The Limits of Luxury

Luxury is rooted in rarity. As "luxury" goods become mass products, people are turning towards unique, non-reproducable experiences to fulfill a desire for the rare.

Before the age of industrialization, luxury was defined by the excess expenditure of resources by nobility, religious leaders, or, finally, a merchant class. In the Victorian age, however, luxury was suddenly available (or so it seemed) to all. The 1851 Great Exhibition at London's Crystal Palace showcased machine-made laces, industrially-mined gems, and silk textiles woven on mechanized looms. These goods defined the rich consumer world of the rising bourgeoisie.
But the seeming availability of riches did not satisfy a persistent desire for luxury, which was--also--a desire for that which is scarce. Over a hundred years later, the story of the rise of Louis Vuitton from provincial bag maker to global brand provides a useful case study. Through the careful management of brand identity, the bag maker (whose revenues grossed 9.4 billion in 2013) managed to construct an aura of exclusivity that was paradoxically available to an ever more comfortable and growing class of 'luxury consumers.' Brand identity became the preferred mode by which to construct an aura of scarcity in direct contradiction of the manufacturer's techniques of mass production.

Today, however, the two-faced story of the luxury brand: of exclusivity and mass production, authenticity and global availability, is wearing thin. The hunger for the rare at the root of the desire for luxury may not be satisfied by stories of brand identity, by the trick of the limited edition, or the cyclical logic of fashion trends and their instant obsolescence. We are seeing a heightened interest in personal experiences that cannot be directly replicated. Instead of buying a fine wine, we see people seeking to become winemakers and viticulturists themselves. Instead of eating at exclusive restaurants, we see people taking up cooking as a serious pursuit. Instead of buying a work of art, we see people joining the cultivated ranks of the art-world.
These experiences are tied to the non-reproducable: the uniqueness of the self, the specificity of site, the contingency of a moment in time, an individual investment in time.


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