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- 24 Jan 2009

Towards a New Luxury

As a boy, I attended Detroit Country Day, a competitive private school in a well-to-do suburb of Michigan’s main city (and possibly the site of a soon-to-be auto industry disaster). While going about the business of bettering my mind, I was also enrolled in a parallel curriculum. The subsidiary lesson plan, the personal benefits of which I still question, was informed by the prosperous families patronising the institution and revolved around status symbols.

I remember the admiration and envy when a classmate’s mother pulled into the drive in a brand new cream-coloured Mercedes 560 SEL. I coveted its beige leather interior and burled walnut console – at the time, it seemed like the physical incarnation of the success I was being groomed to achieve.

As I look back at that moment, the object of my desire and many of the values it represented to me now appear surprisingly irrelevant.

Transparent social status and upward mobility (not to mention terrible fuel economy) are not nearly as alluring as they used to be. I’d like to think that this is simply a function of my personal evolution, but I believe it is a matter that goes beyond the individual and is, in fact, symptomatic of an impending sea change in Western society’s perception of the true meaning of luxury.

To be sure, I still get a bit weak at the knees when I see an old-school Mercedes sedan; but these days it’s for very different reasons. Now, the car feels like a vestige of another era, when a mother had time to idle at the curb to wait for her child, without the anxiety of having to rush off to a million errands. Its gleaming, well-proportioned interior is a testament to hand-crafted excellence, and the desire to have the space in which to enjoy it. The three-pronged chrome disc that proudly announces itself on the hood is more than just shorthand for having arrived in the world – it has become a symbol of a tradition steeped in tangible engineering achievements.

Mercedes-Benz 560 SEL Sedan

Space, time, quality, and authenticity — four facets of the new school of luxury — are all embodied in this beautiful car. Historically, these have been intrinsic aspects of luxury’s definition, the very foundation of its identity, but in the contemporary era, the pressure for perpetual corporate growth, combined with an increasingly impatient consumer base that is principally interested in luxury’s symbolic value, has crowded out these values.

The pace of modern life doesn’t allow for an attachment to a treasured object to grow over time – each season magazines are shilling the latest “It” bag – and the urban containers that many of us inhabit are barely able to contain our possessions, let alone showcase them in the manner they deserve.

The current economic crisis, however, offers an opportunity to change what we buy, and what we do with it once it’s ours. It is an invitation for a second thought before we show it off, then cram it into our closet one or two months later, never to be seen again. If it was worth it in the first place, then, like the Mercedes, that value will still be evident years, or indeed, decades later.

Contemporary luxury firms would be well-advised to take notice of this shift in dynamic. The days of name-checked brands and soft cloth-polished bling are numbered. Innovators who are prepared to step forward today are positioned to reap the rewards.

63_richard_medium In his role as the editor of high-end lifestyle bible Departures, Richard David Story stands at the intersection of premium travel, fashion, art and design, possessing a unique perspective on movements in all of the aforementioned industries. ‘[Mention] luxury these days and watch the eyes roll, the mouths twitch, ’ Story observes. ‘It’s not that luxury itself is dead, but what is dead is conspicuous consumption. We are moving from “what I want” to “what I need”. Old-style luxury is fuelled by status, by the need to show just how much we can have, how much we can consume, how much we can afford. New-style luxury is… necessary luxury – necessary to fulfill a part of our identity, as opposed to our wardrobe.’

Story’s presentiments will become more and more self-evident in the coming quarters as sales figures, at least in the traditional power centres of the West, drop precipitously across the board, affecti5ng in a particular way non-essential pleasure-based purchases.

There will, of course, always be a market for overt status symbols, such as logo-branded Gucci and Louis Vuitton handbags (and key chains, wallets, laptop cases, and sunglasses, and so forth). In emerging markets, it’s likely that these kinds of merchandise will retain an advantage due to their high-profile visibility and ubiquitous branding. But in the West, a new set of criteria for luxury will become more important. These principles, when applied together with the influential ‘Stealth Wealth’ approach, promise to redefine the top tier’s conception of how to lead the good life – quietly, and with discretion and an air of self-confidence about one’s taste in an age increasingly defined by insecurity.

The poster child for this movement is, of course, Bottega Veneta, the prestigious Italian house that built its name on hand-crafted leather goods. In eight years, creative director Tomas Maier has reinvigorated Bottega Veneta, adding a prêt-à-porter line that is consistently lauded as one of Milan’s best; and he has boasted double digit growth for the past few years. His business model and creative vision merge seamlessly, pushing growth and expanding product categories at a pace and scale that do not compromise their artisanal approach and intimate ethos.

Bottega Veneta window in London

There is the temptation for competitors to try and replicate this winning formula; yet such an effort would be foolhardy. Bottega Veneta has a 42 year history, and a dedicated team of craftsmen to back up its image. And the fact is, consumers aren’t stupid. By now they can distinguish when they are being marketed to, from when they are being offered something genuine.

The situation for other luxury brands isn’t hopeless, but they must adapt some of Bottega’s strategy to their own unique DNA. Then, in all segments of the luxury world, companies can build some measure of insurance against the global recession, and put in place a plan to shepherd them into success once the downturn eventually reverses itself.

For instance, brands could launch dedicated lines that cater to more discerning customers who value smaller production runs and a more targeted creative approach. Chanel has developed this kind of model with its Métiers d’art collections, incubating a more intimate merchandise niche beneath the broader rubric of the Chanel megabrand. Other brands have attempted similar initiatives. However, Chanel’s stands out for its clarity of vision, with its custom-made ad-campaigns communicating a significant investment in the development of a smaller-scale luxury identity alongside a more traditional trend-based approach.

Other houses, like old-school standby Hermès, have a history of strictly limiting production runs on signature merchandise – so while fragrance and beauty products might be available in bulk, highly-coveted leather goods aren’t as easy to access, allowing the brand a built-in sense of low-key exclusivity.

Don’t be surprised if, in the next year, you witness the biggest luxury players regrouping and attempting to reinvent themselves for adverse market conditions, putting forward bespoke options and a more intimate public image as a cornerstone of their new strategy. This does not apply to fashion brands alone – travel, hospitality, design and wellness are all making adjustments for the new economic reality.

The rich will continue to spend, albeit at a slower pace, but they will need new reasons to open their pocketbooks. They will seek new products that reflect their revised priorities, which have shifted from the desire to make externally-oriented, status-based impressions to the nurturing of more intimate relationships with the objects they invite into their lives.

After two and a half decades of rabid, indiscriminate consumption, the top tier has evolved to a new stage of sophistication. Now, it’s time for the luxury establishment to catch up.

Sameer Reddy, Editor-at-Large


While the media may be awash with financial doomsday scenarios spelling a death sentence for luxury as we know it, there’s an alternate definition waiting to be discovered.

The idea that our customers have to spend an inordinate sum of money in order to manifest good taste is a mistruth. Here is a list of benchmark items that exemplify a new school of luxury, one which is predicated on space, time, quality, and authenticity.

To be sure, some objects are expensive, but others are well within reach.

Bottega Veneta pirite and silver ring


Tomas Maier rewrote the rules of the luxury game with his iconic iterations of Bottega’s woven leather bags. Few are familiar, however, with his jewellery, which echoes the understatement and graphic elements for which his handbags are known.
$540 –

Caillou black fiberglass sailing canoe


Canoeing might seem like an eccentric way to get a dose of daily exercise, but if it can be a decidedly athletic means of meditation and a way to be at peace while improving oneself.
approx. $8000 –

Linda Farrow Vintage


Sunglasses are eternally chic, but the appeal of the gold logo-laden variety has faded fast. Customers are opting instead for standout shades from Linda Farrow Vintage’s collaborations with avant-garde designers such as Raf Simons and Bernhard Wilhelm.
price available upon request –

Ikepod Horizon watch by Marc Newson


Watches are one of the few vanities that social convention allows well-to-do men to embrace. In the Horizon watch, Ikepod’s incredible engineering combines with Marc Newson’s futurist silhouette and materials to reinvigorate the sometimes staid art of time.
$39,000 –

Bose QuietComfort 3 noise-cancelling headphones


Modern life is full of unwanted static that crowds out our ability to lose ourselves in the moment. The option to cancel out extraneous noise is a godsend.
$314 –

Apple Macbook Air 1.6ghz


An instant design classic, the Macbook Air is the perfect example of practical innovation designed to improve the quality of modern life – one of the principal building blocks of the New Luxury.
$1799 –

Stella McCartney Calming + Soothing Elixir


McCartney deserves credit for actualizing her political ideals in her product lines, proving that there’s profit to be made in standing by your convictions. Her 100% certified organic elixir is an antidote to something we all struggle with – the toxic stress load of everyday life.
$64 –

Hermes vintage silk twill scarf


When it comes to logo-free luxury, Hermes wrote the book. 72 years after their first appearance, their collectible silk scarves show no sign of losing their timeless appeal.
$295 –