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How luxury changed from being exclusive to democratic

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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Once upon a time the meaning of luxury was part aspiration, part exclusivity and part too expensive for most to afford. It was the Hermès bag, the Cartier watch and cashmere designer coat that equalled status, good taste and most of all exuded wealth.

Brands communicated their campaigns through magazines, who had the power to enthral readers and consumers as arbiters of refinement and aestheticism. It was a time when craftsmanship, elevated design and high quality materials were the 'be all and end all' when it came to defining true luxury.

Democracy changed luxury

But times have changed. Because where once brands and the magazines who communicated their messages were in full command of their image and stories, the world has democratised. Anyone can share their story and thoughts about luxury goods and the shifts in power and consumer tastes have many asking what is the meaning of luxury today?

Are sneakers, sweatpants and pool sliders considered luxury? Because Louis Vuitton is retailing these in abundance. As are Gucci, Prada and Saint Laurent. Are graphic t-shirts considered luxury if they cost 500 pounds and are made by high end brands like Balenciaga? Is a 5,000 pound dress a luxury item when it becomes available from The Outnet at 70 percent discount? How about that Chanel handbag which can be rented for an event at just a fraction of the cost?

A decade ago these wouldn't have been classified as true luxury. But that age-old perspective and conversation has changed. More importantly, shoppers no longer buy into luxury in the same way.

Why invest in a dress when you can rent it?

There is much written and discussed about millenial buying habits, the next generation with spending power, who seem less interested in the acquisition of luxury goods. Why buy a car when there is Uber? Why splurge on a dress when you can rent it?

Goldman Sachs in its report 'Millennials Coming of Age' explain the reluctance of buying big ticket items and luxury goods. Instead, millennials are turning to a new set of services that provide access to products without the burdens of ownership, giving rise to what's being called a "sharing economy." So too their affinity for technology is reshaping the retail space. With product information, reviews and price comparisons at their fingertips, Millennials are turning to brands that can offer maximum convenience at the lowest cost.

Still, luxury brands are trying to woo millennials into their designer-filled stores, which is why sportswear remains such a trend on the catwalks. The aforementioned sneakers and sweatpants are driving luxury brand profits more so than tailoring and evening wear. It is no coincidence that Louis Vuitton appointed Virgil Abloh as artistic director of menswear as he understands the millennial demographic and is himself both creator and purveyor of streetwear de luxe.

Not buying for the sake of buying

In an era where conspicuous consumption is no longer deemed luxurious, luxury brands are keen to share their values on sustainability, environmental and social responsibilities. Gwyneth Paltrow's site Goop, which began with offerings of wellness advice now sells luxury fashion and accessories. Similarly Net-a-Porter has expanded into beauty and wellness and has its sibling menswear site, Mr Porter.

So what is true luxury? Not following fashion

Dan Herman, Ph.D., stated in his 2006 article, “The Eternal Principles for Creating Luxury Brands,” luxury goods in the most traditional sense “are not designed and planned according to consumer tastes and expectations." Instead, he noted, “A luxury brand sets its own standards and does not adhere to fashions.”

Photo credit: Chanel haute couture, source Chanel website. Article quote The Fashion Law, "Where Do Fashion's Traditional "Luxury" Brands Stand in 2018?"

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