem evident that true luxury is a class apart and is not a relative value.

Sliding Scale

Because there are no exact criteria with which to measure or quantify luxury, it is often considered a subjective or relative descriptor of high-end expensive goods. For some people, luxury exists at the very top of the socio-economic reach of a consumer, regardless of the extent of that reach.

If the consumer is a blue-collar laborer, his or her definition of luxury will be set much more modestly than a Wall Street pentamillionaire and again different from that of an established and wealthy family whose social status may be considered aristocratic, noble, or hereditary.

According to many scholars of luxury – Jean-Noël Kapferer, Bernard Dubois, Michel Chevalier, Danielle Allérès – luxury is not defined by its high price tag alone. This would tend to create a super-stratum wherein luxury exists beyond comparison with otherdefinition - luxury product from a luxury housepremium goods.

American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen first identified conspicuous consumption as a mode of status-seeking, showing a tendency for the demand for luxury to grow as the price increases. This strictly economic indicator necessarily implies,however, that the underlying value of the luxury good increases as well – prestige, craftsmanship, aesthetic, quality, and an ongoing tradition of excellence from the luxury house that produces it.

In other words, a single product such as a suit, a dress, a watch, or a pen, could not be considered luxury in isolation. If it is a watch by Patek Philippe, however, it is classified as a luxury watch as belonging to a traditional luxury house. Luxury is therefore not a product description. Luxury is conferred by its maker. We attribute all of qualities mentioned here first to the creators (i.e., Patek Philippe, Chanel, Montblanc, etc.), and then by extension to the products or objects they make.


Globalized Luxury

Dubois and Kapferer, among others, speak of the dream factor or the dream equilibrium of luxury. That is to say that luxury is something that people dream about owning or experiencing because it is often very difficult if not impossible for the majority of consumers to purchase due to its high price. But in order for the dream factor to play a role, the luxury designer or house must be known almost universally.

Luxury lectures, Jean-Noël Kapferer, HEC, 2017, Definition of luxury

Jean-Noël Kapferer, HEC, 2017

Despite the fact that luxury is marked by prohibitive prices, communication must be ubiquitous – ensuring that everyone possible knows the names of luxury brands. The more a luxury brand achieves this level of awareness, the more people can dream about owning it, and the higher the prestige rises for those who do.

Awareness of luxury around the world is therefore a key part of the luxury definition. A consumer must feel and perceive the brand’s consistency anywhere the brand is seen, be it in Paris, New York, or Shanghai. A Maserati parked in Belgrade or in Belgravia conveys the same messages of quality, craftsmanship, prestige, and tradition and must evoke the same allure and reveries in both places.


An Ineffable Definition

If there is no universally accepted definition of luxury, there is a preponderance of evidence to suggest that luxury is, at the very least, multi-faceted and cannot be contained by easy one-sentence definitions. In my view, trying to define luxury is very much like trying to assess art – analyzing brushstrokes and media do not do the whole job. We must take into account many other factors, not least of which is an emotional response that can never be quantified.

Although it falls short of becoming the last definitive view of luxury, this is what I am referring to when I use the word. For me, luxury remains an objective standard and we must continuously work to understand it better and its place in the universe. As a category, it is defined as an amalgam of different qualifying factors, none of which in isolation constitutes a prescriptive meaning, but which, in combination, becomes something altogether different and transcendent.

Nothing less will do it justice.

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