Living an “unplugged” life is among the exceptional situations that make us dream today. Some of us are willing to spend a fortune on a “digital detox” cure to live without technologies for several days. In the field of tourism, “glamping” (“glamorous camping”) promoters’ imagination is limitless, as they compete to suggest original ways to live in the middle of nature, while combining comfort and environmentally friendly practices, but with a clear luxury positioning.
However, it is probably in the field of on-demand service applications that the changes in our vision of luxury are the most obvious. From delivering meals to parking cars, they are all inspired from the Uber model. Deliveroo and their competitors promise to deliver the best restaurants in town in less than thirty minutes. Speed has become a highly desirable luxury among busy urbanites. And as a sign of our times, a valet application called Luxe is spreading across the United States. Its principle? An army of smartphone-equipped valets park your car and give it back to you in a click.
So, to size these changes up, we surveyed about fifty individuals creative in their trades and influential in their fields, in five countries: France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and South Korea. We tackled the issue of luxury with every one of them, asking them how they define it.
One dimension was repeatedly evoked on the three continents: the idea that luxury is, above all, an experience of freedom. For the influencers we surveyed, luxury has more to do with an “experience” than a “product”.
From statutory luxury to freedom luxury
Every era has had their own definition of luxury. Without trying to make a detailed description of the changes in the representations of luxury throughout history, we have chosen to highlight their global evolution.
In highly hierarchical societies, where elites are cut from the rest of the population and benefit from significant material privileges, luxury consumption is statutory, as it expresses a sense of belonging to privileged social classes (jewels, decoration, fine wines…). After the Second World War, with the emergence of a middle class, the access to consumption and comfort gradually became democratic. Luxury got more accessible and was used to differentiate oneself in a mass society. Today, brands must express our personalities, and the “statutory luxury” tends to give way to a “singularity luxury” (although the former never disappeared).
Today, we are taking it another step further. “Status” and “singularity” are losing ground, as the concept of “freedom” is developing. Luxury is increasingly about escaping the constraints of societies where people never have enough time, and have the impression to live under constant surveillance (technologies, health, food, physical security, etc.). Again, luxury seems to be an experience of freedom.
Our relationship with consumption is no longer that enthusiastic. Material abundance is disturbing, or even tiring: it gives the feeling that we spread ourselves too thin, without any sense of unification. Everywhere, quantity seems to outweigh quality, and in our 100% connected world, technologies will not leave us alone. Notifications and messages surround us, and some of us are starting to suffer from a new evil: the “digital burnout”.
In short, in societies under constraints, freedom has become the joy of joys, the rarest valuable possession.
The four “freedom luxury” dimensions
What does this craze for freedom mean? How is it expressed? Our study helped us identify four main dimensions:
Time, a Holy Grail for all. Being free means having time. And it may be the greatest aspiration expressed by our creative influencers. Lack of time is one of the most common sources of frustration. Doing what we want, having enough time to focus on activities essential to our personal development, seeing our friends, our families: all this should be simple, and yet it is harder and harder to do… hence our feeling we are missing a lot in our lives. Among the testimonies we collected, we have noticed a recurring feeling our lives are no longer ours, because we do not have the time we need. But what can we do? We cannot buy time. And we can hardly make up for lost time! Time has become a luxury product.
The age of access. Many testimonies show it is more important today to easily have access to the goods we need in the present moment, than to own them. Rather than owning several cars, it is simpler to have access to such or such type of car as much as we want to. Real luxury is the possibility to have instant access to the object desired, without it getting too cumbersome in our lives. For example, car sharing may sound like a luxury solution. It has all the benefits of freedom (pleasure of diversity, immediacy…), without the drawbacks of property (parking, lock-up garage, maintenance, etc.). Creative influencers also express the idea that direct access to creators has become a luxury. The fact that Astrid Andersen’s workshop in Copenhagen is right next to her store, and she is available to talk with her customers when they visit it, partly explains the success of her luxury, men’s sportswear-oriented fashion brand.
“Being”, the new freedom. “To me, real luxury has little to do with money, except if it is to create freedom. Luxury is being, more than having.” This quote from a German creative influencer sets the tone. Owning is not essential to enjoy luxury, just like having is less important than being. What counts is to feel like the person we want to be, and not like we are playing a game we are actually outside of. What matters is actually not the outside, but the inside. A South Korean explained it as follows: “I think luxury must be in our thoughts, not in objects. There is nothing luxurious about focusing too much on others’ opinions.” So, today, real luxury is being ourselves and preserving a form of simplicity: freedom to be ourselves.
The unexpected. How can we escape from, not only too much abundance, but also lifestyle standardization? Freedom is also the sense that we can escape from fashion, convention, and general solutions. It increasingly has to do with freeing ourselves from this feeling that we are all conditioned to the same way of life or thinking, whether due to shop assistants, communication campaigns, experts’ opinions, sales pitches, etc. Good shop assistants do not just deliver the standard bible of a brand’s key messages, they use their strong knowledge of basics to free themselves from it and show empathy, closeness, or passion. They emancipate themselves from it to express its substance, and they create surprise. The element of surprise is also one of the luxury forms of our times, as everything seems to be known, controlled, put on files, monitored, recorded, etc.
To be continued, with the implications in the beauty world.