There are really good sociological analyses of luxury around, including my current favorite, Rachel Sherman’s Class Acts. One of the more interesting things to think about is how luxury becomes singular in a sea of reproducibility. Kevin Kelly’s post Better than Free catches this trend well, and I’m sure everyone will talk-about-without-reading-in-a-Malcolm-Gladwell-way Chris Anderson’s next book, “Free“.
The flip side is the irreproducible, and here I like the example noted in the NYT today, about Tomas Maier:
…the muted logo-free look that is the brand’s signature is widely regarded as the standard-bearer for a new kind of luxury: subtle, long-lasting and recession-proof. In such a climate, Mr. Maier himself has emerged as a hero, albeit a reluctant one — and, to his admirers, even something of a prophet…
…While competitors were churning out look-alike handbags made of coated canvas, bearing hefty hardware and equally hefty price tags, Mr. Maier perfected his specialty: the Intrecciato series of hand-woven bags, some that take two days of labor to make (compared with about 80 minutes for a standard-issue designer bag). Signature products, devoid of initials, they typically sell for $1,200 to as much as $4,500.
While other designers were producing dart-free baby-doll dresses as if they were so many Fords, he concentrated on deceptively simple, painstakingly constructed styles priced from about $1,200 to $6,000 for an evening dress. The dressmaker touches — ruching, serpentine seaming, hand-beading and elaborate pleats — are recognizable to a small but informed clientele.
It’s cat and girl all over again, that elite means not just displaying wealth for everyone to see, but displaying wealth in such a way that it appears to most people that you are not displaying wealth, but it appears to the right people that you are displaying wealth and taste. The mint on the pillow and the carefully folded toilet paper roll, unobtrusively placed with no presence of an actual serving staff (per Sherman). Thomas Keller rolls this out at the French Laundry, according to Anthony Bourdain’s Cook’s Tour: “More often than not, he’s taking something refined and giving an ordinary – even cliched – name (the best examples being his famous ‘coffee and doughnuts’ dessert, the ‘Caesar salad,’)…” The former being cinnamon-sugared doughnuts with a cappuccino semi-freddo, the latter being Parmigiano-Reggiano custards with Romaine lettuce, anchovy dressing, and parmesan crisps. Huge labor, small sign – if you need to ask, you can’t afford. But better if you don’t even know it’s there.
It’s time to revisit conspicuous consumption and class.