Perhaps nobody epitomises old luxury quite like Imelda Marcos. 800 pairs of her shoes are now on display in the Marikina Shoe Museum – an extreme form of materialism that is tough to admire in the age of austerity.
30 years on, luxury is supposed to have grown up and grown a conscience. Futurologists and luxury commentators frequently point out that luxury is becoming 'de-materialised'. Daniela Walker, editor at LS:N Global, puts it this way: “Simply put, buying stuff isn’t as cool as it used to be. After the recession hit, people began focusing more on intangible things and making memories.”
Bain and Farfetch recently suggested that luxury brands are facing a huge generational shift in expectations, asserting that millennials are “the first generation with radically different behaviours and attitudes towards all consumption and lifestyle to the generation before”. Luxury brands, it seems, will need to move away from their traditional business models and embrace a less material, more experiential form of consumption. So what does this new ‘experiential’ form of luxury actually look like in practice?
Burberry is arguably the epitome of luxury’s new-found obsession with ‘experience’ and its trendy friend ‘storytelling’. In a recent interview, chief creative officer David Bailey emphasised the importance of experience and storytelling to the future of the Burberry brand. “I think people are as interested in the story as in the finished thing. They start to feel it, rather than it being a remote, transactional relationship.”
In this new model of luxury, storytelling provides the romance necessary to cultivate desire while experience delivers the spontaneity required to maximise sales to a ‘want-it-now’ millennial crowd more interested in ideas than material possessions.
If Imelda Marcos is the poster girl for old luxury, Chiara Ferragni is arguably new luxury’s equivalent. Each day her 9.8 million Instagram followers are treated to fresh images of her almost impossibly glamorous life. Rather than greedily hoarding thousands of pairs of shoes, today’s luxury icons generously share moments, memories and experiences with millions of their closest followers.
But Chiara Ferragni and Imelda Marcos share at least one passion: footwear. Farfetch.com sells 71 different pairs of Chiara Ferragni designed shoes. The millennial luxury consumer may value experiences, but those experiences are only perfect when accessorised with the latest look.
The abundance of new luxury
It seems, after all, that contemporary luxury remains stubbornly wedded to excess. For all Burberry’s experiential huffing and puffing, its share price rises or falls based on the quantity of its global sales, not the quality of its experiences. Excessive material consumption is the crack cocaine of the luxury world. And the inevitable cost of this addiction to excess is waste. In Europe we consume 2.6bn pairs of shoes a year, contributing 1.5m tonnes of waste to landfill. The UK’s shoe obsession seems particularly acute – we buy an average of eight pairs a year each. We also consume 1.1m tonnes of clothes each year, at a cost of over £800 a person. The data all points in one direction – that new luxury isn’t simply about excess, it’s about excess layered upon excess.
Not everybody sees luxury this way. In his autobiography, Christian Dior describes his shock at arriving in the US for the first time and finding a completely different attitude to that of his native France – a country still suffering the scars of World War II.
“The way American women buy seems a bit hasty and does not correspond to the spirit of economy and method of the French. We usually acquire one thing because we find it beautiful or of good quality; we are concerned with its use as well as its elegance. Perhaps it must be concluded that abundance is likely to impair good taste. Poverty is an amazing wand.”
Although the comparison is desperately sweeping and unfair, the critique of hasty, wasteful consumption feels extremely relevant today: the quality of a garment doesn’t matter when novelty demands that it can only appear in a handful of Instagram posts.
A shift towards space-poverty
Will Christian Dior’s more economical concept of luxury ever catch on? There is at least one practical reason to think so: by 2030, two in three people will live in cities with at least a million inhabitants. Space is going to become extremely tight. The UK already has the smallest homes in Europe; the average newly built home is just 76 square metres and is likely to shrink further. ‘Micro apartments’ as small as 34 square metres are already under construction (that’s the size of three parking spaces). Imagine how differently you’d approach shopping for clothes if you could only store 25 items. To paraphrase Christian Dior, space poverty could become an amazing wand.
What would luxury look like in a space-poor society? Earlier this year, US-based Rent The Runway launched Unlimited, which offers a subscription to luxury fashion, much like Netflix and Spotify subscriptions.
Had Unlimited existed during Christian Dior’s lifetime, he may have been more generous in his views on the American approach to fashion.
Nick Liddell is director of strategy at The Clearing.
This article was originally published in The Drum Network luxury special. You can get your hands on a copy here. To be featured in the next special focused on the charity sector, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.