Is luxury (just) another form of resistance?

It took time for me to get acquainted with the concept of luxury products and brands. Since the insurgence of global–scale consumerism, the acquisition of luxury products has radically changed scale and the consequences have sometimes undermined the meaning of the product itself. ‘Experience’ and ‘status’ have risen in the agenda of global luxury brands, though we all appear to have forgotten one simple assumption: luxury products were born to improve quality of life, they are the fruits of elaborate, often historically–relevant design projects that require effort and consistency.*

Consistency in particular (today often paired with heritage) is what makes luxury products follow their autonomous path, often in contrast with the laws that regulate markets made for larger consumption. Overall, the concept of consumer sovereignty, which was key in the phenomenon of the mass outsourcing of production, applies less to luxury markets in general.

Let me clarify this phenomenon. There is a large pool of potential consumers for luxury markets who, lacking the necessary resources to buy, can’t afford to own a product, but would like to do so. If a luxury brand would just follow the needs of such potential customers, they would probably outsource production and reduce quality in order to reach a broader audience. Though this strategy may sound right, it has proven fatal in the past for the brand value and is therefore carefully avoided, with the consequence of denying some of the typical habits born with contemporary mass–consumption. In practice, this means that most luxury brands are sticking to pre–globalization practices, somehow qualifying as a stubborn resistance to the consequences of post–fordism, together with the so–called ‘makers’ and ‘designer–to–consumer’ practices.

Paradoxically, this implies that a product perceived as ‘exclusive’ may be more sustainable, in terms of production, than one perceived as ‘affordable’. But wasn’t ‘affordability’ good?

In reality, as of today, the concept of affordability is becoming out of focus. To understand why, we need to compare it with sustainability. Although at first impact the two may sound similar, there is a substantial class distinction between them: while “affordable” is a necessity for the lower–middle class, ‘sustainable’ is a way of life for the upper–middle class. The complex system of production tied to modern capitalism has radically changed the upper–middle class perception of ‘affordable’. So much as it is not anymore a question of having a less luxurious item, but rather acquiring something that may be unethical or even harmful on other people elsewhere.

As for everything else, the limits we apply to sustain the validity of the words we use have broadened. What is perceived as ‘democratic’ here (in the sense of reaching the needs of the majority) may be threatening life standards elsewhere; what is perceived as ‘exclusive’ and ‘luxurious’ may somehow represent a form of resistance to unfair forms of mass consumption.

Lost in these sophisticated paradoxes, our next contributor Mário Gomes will inspire us with an enigmatic piece of fiction, introducing yet another subtle interpretation for the real meaning of luxury.

* Loosely based on: Koyama, Taro – Luxury Brands from a Psychoanalytic Perspective. From ‘Luxury Marketing. A Challenge for Theory and Practice’, Springer Gabler, Wiesbaden, 2013