If Luxury is for the Masses, What Now Consitutes Luxury?


Sophie Maxwell | September 01, 2011

Sophie Maxwell, head of insight at Pearlfisher, suggests that like beauty, luxury is in the eye of the beholder, but post recession luxury it carries new truths

Louis Vuitton’s Miel De La Belle Jardinière, cultivated on the rooftop of its Parisian headquarters

Beauty and luxury have always been inextricably linked. And just like beauty, which has moved from bespoke preparation to mass consumption, luxury is now largely viewed as commoditised. Today the attributes that make luxury personal and desirable to the individual – and which formerly motivated and defined the luxury purchase – are becoming a true rarity as evidenced by the sheer number of luxury names and their ever- expanding ranges.

Consumers now have an even greater struggle to source and seek out that very special something that is truly unique. In addition – and even in an unstable post-recessionary climate – every sector and demographic of society feels entitled to having luxury in their life. Meeting the needs of the masses by capturing the imagination of the individual has become a somewhat ironic but newly prescient need for luxury brands right across the spectrum.

Historically, luxury has always been about one-to-one storytelling as we weave our own narrative about our chosen luxury brand or product through its heritage, the profile of the craft, the detail of the process and the occasion of our purchase…However, in recent times, we have deferred to the media, allowing them to dictate the luxury story for us – the inflated prices, the flourishing sales figures, the ‘me too’ hysteria of the waiting lists…

“ Meeting the needs of the masses by capturing the imagination of the individual has become an ironic need for luxury brands ”

The media coverage relating to, for example, Mulberry’s ‘Alexa’ bag certainly bears testament to this. The ‘Alexa’ is credited with not only recession proof success, reportedly making up around 30% of the companies sales, but with driving the brand over the billion pound mark – remarkable for a bag inspired by a vintage mulberry satchel and its owners very individual and eclectic style.

The ‘Alexa’ bag is about TV presenter and model Alexa Chung’s story and personality. The fact that she has a look that is not easy to emulate has not stopped a legion of woman aspiring and buying into it. Luxury today would seem to suggest a perfect balance of inspiration, individuality and emulation, products and experiences we can build our own story around that start from a prescriptive but original viewpoint.

The new consumer motivation is not driven by price tags, peer pressure approval or statement. Or rather it is, but it’s motivation of another kind – a wholly subjective and single-minded statement. As we said above, we can all afford a certain level of luxury, we all feel entitled to luxury and this is because luxury is so different to each and everyone of us – a dress with a history, finally owning the car of our dreams …It’s about the times we wear or use this item and ultimately about creating our own luxury experience by weaving the desired luxury item into the story of our life. Luxury consumers are increasingly becoming curators – inspired by a story but more able and confident to put together their own style.

Alexa Chung, pictured with the ‘recession proof’ Mulberry ‘Alexa’ bag, inspired by her personality and style

That Mulberry is now on its way to becoming one of the world’s luxury Goliaths illustrates the dichotomy of the luxury world – individual Vs. global – or rather the journey from individual inspiration to global appeal. Created by Roger Saul in rural Somerset in in the1970’s, Mulberry’s allure was founded from this same ability to create desirability through originality and character. Established and differentiated through its beautifully crafted take on products like its poacher and dispatch bags, it drew its inspiration from the local environment. Through them Saul presented his personal view of luxury captured in their character and translated his unique perspective into a brand that has today become appreciated and desired by a global audience.

‘Luxury is about bridging the gap between quality, truly original ideas and the delivery of a fantasy. It’s very rare’, says Saul today when asked by us to define his vision of luxury. And his continuing instinct for the luxury zeitgeist is very evident in his latest venture: Kilver Court (, a return to the local environment that first inspired him and a reflection of the personal journey he has taken as a true pioneer of the modern luxury lifestyle.

A long-term champion of sustainable living, Saul’s Kilver court is based on principles of restoration, regeneration and renewal and has been restored as a labour of love to offer a combination of discount designer wear (a recession born phenomenon), an ‘upcycled furniture’ collection created with his son Freddie which is also for sale in Selfridges, pop-up restaurants, an organic shop offering homegrown produce from his organic estate Sharpham Park and a wellness centre. The complete contemporary luxury experience and destination.

“ Luxury consumers are increasingly becoming curators – inspired by a story but more able and confident to put together their own style ”

This perfectly represents how the hidden story has become today’s most real and most wanted luxury story. It is, in part, of course, tied into the story of the brand itself but it’s more than that – it’s about our own interpretation of and desire for a particular element of a certain luxury brand or experience… Let me digress for a moment if I may and illustrate my thinking with my own luxury story.

My favourite, personal item is a beloved and carefully maintained Mulberry dress designed circa 2002 by the talented Nicholas Knightly before he left to join LVMH. Beautifully designed with his trademark feminine style and simplicity, the fact that he’s no longer resident makes it more treasured and covetable and each wear makes it more loved, gives me more personal memories and I suppose strengthens my relationship with the brand – an irreplaceable emotional attachment as it becomes part of the fabric – and story – of my life in a way that cannot be replicated.

Traditionally, what defined a desirable luxury purchase was the choice that had been made. The relationship between the luxury brand and buyer was key. Built up over time as a lifestyle choice this familiarity meant the customer felt instinctively that a brand’s ethos and ethics matched their own and, likewise, the brand felt confident to anticipate and answer needs and suggest new choices.

Mulberry creator Roger Saul’s ’upcycled furniture, produced under sustainable lifestyle enterprise Kilver Court

But in a ‘me too’ culture, luxury brands who have traditionally relied upon loyalty and emotional ties have been faced by a new generation of brand-hopping, quick fix consumers. It has become more difficult for the brands and retailers to find new ways to truly celebrate individuality by balancing the individuality of the luxury item with the emotional pull it should create for the individual.

Today the definitions governing our luxury motivation are definitely shifting away from commodity and towards a new luxury democracy. The story is – as they always do – coming full circle to a desire for care, the bespoke, craftsmanship and attention to detail… told today in a new way for a new audience. Brands can’t necessarily rely on previous tactics and, ultimately, it’s not about the limited edition, the diffusion range, or a customised collection…but about controlling choice and focus in some way – in a truly innovative and special way – to create deep, lasting and emotionally resonant brand connections.

But in a world of mass brand expansion how do we make luxury choices feel personal and special? How can we continue to find the real, singular magic in brands also driven to monopolise?

“ In a world of mass brand expansion how do we make luxury choices feel personal and special? ”

My favourite recent example of this – and an example of how you can never know brands too well – is global luxury leader Louis Vuitton that recently revealed a surprisingly different side to its logo heavy presence, with the production of its new ‘La Belle Jardiniere’ honey.

Vuitton has been making honey from the hives on the roof of its Paris headquarters which, packaged in an exquisitely, almost homely, pared down style, is purportedly only being given to ‘family’, friends and loyal customers. The threat to bees has made honey a luxury product anyway and this new Vuitton initiative is truly inspired and perfectly in tune with both the global and luxury spirit.

With this project – and hopefully with future ones like it– this kind of behaviour shows brands like Vuitton in a new, surprising and definitely fresh light as it evolves or, rather, revisits and hones what luxury used to be about: relationships with the few, discretion and the creation of wonderful, surprise products to foster – or rekindle – the kind of deep emotional and personal attachment that ensures the brand has a special place in our individual lives and stories.