“Luxury has multiplied and ‘exploded’: there is no longer one luxury but several luxuries, of various levels and for different consumers,” the social philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky observed around the turn of the century. And today the apparently simple – yet deceptively slippery – notion of luxury is evolving faster than ever before.
In ancient times, luxury was often a guilty pleasure, fulminated against by popes and prelates when it wasn’t reserved for kings and queens. The conspicuous possession of extreme wealth created desire even as it spawned disapproval. The medieval church banned spices as a decadent good. Cleopatra’s dismal end was signalled the moment she dissolved a rare pearl worth 10 million sesterces in vinegar (equivalent to $15 million today) and drank it to settle a bet with her lover Mark Anthony .
Yet ideas of luxury have shifted over the centuries, and today’s exclusivity is a very different entity from yesteryear’s. In an age before air travel, flowers and fruit out of season were privileges almost unimaginable in their decadence: even the wealthiest 18th-century Britons, who could afford a dedicated hothouse to grow pineapples, often reserved the precious fruit for display rather than consumption. Today, whether in a sub-zero Moscow winter or the scalding heat of an Arabian summer, we expect roses and pineapples in the supermarket as if by right.
Exclusivity is societal
“Luxury is contingent: it depends on what a society assumes to be ‘beyond’ the expected,” the cultural historian Giorgio Riello and the design academic Peter McNeil wrote in their study of Western luxe through the ages, Luxury: A Rich History. Over the course of the twentieth century, ideas of luxury slipped and shifted. Coco Chanel popularised the notion of restrained luxury; Greta Garbo vaunted privacy; towards the end of the century, duelling titans Bernard Arnault and François Pinault ushered in the era of widely distributed brands.
In a new millennium, from New York to Shanghai, from Paris to Bangalore, ‘masstige’ made luxury brands accessible to the middle classes, and formerly elite knowledge – from the interior of a hotel room to the view from the catwalk front row – became available at the swipe of a screen.
In tandem, the essential nature of luxury – its exclusivity – underwent a quantum evolution: from goods to services, from possessions to experiences, from objects to understanding, with time the most irretrievably precious element of all.
The exclusivity of quality time
Marios Argyropoulos oversees the front office at the InterContinental Paris Le Grand, a heritage property that dates to 1862, the period when Baron Haussmann architected the creamy facades and grey zinc roofs that define modern Paris, and opened the doors for the first grand hotels. Paris Fashion Week is one of the busiest periods at Le Grand Hôtel, which hosts models, designers, journalists and influencers, and for guests staring down the hectic schedules of a typical Fashion Week, time is absolutely of the essence.
“Before a VIP guest arrives, we know they’re coming,” Argyropoulos says. “We’ll get an SMS from the car five minutes ahead of time. Depending on the preferences of the guest, we might head straight to the reception of the Club InterContinental private lounge and greet them with their favorite cocktail. Or we might block an elevator with a security agent to ensure a really fast entrance through the lobby, then do the check-in in the room.”
The luxury of time and a seamless transition is essential, too, to fashion start-up Trvl Porter. The exclusive service delivers a custom-styled and pre-approved rental wardrobe tailored to a specific trip directly to the client’s hotel room, eliminating the need to travel with baggage – or even think about packing at all.
LA-based founder and CEO Stefanie Nissen styled professional men and women – entertainment CEOs, media execs, directors and the like – who had plenty of disposable income but little time to spare for shopping. “With the world so rapidly changing to this fast-paced mentality, people value their time more than ever,” she explained. “With our service, you’re saving time. You don’t have to plan outfits, pack, stand in line at ticket counters and baggage claim, lug your luggage around the airport or the city, let alone unpack or do the laundry when you get back.”
The exclusivity of limited-audience experiences
In the age of mass luxury, when commodities as basic as coffee or beer can become statements of belonging and identity, the true connoisseur is one who seeks out the unique. Rafe Offer co-founded Sofar Sounds, based in London’s nightlife mecca, Shoreditch, which enables hosts and artists to create unique gigs in unusual spaces – a concept that’s expanded to rising 400 cities around the world.
“Sofar creates an inclusive experience that just happens to become exclusive because it’s in a living room or small space,” he said. “We want everyone to be able to attend a Sofar and share in the experience. But that experience has to be unique… On average, our shows only hold around 100 people, so the exclusivity comes from the limited amount of people we can squeeze in.”
Böyle by Deniz Tekin in a Sofar Istanbul – courtesy of Sofar Sounds
Today, when previously elite luxuries like private jets and even yachts are available on a fractional ownership basis and the US is home to over 5,000,000 millionaires, a truly unique – and therefore exclusive – experience requires both time and vision.
Argyropoulos recalls a wealthy American guest who rented Le Grand’s entire Opera Ballroom, an opulent masterpiece of Second Empire architecture replete with over 70kg of gold leaf.
“He wanted to surprise his wife,” Argyropoulos said. “He asked us to ask her if she would like a tour of the hotel while he was out at work. So we took her around the hotel, talked about the history of the building, and eventually we arrived in the darkened room: and a violin started playing…” In a space that could fit hundreds, in the footsteps of Victor Hugo, Sarah Bernhardt and more, the couple dined on a menu curated by the husband.
Amid perhaps the greatest communications revolution since Gutenberg, we are only beginning to see how smartphones can shape our experience of luxury. Social platforms – signally yet not only Instagram – have transformed the glamour of being seen that emerged in the mid-50s into the era of instant sharing. And the speed of change is quite dizzying.
“Luxury is accelerating,” Argyropoulos observed. “They add up the speed, and we’re forced to go faster ourselves. Ten years ago, luxury was much more static: today, technology has changed the pace.” And 21st-century luxury, as Lipovetsky observed, truly contains multitudes.