THE LOST ART OF ENJOYING LUXURY

As we know, words mean very different things to different people. Context, culture and social background have a huge influence on what words mean to us. How has the idea of ‘luxury’ become contorted and twisted to represent something vain and unfulfilling? What can it represent, when demonstrated at its best? 

 

Seven in the morning on the 26th of December, 2016. A grey, miserable sky hangs over London and a vast mob is waiting in line for the doors to open at Selfridges. The front of the line is dominated by young Chinese shoppers, eagerly shivering with cold (or anticipation), as they wait to get their hands on the discounted luxury goods inside. Behind the glass doors, brightly coloured bags and purses made from exotic animals and stamped with hard to pronounce names are placed high up on pedestals, just out of reach of the claws of the manic bargain hunters. 

It’s a familiar scene. If not Boxing Day, then on Black Friday. It’s familiar even to those who don’t attend, because the media love to document it. They turn up, cameras ready, knowing that the prospect of cheap televisions and bright-pink ostrich skin tote bags at 50% off is too much for most to handle. Some primal urge builds up, and for one hour, intelligent, rational human beings stampede over each other in the name of consumerism. The media love it because they know their readers love it. Love to scorn and ridicule them, these luxury bargain hunters. ‘Where’s their self respect?’ they ask. ‘Bloody fools’, my father mutters over his cornflakes. 

The truth is, almost all of us have felt this irrational urge to own something shiny, beautiful, and overpriced. Maybe not with quite the same ferocity as those described above, but we’ve all felt it. The emotional desire and irrational urge to own something beautiful and mildly useless has been with mankind for as long as we can remember. It’s the reason gold and diamonds are so treasured, why French gardeners spend years pruning national gardens into great symmetrical works of art, and why the ‘luxury goods’ industry surpassed €1 trillion in sales in 2015 (Bain)

Gold Range Rover parked outside Harrods, London. Glossy supercars arrive en masse from the Middle East, during the London summer season. 

 

STATUS SYMBOLS

For a long time, luxury and status, or social standing, have been closely linked. Luxury brands know that many of their customers view buying their products as the easiest, quickest way of social climbing. It has become about flaunting status and wealth. The class system may be more obscure today than in Victoria era Britain, but it exists as strongly as ever, and for luxury brands it is a necessity for them to exist. Modern luxury brands depend upon exclusion, snobbery and a social hierarchy. It’s this feeling of exclusivity that makes those included feel special, and makes those on the outside aspire to be let in. 

It has been a very long time, if there ever was a time, when exceptional, rare objects created by master craftsmen were admired and coveted simply for what they were. It was 1899 when Thorstein Veblen described the practice of consuming goods in order to build social status as 'conspicuous consumption'. It is the rarity and scarcity of luxury goods that causes the social exclusion. Rare, beautiful objects would be sought after by those who loved and appreciated them. Scarcity of supply led to high prices, leading to a smaller pool of potential customers. Over time, owning these objects became more about signalling to your tribe that you had money and good taste, the modern equivalent of choosing a partner to mate with. It developed into a way of flaunting wealth, and appreciating the objects for just what they were, or your personal enjoyment of them, became lost or less important.  

Today, the social symbol of being part of the wealthy middle class in China or other growing economies is owning ‘Old World’ European brands and products. English private schools, French handbags, German cars and Italian suits. This flaunting of often artificial social standing is played by people across cultures and across economic scales. Both rich and poor are guilty of wasting large sums in the attempt to improve their perceived social standing. Young, penniless students buy Louis Vuitton handbags on credit while rich Swedish kids practice ’sinking’ in Stockholm clubs, (ordering two bottles of champagne, and demanding one be poured down the sink). We can only hope that this brings them great joy, otherwise it’s a tragic tale. This habit of vanity led buying is exactly what modern luxury groups plan for, engineering their advertising and positioning to catch unwitting buyers in their net and squeezing every last drop of over inflated profit margin out of them. 

Brands such as Rolex know that to maintain their perceived brand value, they have to ensure that their product is viewed as exclusive and expensive in the eyes of all, especially by those who’ll never be able to afford their products. Why is this important? Because if the general public doesn’t perceive the product to be luxurious and expensive, the eventual buyer cannot fully enjoy flaunting it and showing it off in front of those who couldn’t afford it. This is the reason these brands advertise so widely - to fuel the self conscious, social signalling philosophy that underpins the luxury industry.

Which leads us to the crux of the question. How are life’s luxuries most greatly enjoyed? In a private, personal way with no heed paid to other peoples opinion?

Or as above, in a public, social display where the admiration, envy and desire of other people brings us the most satisfaction? 

 

Illegal racing through the early hours, Paris 1976

PRIVATE LUXURY

Instead of worshipping the objects themselves, lets explore the real reason for their value. The experiences and pleasure that they afford us. 

Picture the setting. You’re driving the winding mountain roads along the coast of Sardinia, evening sun setting and spilling warm glowing light across the road ahead. The smell of cedar and lavender still fresh in the air, warmed from the heat of the afternoon, and the sound of waves lapping against the white rock face below. 

Now, choose to be driving that road in either;

1) A 2014 Ford galaxy, it’s little engine struggling up the roads steep gradients, red faced kids screaming in the back seat and the collected songs of Spongebob squarepants squawking from the CD player. Plastic interior, an anonymous squeak from the back suspension, and the pinging noise of the broken ’fasten seat belts’ warning system adding to the symphony. 

2) An 1961 Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato, gleaming silver paint work reflecting the amber coloured sunlight, 314 horsepower engine thundering out a deep roar as it powers around the steep hairpin bends. The strong acceleration pushes you back into the leather seat. Analog instruments dance around on the dashboard in front of you, dark wooden steering wheel offset by chrome, and the warm coastal air pouring in through the open windows. The low lights illuminate the road ahead as the car sprints along the surrounding countryside leaving fresh tire marks on the tarmac, the fading rumble of the engine reverberating off into the distance. 

It’s the experience that the object (car, food, clothing, etc…) affords that’s important. The more pleasure they bring, the more they should be valued. 

Adrian Gosden racing his Aston Martin DB5 through Mongolia in 2010, taking part in the Peking to Paris rally. 

A Mercedes Benz 300 SL being flung around a sharp corner during the 2014 Tour Auto, France.

 

More often than not, we see these things wasted on people who’ll never use them for their full potential. Goods bought simply for showing off. Unappreciated and misunderstood by those who own them. 

When we do see them used properly, we see them at their best. Beautiful vintage cars raced chaotically around old French farm roads. A beaten up, scuffed and scratched Leica M7 camera hung around the neck of an esteemed war photographer. An elegantly cut Savile Row suit fraying at the sleeves and patched up for a few more years of use. Ice cold bottles of Chablis drank on a boat at midday under the blazing hot Mediterranean sun. 

 

Sir Thomas Beecham, founder of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, enjoying his cigars. Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France, 1957.

 

A LIFE OF LEISURE

Leisure - one of life’s great luxuries that is often forgotten when discussing the subject. Leisure in its purest, most simple form, is completely free and available to anyone. As Veblen was discussing the consumerism of the rich, he also coined the term, the ‘Leisure Classes’. 

He argued that leisure had become another social signal of prestige and wealth, as those who could afford to spend all of their time at leisure obviously did so as they didn’t need to work. Leisure, he argued, had become the art form practiced by the elite, super rich.

How well we recognise it, the face of someone who has lived a life full of leisure. No deep lines under the eyes from lack of sleep. No pasty white face from always being trapped inside. Theirs is the look of relaxed, tanned faces. A healthy glow in the cheeks and a slow, content pace of life. It is the look of European aristocrats or wealthy industrialists. Fine clothes and golden tanned skin. Those who have done it for years often know how to do it very well. 

But thankfully, it doesn’t require a fortune to be spent. Often, it doesn’t require any money at all. A life of nothing but leisure seems like a very shallow, unfulfilling life. After all, the greatest pleasures in life are those hard fought for and hard won. But leisure as something to be indulged in now and then is extremely important. Good for mind, body and soul. 

In the end, it seems it is the need to impress other people that sums up the modern luxury goods industry today. The age-old misplaced assumption that spending lots brings happiness. What we respect and admire are those people who squeeze the full enjoyment out of life. Be it in rare vintage cars, sun soaked Mediterranean terraces or simply enjoying the evening in a garden with friends and food - those who value personal pleasure, experience and enjoyment over insecure vanity. They teach us the real joys of life.

Here’s to them. 

 

 

SOME PERSONAL INDULGENCE 

Bramble