How to define and refine the meaning of modern luxury

The ‘Dusk in Tokyo Collection’ of Phantom, Wraith, Dawn and Cullinan celebrates Japan’s capital city with the Spirit of Ecstasy in rose gold representing the setting of the sun

‘Luxury is the anticipation of pleasure,’ writes author and aesthete Stephen Bayley. The sentiment chimes with our times since in the orgy of modern consumption, the concept of true luxury has lost its place and meaning. To define the word now requires a much more complex set of values than simply price and status. Perhaps this was always the case, but increasingly luxury finds meaning in time and space, in slowing down and in our health and the health of our planet. It can be about the simple pleasures in life: a perfectly prepared meal, a meaningful friendships, time shared with loved ones. ‘Silence, space and time are the luxury goods of the future,’ offers product designer Alfredo Häberli. But how does this all translate to brands, their product and how they communicate with their audience? After all, it is much simpler to interpret luxury if it is to be measured on price and status alone.

The traditional paradigms of luxury had already been shifting before the pandemic. The current crisis, and our increased focus on climate issues, have simply accelerated the speed of change. This pause – the slowing down of many of our lives in the past year – has been an invitation to imagine alternative realities to the traditional codes of life, to refine and redefine what had become the norm simply because no one had questioned its authenticity. This includes luxury. New generations of consumers have very different ideas and expectations from the brands they invest in. This is an exciting time in history for businesses with the imagination and courage to move forward beyond their comfort zone; progressive brands willing to shape a new luxury landscape.

Chotto Matte, 11 - 13 Frith St, Soho, London W1D 4RB, photographed by Jamie Lau / Studio Lau

‘There is no luxury without a powerful emotional connection between the brand and its consumer,’ says Sebastien Besson, chief executive of Champagne Armand de Brignac and a lecturer on luxury at New York University. ‘The word defines that elevated state of mind when your physical needs are forgotten, and your senses are stimulated in truly powerful ways. When you touch, consume, hold or are seen with a particular brand.’

If the emotional connection is so central to the concept of luxury, then naturally the brands we invest in will share our values. This could manifest itself in how they view the environment, and how they treats their employees. Jasper Smith, entrepreneur and founder of Arksen adventure yachts, believes that luxury cannot exist without embracing real ecological principles. ‘Achieving a positive momentum towards sustainability will enable us to redefine luxury as the opportunity to live comfortably today without depleting the resources that may be required by future generations,’ he explains. ‘We need to design products that embrace the principals of a circular economy. So, the definition of a luxury product becomes one that is built with these principals, with heart and soul and with purpose. Ideally, one that opens the doors to a new world of experiences.’

© Do Make by James Otter is published by Do Books. Photographs by Mat Arne

The values that connect us to a brand may also involve knowledge so that wisdom becomes the new luxury. Being a connoisseur of a subject or a trade, having access to the finest and rarest of products and experts – these become the currency. In this scenario luxury is an elusive concept defined by something out of the ordinary, be it an object or an experience. In a product, luxury will manifest itself as a show of artistry, revealing the time spent and the rare skills needed in making an eternal object of desire. Some cultures value this above all else. In the case of an experience, luxury will be about the extraordinary – offering something that inspires wonder, thrills in that moment, remains in the imagination. ‘Layers of experience passed on from generations of winemakers, for instance, can represent the height of luxury. Or it could be more ephemeral, that feeling you get when you experience an unexpected wine,’ says Nargess Banks, lifestyle, design and future trends consultant at Spinach Branding. ‘Ultimately, modern luxury is about the unexpected pleasures.’

Mercedes-Benz creative chief, Gorden Wagener, talks of the intangible luxuries such as ‘beauty in the extraordinary, a sense of emotion… and to make sense of the times we live in.’ To Thomas Girst, head of global cultural engagement at BMW Group, luxury is the time we get to spend with others, ‘the time for meaningful experiences, exchanges and actions that have the power to shape and define who we are.’

Images: Phantom collector car © Rolls-Royce, Chotto Matte London © Spinach Branding, James Otter crafting a surfboard © Mat Arne/Do Books, Chotto Matte London © Spinach Branding for Chotto Matte.

Spinach Branding is a specialist branding agency based in London. We work with established businesses and start-ups around the world to build and refine their brands. See how we work and get in touch to discuss your brand.

Chotto Matte, 11 - 13 Frith St, Soho, London W1D 4RB, photographed by Jamie Lau / Studio Lau
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