The Future of Luxury in a Post-Physical World
Or : Is It Still Luxury on Instagram ?
A few years ago, I wrote an article on this blog called “Is It Still Luxury on Amazon?” I wrote it at a time when I was living in New York, a fast-paced, “I want it all and I’d like it delivered” city if there ever was one. It was late 2014, so right around the time that drones were starting to step out of science-fiction and into reality; a time when the 24-hour Duane Reade was starting to sense the danger of being outpaced by Amazon Prime. Amazon had just announced a n expansion of their clothing retail department, leaning more towards luxury than high-street. And I remember wondering, back then, if high-end designer fashion on Amazon could ever truly compete with the brick-and-mortar experience. I was interning for a small couture designer and taken aback by the artistry in her work. I theorized that brand experience might only be a piece of the puzzle if the superior physical qualities of the garment itself were able take the baton.
The real question I was asking, of course, is what percent of the value of a luxury garment comes from the brand experience? The last time I looked at this topic, I felt that luxury could feasibly deliver its promise with what would essentially be a reduced or limited brand experience, so long as the product behind it lived up to existing brand standards.
In the end, designer fashion on Amazon never really did become a big thing. And as brands developed increasingly sophisticated digital experiences, luxury sales continued to reach records highs – at the very least, they took up more space in our fields of vision, bolstered by the explosion of Instagram and other visual medium. The sidewalk-as-runway was replaced by a powerful digital contact machine that turned the entire world into an endless, permanent runway, and the rest was history. So sweeping was the transformation that I wonder if the explosion of this medium won't soon eliminate that last essential core of luxury – the superior product.
Luxury has successful ridden several waves of hidden branding “dangers” – the agglomeration of the industry; the (racist affff) scandal that accompanied the collective realization that everyone had moved to East Asian production. Fast fashion, which threatened to offer a bottom-market deal that would deter on-the-fence middle class consumers from making the leap to luxury. Yet luxury remained steady through it all, undeterred and bolstered by the fact that despite great upsets in recent years, the sheer financial power of the industry allows it to retain a tight grip on the "top-down" sartorial model.
Largely, luxury has managed to hang on because it wields social power. Often, it’s the direct inheritor of all the exclusive patrimony to which it traces its roots. It swings and reinvents and resells the way only a global megalith could, wielding a two-headed axe of creative control (not without true, genuine talent behind it) and cultural dominance – if the brand stories behind so many modern luxury houses are so powerful, it’s because they weave into a known and desired narrative. Power, money, sex… no other market tier has managed to find such powerful symbols to sell to their consumers, and so luxury continues to have a job to do.
I want to be clear that I’m not referring to every single brand in a kabajillion dollar industry, but rather a specific subset of players - think a lot of the major LVMH houses. It’d be difficult to tie, say, Jacquemus into this narrative.
It’s essential to underline that most of these brand stories get their legitimacy from a superior product behind them – in a lot of cases a sort of myth, but in a lot of cases thanks to a true creative standout. At the root of it all is a product that sets itself above the those accessible to the average consumer in terms of quality, or design, or price – that’s the definition of luxury, à priori.
When I was interning for the designer- and I talk about this in the other article, so I won’t go crazy here – I went into it with what I’ll call fine shreds of a Not Like Other Girls attitude about designers and designer goods. I’d been raised to believe that a brand promised nothing, said nothing, was no more than an excuse to charge a higher price. And I remember getting my naïve little eyes opened right up, yessir. When you explore the craftsmanship behind a luxury garment, you get it – you think about all the intricate beading, the hours hand-stitching a gown, and you understand the meaning of a product Set Apart. And of course, there’s no denying that a luxury good might physically feel better, like a bespoke suit or a fine wool.
Interning for this designer taught me that in luxury, the purpose of the brand is (in theory) the promise to deliver that product. You’ve purchased XYZ brand, and that means you’ll get the softest sweater ever to grace your shoulders (or whatever.) I suspect this is LVMH’s motivation with their Portes Ouvertes events, a series of visits to their ateliers, in which we are asked to believe that dress-forms are constructed and beading threaded side-by-side in the same pristine dove-gray carpeted hall. It’s a stage so well set that you start to trust its veracity; a slight-of-hand that successfully places craft and construction back in the forefront of the customer’s mind.
The basic premise though, is this: behind every story lies a physical product that sets itself apart in a superior way. Eventually, though, these stories are all producing something, selling something. Even if the object exists only to serve as a stand-in for some other desire - love, prestige, beauty - it’s nonetheless the key, a talisman essential to the conjuring.
Luxury on Instagram, then, is the ultimate simulacrum. If the traditional use-pathway of a luxury good involves a transition from object to symbol, then its path on Instagram creates an added step: object to symbol to symbol of symbol. On some level, part of the use-value of a luxury good has always been its visual nature; both for the aesthetic and for the projected symbolism. But on Instagram, the detail is lost - the delicacy of the beading, the buttery texture of quality cashmere. The act of self-definition that is inherent to dress - be it luxury or not - becomes both distorted and magnified, a funhouse mirror effect that puts the suggestion of luxury before its actual presence. In the process of capturing and sharing a photo, reality loses its relevance, it becomes made-to-measure.
Luxury on Instagram is luxury for the post-physical age, a luxury liberated from the earthly limitations of leather and wool and silk. The only things holding everyone back from lying - from complete self-invention - are the hawkish eyes of luxury and fashion aficionados who can spot a fake from a mile away. We’re not yet entirely liberated from the physical - there’s still the sense that at some point, you’ll have to be wearing that look in the real world - but even that is becoming less and less true. In other words, on Instagram, brand experience is no longer part of the value of a luxury garment - it is the value.
More generally, we’ve been seeing a decline in retail as millennials prefer to invest their money elsewhere - like concerts and travel. In other words, on experience. There was a time when you’d want concert tickets for your birthday, but you’d ask your parents to budget in the t-shirt as well. The material carried a certain weight, the value of proof. In a post-physical age, the consumer is liberated from that. An experience can be captured in photos, shared and repeated and endlessly useful. For the first time, the experience takes on the same use-value as the object in terms of self-definition - what was once ephemeral becomes tangible and permanent. On Instagram, a t-shirt and a concert are of equal utility.
Clothing remains important, if only as a symbolic good, a code for those in-the-know. But the actual, physicality of the object becomes increasingly irrelevant. A decent concession could be made for the construction of the garment – better construction equals better aesthetic equals better optics. But in a world where everything’s being seen through a distance, does it really matter if there’s a quality product behind the brand promise?
In other words, in a post-physical world, the answer to the question “what percentage of the value of a luxury product is brand experience?” might well be…all of it. Of course, that’s not forgetting the visit to the store, the packaging, the scent of the soft paper that enshrouds your purchase – these are physical or sensory experiences that play an essential role in the perception and experience of the brand. And increasingly, retailers are relying on those details to differentiate their product and create added value in a world where quality (in terms of mass-consumer products particularly) has already begun to fall by the wayside in favor of a fast-fashion high-turnover model. Luxury brand models rely on the “brand universe” to sell a narrative adaptable to a rapidly changing market.
But none of these things concern, ultimately, the product; they’re setting the stage for a Product Experience. They’re made for being posted and described and shared, for participation in a universe rather than purchasing a product. In a post-physical world, image comes first. What value, then, in investing in construction and creation? The real investment is in those minute details that form a simulacrum of luxury.
Whatever those items used to symbolize for the consumer (wealth, sexiness, power) can be obtained in other ways, and represented better by other, immaterial means. Those narratives that give luxury its power today are all the more adaptable once liberated from the physical. This already the principle of branding today - a brand isn't an object, it's an idea; it's what allows a brand to adapt and reinvent itself in a changing market. So it's not that the product itself will ever fall completely to the wayside. But the physical details that make luxury what it is will lose some of their seductive power.
Who needs, say, a couture dress when you can pay for a Premium, Exclusive, Better, More Comfortable Experience? In an age where Louis Vuitton is no longer a product – no longer a trunk, or a bag – then those physical items become mere pieces of a larger Louis Vuitton Experience puzzle. Forget the lightly tethered associative relationship created by sponsorships – why not a LV concert, or cruise, or voyage? A business model that holds up a superior object as a core tenet seems less pertinent in a world that’s hardly concerned with objects at all.
All of this is not to say that I think that luxury itself is going anywhere. The desire for something better, something above hasn’t and won’t go away. Just like that old axiom about marketing, technology doesn’t create needs, it responds to them. That need is clearly still present, perhaps even more so. In a world where self-differentiation is so powerful and accessible, it makes sense to need more powerful tools to do the job. But I do think that luxury is about to face its next great challenge – in the future, if you’re going to pay for something truly great, I don’t think it will necessarily be a physical product.