Luxury Consumer revolutions: a history of the exclusive

Since the dawn of the democratization of luxury, back in the 18th century, the relationship of the human being with pleasure has hardly changed: it is a mixture of anxiety and frustration. But it is no longer just about owning the most precious things: privileged access is today the new object of desire.

There have always been two kinds of luxury. One lies in excess, expense, the splendor of parties, celebrations, banquets, balls, and fireworks.

The other lies in the possession of exclusive objects that make life more pleasant.

On the one hand, I consume to enjoy the present moment; on the other, accumulation of objects. In both cases it is a matter of scattering and provoking the envy of the neighbor: it is a question of ostentation. On the one hand, being able to afford to spend without counting; on the other, to display prestigious objects.

The festivals of the imperial or royal courts, those of the new rich Romans or the sultans correspond to the first class of luxury, and have always aroused both admiration and scandal. The possession of carpets, silks, jewels, pieces of goldsmiths and perfumes corresponds to the second class, and provokes admiration and envy.A key factor in relation to the consumer is the progress of individualism in overcrowded and increasingly wealthy societies

It is, of course, the level of wealth in a society that determines the balance between the two classes of luxury. In turn, this wealth depends on many factors: production capacity, both in terms of savoir faire and materials (carpets, goldsmiths, etc.); supply capacity (colors, precious stones and metals, spices, perfumes, already transformed products …), modes of consumption authorized by customs and religion (sumptuary laws against luxury, ostentatious competitions, fashion, asceticism, hypocrisy …). For example, in seventeenth-century France, the founding of the royal tapestry and porcelain factory was dictated by the need to dispose of national luxury industries on land previously abandoned to foreign countries, with the consequent outflow of foreign exchange.

Against these general features as a backdrop, luxury has undergone three revolutions that correspond to three massive revolutions in consumption.

The comfort revolution

At the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, first in Europe and later in the United States, economic development and, above all, industrial and technical progress promoted the luxury of comfort.

It is a first democratization of luxury that encompasses living settings, decorative arts, domestic equipment, and means of transport. The bathroom and everything related to body hygiene and beauty; domestic lighting and heating, followed by air conditioning; the furniture, the interior decoration (especially the diffusion of the wallpaper), the table and kitchen services and, very soon, the train and the liner constitute that luxury of comfort that will progressively reach all the layers of society or almost. For a long time it will be a luxury to have running water, a bathtub, gas or electric lighting; later, “modern comfort” will be the norm in the equipment. Similarly, for a long time, the train, the ship and then the plane will be luxuries and later they will be democratized —and this evolution continues until recently with the low cost airlines, which put air travel within the reach of the majority. Then luxury is no longer quite a luxury, and sometimes the experience becomes downright unpleasant, but travel and tourism still are.In the luxury experience, social differentiation is essential for ostentation to continue to function

This sliding from luxury to comfort has been intelligently exploited by a number of industrialists who have made it the basis of their success: Louis Vuitton or Hermès built their reputation by settling in the travel sector from the second half of the 19th century, boat trips, sports – tennis, horse riding and then motor racing; in short: of leisure and tourism, which were to become mass industries. This in no way prevented the traditional sectors of the luxury industry, such as perfumery, jewelry, table arts or haute couture, from continuing to function well, and even from developing, but a new world had been born.

The consumer revolution

The second luxury revolution dates back to the 20th century.

It is the lust of consumption; that is to say, the tendency of consumers to look for more or less common consumer products, but sold under the luxury label.

On the part of companies, this evolution owes much to advances in marketing and business strategies. To expand their market, the large firms are beginning to transform their luxury products into more accessible ones: this is true for perfumes, beauty products, fashion, sporting goods, leather goods, but also for hype cars, telephones mobile phones, electronic devices, without forgetting other forms of consumption such as hotels, restaurants or tourism.

On the part of consumers, the decisive factor is the progress of individualism in a mass and increasingly wealthy society. Even when it comes to common products such as shoes, everyday clothes, sportswear or cars, we must differentiate ourselves by wearing brands or equipment that distinguish us and that “the others” do not have, or at least not of the same quality. It is very symptomatic that a chain of Spanish fashion stores is called Desigual, a way of confessing very clearly that search for uniqueness.The rich and the super-rich are the ones who make the luxury industry work. But the ‘not rich’ also want access to brands

This revolution, which is that of the consumer society, was diagnosed in the 1950s by analysts such as Vance Packard, in the United States, as well as by situationists and by sociologists such as Jean Baudrillard or writers such as Georges Perec, in France. More recently it has spread to most of the fast-growing wealthy countries, such as China or India.

The problem with this consumer revolution is that it benefits the luxury industry while creating significant difficulties for it.

It benefits you in terms of the growth of your market in the segment of products sold by perfumeries, airport stores, shopping centers. At the same time, these new trivialized and democratized products are no longer factors of ostentatious discrimination. Now they have to compete at the bottom with the products of mainstream consumer companies that offer luxury or premium series. All sports shoe manufacturers today offer high-end series. The Chinese luxury market has highlighted this contradiction: some high-end brands have had to reduce their offer of derivative products because the nouveau riche clientele did not want to see themselves with the new products, or almost, that less well-off consumers bought. One solution is either to fall back on the traditionally expensive products that have forged the reputation of the brand, even causing a certain shortage (as is the case with Hermès), or to create subsidiaries that, under similar but different appellations, are dedicated to offering different luxury grades. The way that Armani encompasses a set of different quality and price brands is significant.

The revolution of experience

We have been living the third revolution for twenty years.

It is the revolution of access to experiences.

Luxury is no longer just about exclusive objects, but about exclusive experiences.

This revolution recovers the dimension of excess, expense and enjoyment that has always accompanied luxury, only that it occurs in technical, geographical and demographic conditions that have no possible comparison with those of the past.

Jeremy Rifkin diagnosed in 2000 the advent of the era of access: what would be sought would no longer be goods, but access to services. This advent also concerns luxury. Demographically and geographically, it concerns masses of consumers around the world as a consequence of globalization, the increasing uniformity of behavior and communication facilities, both virtual (Internet) and real (travel, travel). And it rests above all on our immense capacity for production and control of experiences. The organization of a great princely party with music, fireworks, lighting, movements of actors, dancers and extras was difficult or, in any case, complicated in the pre-digital, pre-electronic and pre-telephone times. Not to mention, it was virtually impossible to control sounds, smells, and humidity. The complete design of situations, sets, environments and atmospheres by manipulating sounds, lights, smells and air quality allows today not only to easily produce complex experiences, but also to invent new ones.

It all started with experiential marketing at the beginning of the nineties, starting from a reflection on amusement and leisure parks that, according to the Disneyland model, offered new and fantastic environments and settings. Luxury also followed this path: luxury hotels in the Philippe Starck style, new gastronomic concepts in the Ferran Adrià style, concept stores in the style of Colette or Prada, cruises and tourist exploration packages, spaces and vip treatment in bars, discos and hotels … The luxury of objects continues to be successful, especially when it integrates an experiential dimension, as in luxury boutiques and the theatrical and personalized act of buying, but we are witnessing an immense progression of this consumption of experiences that leave nothing but memories . In these experiences, social differentiation is more essential than ever for ostentation to continue to function: some experiences will be so expensive and exclusive that they will be reserved for the hyper-rich – such as space tourism or the consumption of certain extraordinary wines and foods. Others will gradually graduate into different offers, such as cruises with variable price cabins according to their size, location and services. Or access to VIP areas and concierge services at luxury hotels. such as cruises with cabins of variable prices according to their size, location and services. Or access to VIP areas and concierge services at luxury hotels. such as cruises with cabins of variable prices according to their size, location and services. Or access to VIP areas and concierge services at luxury hotels.

Techniques and riches. The dimensions of luxury and its functions have hardly changed throughout history and in different cultures; it’s always about expense, comfort, hedonism, and glitz. However, technology and the level of wealth have modified and continue to modify their nature.

Technology is becoming more powerful and sophisticated. The digital revolution introduced changes as of 2005 whose effects we are not yet able to measure. For example, luxury companies have not yet found a satisfactory solution for Internet sales.

As for wealth inequalities, they are probably no more scandalous than in the past – perhaps even less so – when being poor meant starving, but they are much more visible and, above all, much more widespread in all the countries. There are rich and super-rich, and it is they who make the luxury industry work. But, at the same time, the poor or, in any case, the non-rich also want to have access to brands.

There is no reason to think that things will calm down on their own. The limitation will come rather from the side of ecological risks. Not surprisingly, some substances and materials are no longer available (wild animal skins, turtle scales …). Some highly demanded experiences, such as tourism, endanger the balance of the planet. Of course, we can dream that one day the experiences of abstinence and asceticism will become a luxury, but what is certain is that the perspective of a population of more than 7,000 million consumers is and will be the main challenge.