Discreet luxury

For decades, the luxury goods industry represented one of the market’s strongholds. In 2006, Egon Zhender International estimated the global luxury goods sector a $170 billion business. Similarly Kwak and Yoffie indexed the branch with a growth rate of about 6% per year.[i] Following Luzzini and Ronchi we might even speak of demographic shifts, with growth trends varying according to country and continent; estimated growth rates are 1.7%, in Italy, 4.5% Europe, 6.9% in North-America, +7.3% in Asia-Pacific, +9.7% in Latin America, +9.8% in Middle-East. Also, for the forthcoming 5 to 10 years their study forecasts a growing polarity between high-end and low-end consumption specifically in the emerging markets of China, Brazil, and India (The BRICs, as it were). What, then, does actually count as luxury – and what doesn’t?

Generally speaking, conceptualisations are typically derived from either a consumption perspective or from an application as a product branding device.[ii] Further, there has emerged a strong strand of literature that seeks to explain luxury consumption particularly in terms of having a symbolic function that operates at the individual and collective level. On a theoretical note, then, it is suggested that luxury and non-luxury goods can be conceptualized according to functional, experiential, and interactional symbolic dimensions,[iii] with the former traditionally being situated in the context of brand image; product uniqueness and regimes of scarcity; product quality and product performance; timeless brand and product features; store atmosphere; and patron status.[iv] In short, ‘luxury brands evoke exclusivity, have a well-known brand identity, enjoy high brand awareness and perceived quality, and retain sales levels and customer loyalty.’[v]

At the beginning of the credit crunch in 2009 it was Karl Lagerfeld, ringleader of the biggest luxury fashion house today, who provocatively forfeited his empire stating that ‘when it comes to business at Chanel, the crisis really hasn’t affected us at all. In fact, last year’s sales actually prove the opposite’ (television interview, June 9, 2009). Arguably, not all luxury brands have the same loyal and well-heeled clientele as Chanel. Looking at the figures from the last two or three years, it’s hard to ignore the industry’s fishtailing. Whereas traditionally it used to represent a bulwark of steady sales volume and growth rates – even at times when the high street was ailing in crisis already – even the luxury-goods sector has come under fire of late. At the beginning of 2009, Bain & Company forecasted a drop in sales of about 20 per cent for the first two quarters of the year. Later reports were a bit more optimistic concluding that the industry had come away with a drop in sales totaling no more than 8 per cent. Registering even some minor growth, in 2011 the market finally has stabilised again.[vii]

In a way, then, it seems safe to say that the luxury industry has found its feet again. The big irony is that the crisis has impacted on the market in such a way that consumers in the meantime have come to perceive of the retail environment in a different kind of way, hence forcing the majority of high-ticket houses to revisit and revise their portfolios in order to account for the change. Francois-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of PPR, recently stated in an interview with Women’s Wear Daily: ‘We’re moving toward more discreet luxury. It’s a question of adapting our ranges very rapidly to this new perception of luxury, a luxury which is more subtle, more sophisticated’.

According to Pinault, luxury has undergone a shift from its perennial link with status and iconicity towards quality, subtlety, and refinement. Accordingly, a contemporary definition of luxury will have to account for the fact that it ceased to be first and foremost related to registers of exuberance and branding power, but rather speaks in a vernacular of restraint and aesthetic subtlety. Pinault, of course, neither was the only one to have recognised that alternative track, nor is the idea altogether new. Rather, what strikes us is the fact that even that part of the market deemed to have the most staying power, the luxury industry that is, has changed its face with the crisis.

The writings on the wall had been there for some time actually, with buzzwords like heritage, craftsmanship, and eco-consciousness replacing loutish branding messages and a firm reliance on names before products. Nowadays, the industry’s powerhouses are faced with a climate that puts the consumer first and prioritises a clientele which demands quality and industrial action(ism) with discernment. It’s no longer enough to spill out products in the most outrageous materials and designs. By the same token have ad campaigns promoting a decadent lifestyle run its course in favour of a responsible and multi-facetted approach to luxury consumption, thereby bearing testimony to a heightened sense of awareness and versatility in purchasing behaviour.

What, then, marks out metamodern luxury? Some years ago, French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky drew a distinction between modern and postmodern luxury by introducing the concept of “emotional luxury” which he defined as follows:

What might be called the new age of luxury is not just the visible transformation of supply, but also the metamorphosis of demand, its aspirations and motivations, the relations of individuals with social standards and with each other as well as with consumption and scarcity. Individualising, emotionalising and democratising are the processes that are reorganising the contemporary culture of luxury.[viii]

In short, the idea describes a conception of luxury that dovetails experiences reaching beyond their products’ functional or aesthetic properties. The author further specifies this by introducing a distinction between luxury and semi-luxury. The former is characterised by properties as those described in the first section of the text. Semi-luxury, on the other hand, he calls ‘a new unobtrusive aesthetic’ that bears links to modernist, democratic ideals, thereby heralding the renunciation of extravagant ornament and pompous decoration in favour of simplicity, discretion, and affordability.[ix] Lipovetsky’s main argumentative thrust, then, hints at a shift in brand perception and consumption practices, whereby luxury is rendered an issue beyond monetary value and artful sophistication.[x] In his view, postmodern luxury consumption is not necessarily an issue of expenses, but might just as well come off as mass market, personal, authentic or experiential.[xi]

Providing Lipovetsky’s argument once had some currency it’s run its course. It’s certainly true that luxury retail has changed. What isn’t true, however, is that it has become a democratic and freely accessible terrain. A metamodern conceptualisation surely admits that the luxury sector has moved into a new era. And yet, it is only the premises that have changed, not the industry’s main constituents. If the high-ticket branch, with all its exuberance and excess economy, is short of one thing, then it is democratic and integrative capacity; primarily so, because both are properties utterly undesirable for brands and consumers alike. Clearly, today’s market is not about semi-luxury (At any rate, what does the term actually entail? There is no such thing as a middle ground for luxury products, is there?), since what Lipovetsky calls a ‘new unobtrusive aesthetic’ is still entrenched with the industry’s guiding principles of scarcity and superior quality as well as regimes of aspiration and exclusivity. Metamodern luxury is about a modish lenience toward environmental consciousness and aesthetic restraint, durability of materials and corporate sustainability. This new aetiology has self-effacement as its defining feature rather than extravagant frenzy. It’s out to distinguish oneself by the label. It’s not about the commoners, nor is it about the upper crust. It’s about re-mixing the markers of distinction, thereby breeding a new generation which, at first glance, is somewhat rabble-charming in its ordinariness… and, at closer inspection, distinguishes itself by dint of discretion and restraint, i.e., that which it is not. The absence of presence.

[i] 2001; cited in: Caniato et al., 2008, p. 176; see also Fox, 2009

[ii] Vickers & Renand, 2003; Twitchell, 2002; Dall’Olmo Riley et al., 2004; Birtwistle & Moore, 2004; Birtwistle & Moore, 2005.

[iii] Vickers & Renand, 2003, pp. 461-2; see also Ward & Chiari, 2008, p. 12; Moore & Birtwistle, 2005, p. 268

[iv] Husic & Cicic, 2009, pp. 241-2; Beverland, 2004, pp. 457-61

[v] Phau and Prendergast, 2000, p. 124

[vii] Bain &gCompany, 2010b/c; Bain & Company, 2011

[viii] lipovetsky, 2007, pp. 31-2

[ix] ibid., p. 30.

[x] Atwal & Williams, 2009, p. 339

[xi] Yeoman & McMahon-Beattie, 2006, p. 320

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