Luxury continues to signal power, affluence and taste—but the way we view and consume it has changed

By Shoba Narayan

LAST UPDATED 29.10.2021  |  06:41 PM IST

 

If you ask your mother or grandmother what their idea of luxury is, you will probably get an answer that’s a variation of one of these:

“A double ikat Patan patola.”

“A diamond addigai (necklace).”
“A Kashmiri silk carpet or a shahtoosh.”
“A Mughal miniature painting. Or a Srinathji pichwai.”
“Listening to Sawai Gandharva on a full-moon night on the banks of the Ganga.”
Indians of earlier generations know luxury in a visceral, sensual way. Every product I have mentioned above is hyper-localised, linked to region, personal history and provenance. Often, each of these luxury objects is made by an artist or craftsperson who has worked with the family to custom specifications. It is purchased for a high price by an aesthete who has been following the sector for generations. If that isn’t luxury shopping, what is?
Ask your children or nephews and nieces the same question and the answers would be different.
“Billie Eilish Air Jordan vegan sneakers.”
“Mylo-Unleather handbags or a Huda beauty product customised to my skin.”
“I only buy upcycled, preloved, fair-trade, carbon-neutral, last-mile traceable, not-animal-tested, no-child-labour products from cooperatives that work with tribal or indigenous artisans.”
The definitions may seem as far apart as the two generations are in age but the luxury formula for both is similar. The finest materials sourced to create the best product, handmade by a skilled craftsperson in a way that reflects the buyer’s sensibility and style. The vocabulary may have changed but the goal remains the same.
Has the pandemic changed notions of luxury? Yes and no. Beneath all the objects and brand names, the main purpose of luxury is its signalling value. That remains unchanged. Luxury continues to signal power, affluence and taste but it also signals your values. What you buy reflects who you are, who you want to be.
Luxury in today’s world is about identity, values, emotions and connections. The pandemic has been an inflection point because it has forced luxury consumers to introspect. They may no longer want excessive, over-the-top, logo-bombed luxury. Instead, they are seeking a more thoughtful, sustainable, authentic version. “Covid-19 has inspired people to rethink luxury consumption values,” says Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute, a US-based research consultancy for luxury and premium goods and services brands
Here are eight ways luxury will change post-covid, in the short term and long term.
The Now-Me effect: We may want to portray ourselves as sensitive, evolved consumers but the narcissism that social media promotes makes us impatient as well. We see a product that we lust after on Instagram, click on it and want it within the 15 seconds it takes to play a video.
Pamper the shopper: Whether it is delivering coffee to customers who buy your jewellery, or sending salespeople to the gym so the customer can discuss travel options while working out, comfort, speed and ease are essential. As consumers, we have come to expect this personalisation of service from brands.
The search for meaning: Religion is still a huge part of the Indian psyche but globally, younger buyers are turning away from faith. Instead, they search for meaning in how they live, the objects they buy, the company they keep. Offering transformative experiences is now de rigueur for hotels, travel companies, wedding planners and event managers. People are focusing on the meaning more than the objects themselves.
Show care, don’t greenwash: Living through a pandemic has nudged quite a few towards the slow life. They are making conscious, authentic choices about how much and what to buy, and they care about provenance. Global consulting firm McKinsey’s The State of Fashion 2021 report says consumers care about social justice. How do brands treat employees and the environment? Do they support minorities and women? Is their board gender-balanced? As consumers, we want to spend on brands that conform to our values. We can suss out greenwashing, the pretence of being sustainable.
Quality over quantity: “Luxury consumers across the globe are buying higher quality, and, in some cases, fewer items as they think of high-end goods not just in terms of pleasure but also sustainability and long-term investment value,” says Pedraza.
Minimalism and the Marie Kondo effect: If Marie Kondo sparked the desire for minimalism, the pandemic just fanned it further. Each of us has gazed at our wardrobes with new eyes. Do we really need 27 belts? What were we thinking when we bought that shimmery, sequinned dress? Objects are being given to charity, sent to thrift stores. Wardrobes and homes are being pared down as minimalism gains momentum. And that’s also why people will buy fewer but better quality items in future.
Value over variety: There was a time when people went shopping for fun, as punctuation to their day. Today, those same people go for a walk or take a hike. The outdoors is where the action is because fresh air is perceived as safe, healthier than recirculated store air. We choose value over variety these days, particularly since we don’t have to show off at the office or at parties.
Customisation: Micro-sizes in clothes, bespoke add-ons to experiences, and thinking creatively about customisation have a long history in India—hence the continuing popularity of the Indian tailor. How much can an experience be customised to make me feel truly unique is what the customer is demanding of luxury brands.
To me, there’s one thing that’s the most luxurious of all: time. Luxury is ultimately about what you don’t have yet long for. What do you long for? Hugs? Beauty? Love? A higher calling? Repurposing objects to these deep and profound needs, often those we cannot articulate, has always been the challenge and goal for luxury brands. As consumers, we are going to be seeking out luxury brands that understand this, that cater to us—the hyper-aware consumer who looks for emotional and ethical touchstones.

 

Shoba Narayan began her journey as a columnist with the first issue of Mint Lounge, writing a weekly column titled “The Good Life” for nine years.

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