The End of Labelled Luxury

The End of Labelled Luxury

Pondi ROAD

Sunday, January 26, 2020

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This article first appeared on February 10, 2008. We reckon there's no better time than the beginning of a new era to republish.

Everybody and their mother (except mine, and it is a bone of contention) owns a Louis Vuitton bag. What was once a global status symbol now has neither status nor symbol. The concept of luxury originally connoted three things: a price point, a quality level and a lifestyle. With the global availability of cheap credit and the mass production of most luxury items, the entire concept of luxury as originally conceived has become utterly meaningless. If “everyone” can afford it and “everyone” can access it, where is the prestige in having it? Moreover, with Mr Chin manufacturing everything, standards of quality are basically razed to whatever the average Chinese worker can deliver. Don't be fooled! Yesterday, when you shelled out the big bucks for premium brands, a large portion of what you paid for was the actual product — today you are paying largely for marketing. But marketing campaigns do not real luxury make. So what is left of the life of luxury to which so many aspire? Not very much, it seems.

Some would argue that a few global symbols of luxury remain. There is the American Express Centurion or Black Card (you have to be invited to apply for membership to Quintessentially (never heard of it? That's the point!); a week at an Amman Resort or at the Golden Door Spa. Ah, but even here you are stumped because much of this at one time or another has been reported in exquisite detail in the primary luxury magazines. And today, everyone aspiring to luxury living reads Vanity Fair, Condé Nast Traveller and The Robb Report. Whither go the modern seekers of luxury?

Looking ahead, there are signs of a new concept of luxury emerging which will leave the poseurs in the dust! This new luxury cannot be bought on credit in the airport duty-free or by slavishly following the labels highlighted in Vogue, GQ, MACO or Destinations. This new luxury is driven primarily by personal experiences and knowledgeable discernment. It is only weakly influenced by marketing programmes. This is the luxury for the acutely self-aware and self-confident Insider.

The Luxury Insider's preferences are acquired through local knowledge built on personal interest, taste and experiences, and supplemented with recommendations of trusted friends.

If you are a discerning coffee drinker, you will know where to find the best cup of coffee in Kingston, then in Montego Bay, then Port Antonio, then London, then Bangkok with an ever-widening global circle of local experiences about coffee drinking. If you are a discerning clothes shopper, then you know the best clothing stores in Kingston, and then the best seamstresses, the best sales, the colours and fabrics that work well with your skin tone and body type with an ever-increasing knowledge of the whys and wherefores of clothing that works for you. If you are keenly deepening your domain knowledge while expanding your locales you will soon have complete mastery of your topic of interest. The knowledge of the Luxury Insider delves deep into interest topics and spans wide across geographies.

The grandmasters of luxury insider very much, it seems, will have mastered multiple topics around the globe. A girlfriend of mine, who is a real “foodie”, was asked recently if she liked Indian food and her response, without pretension, was “in London and New York but not in Paris”. The Luxury Insider can tell you where to get an Italian-style cappuccino in Berlin, where to find the best tailor in Hong Kong, which manicurist to see at which spa in London, the best jerk chicken in Jamaica, the best wine list in Ocho Rios, the freshest produce in Coronation market and so on. These are things that can never be captured by simple Labelled Luxury. This is luxury that can only be lived.

Labelled Luxury will tell you to stay at the Ritz-Carlton because it is the “best” hotel. The Luxury Insider will tell you that the Ritz in San Francisco and Chicago are fantastic but in LA, Philadelphia and Milan stay at the Four Seasons, in New York stay at the W Union Square, in Berlin stay at the Adlon (old section), in Montego Bay stay at Coyaba or Round Hill, and in Kingston stay with friends in the hills. The Luxury Insider will tell you that Ritz-Carlton in Jamaica is a mixed bag: a Byzantine sprawl of concrete with a not-so-impressive beach but the best hotel lobby bar in Jamaica and overall very good service.

The Luxury Insider will spend on the things he or she really cares about and can actually discern and forgo the things that they can't. If you do not give a rat's derrière about clothes stick to the Gap, but then buy the Bang and Olufsen stereo system if that is your shtick. For me, better-than-Bose quality is not at all discernible and so it would be pointless for me to aspire to more than Bose speakers; for the avid stereophile, this is not the case and they will snub Bose. If you do not care about cars, drive your beat-up old Toyota to the black-tie affair. If you cannot tell the difference between a Pinot Grigio and a Chardonnay, then buy the cheapest white wine on the menu. If you have a paunch, you cannot wear Prada clothing; it is NOT the best for you. Whenever you say the best, make sure you know what and where you are talking about because the labels are rapidly becoming pointless.

There are poseurs who will say “I do not do public transportation”, but if you take a cab (or, God forbid, a limo) from Schiphol airport to central Amsterdam — you know nothing about Amsterdam — it is easier, faster (and cheaper) to take the train. In New York during rush hour, the subway is the only sensible way to get around. Ask Meryl Streep, or Uma Thurman. And for those who say “I get my massages from five-star establishments only,” what utter nonsense! If you are in Bali, Indonesia and you order a $200 massage from the therapist at the Four Seasons Bali — you know nothing about Bali — the best massages in the world are available from the old women who walk Kuta beach and charge about US$10 for a full-body massage. The best hamburger in NYC is the Corner Bistro — a dive in the West Village with $5 burgers, not the $30 burgers from the more branded places on the Upper East Side. The best fish in Kingston is at Hellshire. First-class travel on an American carrier (American Airlines, Delta) is not worth the extra expense. Why pay more for worn-out seats and bad service? First-class travel on an Asian carrier (Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific) is worth the premium pricing. Flying the Asian airlines first-class is the ultimate in aviation comfort.

The best is not necessarily the most expensive. The best is not necessarily the luxury-labelled product or service. The best is actually always only known to an Insider.

Since the Luxury Insider is not slavish to labels, there is always a certain element of surprise. For example, the man who drives up to a jewellery store in an old Toyota Yaris and buys a $5K Jaeger watch; or the woman who wears a $30 Swatch watch but is sitting in Virgin upper class to London. The Luxury Insider is the woman who will mix street-bought costume jewellery with 18-carat gold jewellery — and love each piece equally because it is about how it looks on her irrespective of the cost.

Embrace the contradiction that modern sensibilities have bequeathed. Go to Scotchies for lunch and then Wine with Me for dinner. Drink Champagne with your Tastee patty! Throw on an Armani jacket over a Gap T-shirt. To slavishly pay top dollar for everything shows a complete lack of discernment and a lack of personal taste.

The woman wearing an Armani suit, Ferragamo shoes, Tiffany jewellery, driving the BMW, and who talks incessantly about her manicurist at the Half Moon, is a bore! She has something to prove and is neither cognisant nor comfortable with the luxury lifestyle. She is buying labels. The guy wearing the inexpensive H&M jeans with the expensive Vilebrequin shirt who lands in Budapest, toting an unbranded handsewn garment bag from Florence, and heads straight to his favourite watering hole which serves $2 beers, is the new model of luxury living. With nothing to prove, he is seeking out the best experiences globally that life has to offer — and you do not always have to pay top dollar for that!

Labelled Luxury has died a mass-production death. Out of the ashes the Luxury Insider is emerging. Let the demarcation begin again!

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