Towards A New Definition Of Luxury (Part 1)
When the world was first introduced to James Bond in the 1953 book Casino Royale, the suave secret agent was already a connoisseur of the good things in life, an expert in luxurious living. There is a scene when he wows fellow spy Vesper Lynd by nonchalantly letting slip his knowledge of French cuisine, ordering an avocado pear with vinaigrette dressing for dessert. “You must forgive me” he says “It comes from the habit of taking a lot of trouble over details”. With this culinary vignette, Ian Fleming had deftly described luxury for a world struggling to rebuild itself amidst post-war austerity. It was not just about fabulous wealth, but more about taste and discernment, a hunger for quality in the details of food, clothes and cars. And it relied upon centuries of unbroken expertise in skilled craftsmanship.
Fast forward fifty years or so. When Daniel Craig replayed the scene in the 2006 film of the book, luxury was defined anew. “Nice watch” comments the sharp-eyed Vesper, “Rolex?” After a pregnant pause, Bond replies “Omega”. As the entire Bond franchise had now become a product placement vehicle, so Britain’s greatest spy was reduced to delivering what was effectively an advertising line. In the brave new world of the free market, ‘license to kill’ had become licensed to sell.
This extraordinary shift had actually taken place in discernible stages. In the Keynsian era, even though wages were rising rapidly across the board, only the rich could afford Swiss automatic watches. The modern world of neo-liberal economics that began around 1989 saw wages stagnate while the rich got considerably richer. One result was that the mid-range of many goods began to disappear – thus while the wealthy had Omegas, the rest of us bought plastic disposable Swatches (which, as it happened, owned the more prestigious brand). At the same time, at the top end of the price curve, the bourgeoisie was going global. The spike in oil prices gave us the OPEC playboy flashing the proceeds of having had the good fortune to be born on top of vast reserves of the black gold. Nearer home, the manic financial world gave us the instant billionaire traders and the ‘loadsamoney’ economy. Owning the biggest, brashest and most expensive watch was the entry ticket to these champagne cabalas. The era of mass-luxury had been born. Things once made by a limited number of specialised and traditional craftspeople now had to be made in a new way that could cater for the rapidly growing demand. Three crucial innovations made this transition possible, serving to alter forever the relationship between luxury and design.
Firstly there was defect-free production. Bond’s Bentley had been a piece of precision engineering that was prized not only for the aesthetic buzz it delivered but for the simple fact that it worked far better than the assembly-line models of the 50s and 60s that preceded it. Then in the 1990s a further improvement emerged with the computerisation of industrial production. The necessity of a fallible - and increasingly disaffected - workforce was removed at a stroke. The human hand morphed into the robotic arm, the trained eye gave way to laser beams and sensors and generations of experience were reduced to a single chip. Development in the material science of metals, fluids and plastics, along with pre-emptive 3D imaging, could remove stress defects before they even manifested. Suddenly, a whole host of things that had needed regular tinkering until the mid 90s – small family cars, washing machines, those early computers - began to function virtually hassle-free. It was no longer necessary to pay a huge sum for functionality, that had become relatively cheap. From now on you would only pay a lot for status.
Secondly there was piracy. Once the rip-off specialists of South East Asia understood that they could make a fake Prada handbag not a million miles from the quality of the original, they began to stalk the luxury brands. Western tourists sauntered through Asian markets crammed with fake luxury brands and they bought. In response, the genuine brand had to consider carefully what its paying customers really wanted. As well as the item itself they needed the assurance of a trusted outlet, and so the model of the franchised store was rolled out. These provided something the pirates never could: aftercare. If your genuine Swiss watch broke down, it had to go back to its homeland for expensive, and probably lengthy, repair. This may have been frustrating, but it was also subtly reassuring: you knew you were dealing with the real thing and linked to those who made it, so there was an agreeable sense of being a valued customer and not just a number.
The third innovation was that obsession with brands ceased to be derided. The Punk era with its satirical anti-fashion - tatty second-hand clothes and black bin-liners held together with safety pins – had savagely mocked brandability but the disdain could not last. By the mid 90s the Sex Pistols were long gone and the impressionable young had discovered that material aspiration was no longer naff. They embraced brands with enthusiasm: only two or three types of trainers or sportswear would do, only two or three perfumes named after some vacuous ‘celebrity’, only a table at two or three trendy restaurants or entrance to two or three clubs. In response to this new need, the mass-luxury empires emerged and luxury, traditionally elitist, went street-level. For the delighted new shoppers, it was “Et in arcadia ego!” and the arcades were large, footfall stadia in fact. The phrase ‘must have’ entered our vocabulary. Brand names were detached from traditional and regional production facilities and became global. The original fabric may still have come from Italy, but it was assembled somewhere else and finished somewhere else again before being marketed as hand-made and high-value. All this was possible because we consumers were totally unembarrassed by these neo-luxury brands and the fact that they were endorsed by, or created in the name of, celebrities. Fame and the branding industry snuggled up in bed together and they very much enjoyed each other’s company.
How would James Bond have reacted to all this? Well, if you go to where he would have shopped - Jermyn Street on the edge of Mayfair – that famous hat shop has gone. So too the famous barber where every inch of the regular’s stubbly chin was remembered. The boot and shirt makers 007 patronised are still there, but turning out much more ephemeral products, and not infrequently five for the price of three. A short stroll north, the bespoke tailors of Savile Row are only surviving by adapting their traditional styles and colours to appeal to the very different tastes of the new high net value customers from Russia, China and the Middle East. Luxury has moved a long way from that avocado vinaigrette.
Despite the financial crises and economic austerity of recent years, the luxury industry has continued to grow, but within its discourse there has been a change of direction. Brands have re-embraced the idea of craft and artisanal making, resulting in countless advertising campaigns and slick videos promoting the relationship of corporate products to craft. Some clothiers have adopted a fogeyish persona, producing their wares from very expensive materials by laborious traditional methods and marking them clearly as ‘Made in Britain’. Urban farmers’ markets spring up wherever people are happy to pay over the odds for (allegedly) organic food washed down by micro-brewed beer or almond milk. A big part of luxury now seems to involve nostalgia, evincing a Downton Abbey of the mind that hankers for past quality as a refuge from the ever-advancing tide of mere quantity. So the modern luxuriant, bored with squinting at their iPhone to know the time, would probably bypass the Omega that Ms. Lynd was so impressed by and opt for, say, a 1953 LeCoultre. Very analogue, very luxurious.
And as the world becomes increasingly changeable - less stable and more unequal – so our definition of luxury is changing too. There has been a subtle shift from the material to the immaterial. Rather than unique and exceptional objects, experience and time spent, together with more abstract concepts of security and protection have become increasingly valued components of what is considered luxurious. Social, political and economic conditions determine our routines, relationships and spaces; they also provide the framework for our choice as to what constitutes value and luxury. While the acquisition of luxury products, including experiences of places and services, still promises to fulfil aspirations, the rare availability of time and space are increasingly being seen as luxuries in their own right. This understanding moves us away from the impressive and the extravagant to something much more intangible: something emotional, perhaps even spiritual. As the question of luxury becomes an increasingly personal one, liberated from the slavish conformity of fashion, so the enjoyment of luxury is not only a question of budget but of individual conditions, contexts and preferences. Freedom, dreams and the ability to take decisions have become fundamental to this enjoyment; for some in our busy world, the ability just to get lost for a few hours is itself a luxury.
And this is where we at The Hermitage enter the debate. Since our inception six years ago here on the sun-kissed coast of Malabar, we have been quietly articulating a definition of luxury that the mainstream is only just waking up to. If luxury is connected to how we live and the choices we make, surely everyone has a relationship to the luxurious, and through its connection to time and space, luxury actually is a fundamental part of life. For us, then, luxury has never been just about material things, though of course fine things can contribute to it – good design entails both form that pleases the senses and function that makes life more easeful. But in its essence, luxury is not concerned with material reality; rather, it is a state of mind, an affluence of being.
We believe that this inner state is partly achieved by taking great care in crafting the external details. Like James Bond, we have ‘the habit of taking a lot of trouble over details’, but not just for themselves. Just as the trees show the bodily form of the wind, so detail can transport us to what lies beyond it; detail is the jumping off point, not the destination. When the little things are right, we connect subtly with the nurturing human intelligence that took the trouble to make them right in the first place, we are touched by the thoughtfulness that considered what might make us feel more at home, more nourished, more ourselves. This is the simple luxury of good hospitality: mother is at home.
Thus for The Hermitage family, luxury is not so much about accumulation as it is to do with letting go. The luxury we offer brings a sense of freedom, and as ‘freedom to’ is based on ‘freedom from’, so we define luxury by as much by what is absent as by what is present. The greatest artists have always known that emptiness is integral to their picture, the greatest composers have always understood the value of silence, the greatest builders have always valued the relief of open space. In a similar vein, we honour the concept of the creative ‘no-thing-ness’. Habitually overlooked but always present, it is the nothing that is the something that is everything. Therefore, our guiding archetype of luxury is not the potentate in his palace surrounded by glistering objects, but the enlightened sage who lived in the forest hermitages of ancient India. Possessing nothing, he owned everything.
In a world submerged by quantity, luxury is the lifeline of quality; for minds preoccupied with past and future, luxury is simply being present; in our overcrowded lives, luxury is having space; for those who suffer constant interruption, luxury is unbroken calm; in our unquiet world, luxury is the balm of silence.
Space, silence, restfulness – these refresh the weary spirit and nurture unimagined future possibilities So come and experience The Hermitage, and you will understand for yourself what real luxury is.