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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.

Branding the Mask

design maskIf the human race can be counted on for anything, it is that we will consistently scare ourselves to death whenever we can. We love to overreact, spin conspiracies, and take (or talk a lot about taking) radical action. It’s what we do.

Another thing we do is we exploit our native fears for commercial purposes.

Enter the Asian Surgical Mask Phenomenon. This is a trend that continues to build and grow year on year. From China to Korea to Japan to any number of Asian nations, the spread of the surgical mask gets wider and wider. On any given day in Shanghai, you can see people walking around, sporting the mask. The mask exists to ward off airborne germs (yours or others) or protect you from air pollution.

But where are the brands?

With hundreds and thousands of blank white spaces covering noses and mouths, why are we not seeing a market for Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel masks – or Nike, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s? The opportunity for brand communication is enormous and yet is left almost completely alone.
It could be that the brands do not want to connect themselves with illness – and that would be justified and understandable. But one has to assume that many of the masks are now being worn less out of necessity than as accessories. In that case, I would expect a swelling tide of branded masks to already be out there.

An argument could be made for luxury brands, adding a new area for expansion in affordable luxury, akin to sunglasses and watches. Surely a “little black dress” could be accompanied by a “little black mask.” Coco Chanel would like the consistency and Lagerfeld would have fun with it.

Sports brands could use them to promote awareness and their concern with the wellbeing of their consumers. Nike shorts. Nike t-shirt. Nike headband. Nike facemask. Just do it.

Sadly, the need for facemasks in high pollution areas is no joke. On “high alert” days in China, people are encouraged to stay indoors rather than expose themselves to the toxic air. In such an environment, masking up is good alternative to hiding yourself away. And people are doing it in droves. There is so much demand in China, for example, that the counterfeiters have moved in on the territory. What do they know that the big brands don’t?

It is curious to me, therefore, that this opportunity is being neglected. If the facemask is becoming de rigeur, surely fashion mavens should be calling for their integration in one’s total look. Sunglasses were invented for UV protection, but people now choose them based first on how they look and only then on how they protect.pipemask

Depending on my mood, I would certainly have a notapipe branded mask for working days, a Puma mask to match my sneakers, and perhaps an Armani mask for formal occasions.

In the words of Karl Lagerfeld himself: “Don’t dress to kill, dress to survive.”




The Made-in-China Syndrome

IT IS THE largest manufacturing base in the world. It is the largest single consumer base on the planet. Yet China’s brand and reputation seems to mean only cheap and mass-produced.

Is this just the way things are?

China has become the world’s largest consumer of luxury goods. This has come about, according to various sources, because of an increase in Chinese wealth in certain strata of society, because of the allure of Western luxury super-brands such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel or Dior, and to a large extent on the lack of recognized brands coming from the People’s Republic. As a consumer powerhouse, China will keep the luxury sector afloat in years to come.

The question, however, is why are there so few Chinese luxury brands that are known abroad. Such brands are present on the market, including the Red Flag sedan of Chairman Mao, luxury retailer Shanghai Tang, or the luxury fashion label Ne Tiger. And while Shanghai Tang has made it to London (and Bangkok, Honolulu, Miami, New York, Las Vegas, Madrid, Paris, Tokyo, and Macau), there are no significant Made-in-China luxury brands to be found outside the country.

The Experts

Any discussion about luxury in China, moreover, brings the experts out in droves. They want to tell us about socio-economic indicators and drivers. They want to tell us about the rise of the Chinese middle class. They will also have a few slides about the spending power of the new Chinese super-rich and their habits.

This is all very interesting. But where are the brands?

Talking to a group of (mostly European) master’s students in Suzhou today, I asked the question: What does Made-in-China mean? And the answers came back –

“Too Chinese”
“Mass produced.”
“Bad quality.”

Bad rap. The argument that they were “too Chinese” meant that the Chinese culture and its associations are too far removed from Western Europe or America to have any impact. This may be true. But the opposite is also true – France and Italy are far from Beijing and yet their traditions are not seen as “too French.”

Brands around the world depend on China for their production. Huge volumes can be handled quickly and reliably at very reasonable prices. And this is probably the biggest stigma-generator of all.

Made-in-China is cheapened by Western brands who DEMAND the cheap, the cut-corners, and light-speed production times. Western brands producing in China count on the low price, and they accept lower quality to get it cheap and fast.



All of this redounds to the detriment of Made-in-China. None of this has anything to do with the centuries of tradition behind brands like Moutai, the most expensive Chinese liquor or Shui Jing Fang whose spirits are sold for hundreds of euros. But export these to Paris and they will sit quietly on the shelves, undisturbed by consumer desire.

Problematically, Chinese brands suffer from our bad memories. We have lost the memory of the China of the Silk Road and Marco Polo when anything brought back from the mysterious East had intrinsic value based on its provenance. Today, the effect runs the other way.

The answer to the question about Chinese brands and Made-in-China is that there ARE brands but we do not let them in. We choose not to understand them. We do not look beyond the China we know.

And the intrepid brand developer who is able to show the Western world a brand made in China whose value and prestige can outshine our own luxury brands will have a foothold in the future.

Brands in China Series