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Luxury’s Decline and Fall

In the Great British Brands 2019 book, Stephen Bayley explores the decline and fall of the luxury industry

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We’re sated by stuff. What we really yearn for is the simple, the quiet, the well- mannered – a sort of sophisticated austerity. Stephen Bayley explains.

 Photography by Alexandra Dao

Luxury's Decline and Fall

Lustful Luxury

My favourite painting is in Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery. Giovanni Segantini’s The Punishment of Luxury is a Symbolist curiosity of 1891, combining crisp Alpine realism with muffled Indian mysticism. The subject is the souls of loose women, floating detached above a snowy meadow in the Engadine. Suffused with a melancholy eroticism, which I was very alert to as a boy, it was originally called The Punishment of Lust, but Victorian curators could not cope with the raunchy suggestiveness, so Lust became Luxury. Luxury is a huge, floppy, well-upholstered concept, bifurcating now. Like ‘sanction’, a word that can be used to mean quite the opposite in that ‘to sanction’ something is both to allow it and prevent it, luxury is acquiring opposite meanings. On the one hand, there is the familiar global glitter of shops and showrooms filled with expensive status-relics, none of which we really want. Personally, given a blank cheque I could start at one end of Bond Street and reach the other with the cheque still intact. On the other, a new definition of luxury that’s an emerging work-in-progress, but pushes the idea towards the immaterial. Perhaps even towards Segantini’s mystical territory.

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The word has always had a troubled history. Etymologically, it is from the Latin ‘luxus’ meaning abundance. (So when Toyota wanted to create a luxury brand combining senses of rex-for-regality with sumptuous privilege, it coined the marvellous Japlish ‘Lexus’.) In the 17th century ‘luxuriance’ meant ‘habitual use of what is choice or costly’, something I think we might all recognise. Notions of exquisiteness and indulgence were soon added to the meaning. By the late 18th century these were complemented by disturbing ideas of decay and corruption. So far as Edward Gibbon was concerned, luxury, and its close relation idleness, were responsible for no less than the decline and fall of the entire Roman Empire.

‘Luxury at present can only be enjoyed by the ignorant; the cruelest man living could not sit at his feast unless he sat blindfolded’ John Ruskin Unto This Last 1860-1862

How do we unpack this basket of meanings? The actual basket I am looking at contains pink YSL studded goat hair ankle boots, a jewel-encrusted Montegrappa Sylvester Stallone fountain pen, evidently not intended for actual writing (but on sale at £50,691), a Royal Oak Offshore Tourbillon Audemars Piguet Watch (£314,615) and a more modest, but nonetheless satisfyingly sinful, box of Charbonnel and Walker truffles (£15). The thoughtful might see in these luxury goods a hint of morbid vanitas beneath the surface brilliance. Of course, there’s a socio-economic explanation to the rise of luxury, as well as to its own decline and fall. ‘Taste,’ Bernard Berenson said, ‘begins when appetite is satisfied.’ Once beyond hard-scrabble subsistence, we acquire things to give meaning and expression to our lives. The economists call these things positional goods. We call them luxury brands.

Sumptuous Decadence

But the great European makers are approaching a luxury crisis. Problems began in the Sixties when the banal Ford Anglia was offered in a ‘de luxe’ version. This signified merely that it had a heater and a strip of decorative chrome. Two generations later, the word ‘design’ became similarly abused and, consequently, useless. Today ‘sensual purity’, according to Mercedes-Benz’s designer Gordon Wagener represents ‘modern luxury’. I don’t think anyone, even the experts, actually knows what that means. True, the disciplined Germans have always been uneasy with luxury and BMW is no one’s idea of sumptuous decadence, let alone decay and corruption, but it’s a fine example of the current predicament.

BMW’s reputation was built with a combination of exclusivity and quality which flattered the customer. Surely exclusivity and quality are part of any definition of luxury? But BMW’s success means that for many years its ‘exclusive’ 3-series has massively out-sold Ford’s plebeian Mondeo. And the arriviste Koreans are now at least the equal the Germans in matters of quality. Where does that leave BMW? Or take Louis Vuitton. Demand for its products is slowing even in the once avaricious China where consumers in Beijing are now sated and dizzied by handbag excess. So Louis Vuitton is opening stores in places we have never heard of: Xian Zhing Da, Wuxi, Jinan, Shenyang and Kunming. Wuxi consumers, we might guess, have a connection with Hermès’ nourishing domestic French culture which is as weak a current as their brand loyalty. Where will that leave Parisian chic?

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Luxury is always perplexing. While the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham insisted that ‘necessaries come always before luxuries’, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright said he didn’t give a damn about life’s necessities, provided he had an ample supply of life’s superfluities. But he was being characteristically contrarian. More certainly, how we define what’s necessary and what’s superfluous is a test of any culture’s maturity. Or any individual’s. In that luxury involves privilege and pleasure, it’s a human fundamental, an appetite we all possess. At a certain stage of cultural development, there’s a need for stand-out: to signify promotion above mere mortals. The Roman vir triumphalis wore a purple and gold toga, laurel crown with red boots and sported a garishly painted face as he was drawn magnificently through the city. To achieve the same ends (as well as to pull a bit of skirt), Gulf boys drive supercars noisily around Knightsbridge at the weekend. Thus, a yellow Lamborghini Huracan is the equivalent of the Capuan Triumphator Arches, also built to receive fast-moving egos.

Luxury's Decline and Fall

Dazed & Pampered

In Shenzhen, there is a spa furnished with a hundred leather recliners with enormous plasma screens bolted to the ceiling above. Dazed and pampered spa visitors dream of European luxury brands while, back at the factory, their colleagues industriously develop stratagems to destroy the European luxury goods businesses. We are in a world where old European luxury brands are becoming a dressing-up box not just for heavy-footed Gulf boys, but also for crazy rich Asians careless of nuance, but demented by dreams of quickly and expensively acquired status. But consumer confidence is as fragile as consumer rationality, even in strong markets: recent research indicated that a surprising number of Chinese consumers thought Gucci was British. If you are Gucci, that may not be good news. Excess always occurs where new wealth is found. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s Boeing 767-33AER was adapted to feature a banquet hall to seat 30, an interior fashioned with precious metals and fine woods, and perhaps most tellingly, a bedroom with a double bed. London newspapers reported that a Middle Eastern client rented a whole suite at a West End hotel to accommodate the bulging shopping bags acquired during a fitful orgy of consumption.

“If luxury is to do with privilege, then true modern privilege is to indulge in silence, space, fitness, cleanliness, appropriateness, tact and good manners”

But modern Europe is now fatigued by its own luxuries, just as ancient Rome once was. Perhaps with the tacky ‘gout Rothschild’ in mind, gold-plated Victorian bling, John Ruskin wrote: ‘Every increased possession loads us with a new weariness’. But this weariness is itself an enjoyable privilege. Advanced European taste is retreating from traditional luxury. The designer Nicky Haslam prefers delightful simplicity: ‘a bowl of white peaches, a stack of books and a stash of candles’ are luxury to him and Terence Conran always believed vin ordinaire in unlabelled magnums makes it luxurious.

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Big Spenders

Meanwhile, recent research, from a survey of around 1.7 million people from 164 countries, found that earnings of around $60,000 was the ideal amount of money for happiness. But there is a stubborn resistance from old school spenders: Forbes magazine publishes a Cost of Living Extremely Well Index (CLEWI), a source of rich, if unintentional, comedy. Forbes’ basket of ultraluxe goods includes an ebonised Steinway Model D Concert Grand, a Hatteras 75 yacht, a Rolls-Royce Phantom, a pair of Purdey guns, one kilogram of Petrossian Oscietra caviar, Purity Doppio Ajour linen sheets, a Learjet 70 and an Hermès Clemence Jypsiere sac à main. What was that we were saying about weariness?

The more sophisticated you are, the more likely you will prefer simplicity… even austerity. Henry David Thoreau said, ‘Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes’. Thoreau, it must be explained, had his greatest thoughts while living alone in a wood cabin in the forest. If luxury is to do with privilege, then the true modern privilege is to indulge in silence, space, fitness, cleanliness, appropriateness, tact and good manners. This is why people travel first class on planes: you’d have to suffer from a severe delusional disorder to pay a premium of thousands to get a ‘free’ glass of champagne and a plate of gelatinous smoked salmon. What you’re paying for is to have pain taken away. This version of luxury is not a glut of positives; it’s more a lack of negatives. And meeting this new mood of sophisticated austerity is the creative and commercial challenge facing the luxury brand conglomerates, empires which, unless they evolve, may soon be as precarious as Rome itself became. Coco Chanel always deserves the penultimate, mysterious word: ‘Luxury is a necessity that begins where necessity ends’. Or as Manolo Blahnik puts it: ‘The greatest luxury is being free’. Free, that is, from the pink YSL studded goat hair ankle boots and the ebonised Steinway.

Buy The Book: Great British Brands 2019, The International Edition / Luxury