VOL. MMXIII..No. 209

in conversation | THOUGHT LEADERS AND ICONOCLASTS

The L-Word Redefined: New Book Argues the Case for ‘Luxury Beyond Luxury’

In recent years, the word “luxury” has become so hackneyed and over-used that many feel it had completely lost its meaning. Today, nearly every brand that targets the rich (whether the newly rich, super-rich, wanna-be rich or just plain rich), attempts to include the word in their self-description, no doubt an effort to influence their public perception.

 

Can a brand like Louis Vuitton really be considered “luxury” when there is little that is rarefied about it, with bags sewn largely by machine and multiple factories providing a steady stream of products to an insatiable marketplace?

 

 

In their new book, Meta-luxury: Brands and the Culture of Excellence, authors Manfredi Ricca and Rebecca Robins attempt to answer that question and argue that true luxury goes beyond the relatively superficial standards (largely price) that have come to be so pervasive in the marketplace today. Cost is not the only measure, nor is rarity. Rather, it is a complex recipe that bears what they contend is a set of distinctive hallmarks of excellence.

 

 The book explores the concept of “luxury beyond luxury” and that to truly be called as such, a brand must be categorically dedicated to creating products whose craftsmanship is imbued with “knowledge, purpose, and timelessness.” While these characteristics may sound vague, they are in fact the benchmarks of several luxury manufacturers — from cars to pianos — whom the authors cite as being examples of brands which place a premium on the craft, their materials, and an unwavering devotion to pure performance and design.

 

 So what is it that distinguishes true luxury today and have we become immune to the integrity of absolute luxury? Ricca and Robins explain in their exclusive interview with b. on brand.

 

 BERTRAND PELLEGRIN: Why is it that you felt compelled to refine the definition of luxury by calling it “meta” luxury — how is the paradigm [you describe] of knowledge, purpose, and timelessness any different from how others have defined luxury?

 

REBECCA ROBINS: The debate around luxury is nothing new – but the level of problematisation around it has reached epic proportions in recent years. It is a space in which there is increasing clutter and confusion and the very proliferation of terms such as ‘ultra-luxury’, ‘super-luxury’ or ‘high luxury’ demonstrate the extent to which ‘luxury’ has become so diluted that it is practically devoid of meaning. We explore an absolute definition of true luxury as both a culture and a business model. It is a paradigm built on the culture of excellence, where the pillars of Craftsmanship, Focus, History and Rarity exist as fundamental organising principles for the brand owner and as fundamental drivers of demand and desire for the meta-luxury connoisseur.

 

MANFREDI RICCA: Today, companies with completely different philosophies and business models are defined, or define themselves, as embodying luxury. At times of economic uncertainty, what is luxury really and ultimately about? Countless inspiring conversations suggested it had to do with fundamental and universal human aspirations – knowledge, purpose and timelessness. If we think carefully about it, that’s what sets apart a truly unique achievement from the ordinary. And luxury is everything but ordinary. The fact of being a unique achievement is what brings us to regard, say, a masterpiece in artisan watchmaking built out of rare materials as being very different from a cotton t-shirt with a logo.

 

 

BP: It could be argued that the idea of a “luxury brand” is a relatively modern way of understanding the value of something. In your view is it possible for luxury to be purely organic and unselfconscious? What brands have been successful at that?

 

RR: Meta-luxury is about creating value across generations and that stems from these brands’ desire not only to pursue excellence in their respective field, but also to make their mark in history. If we look at Fazioli, for example, we see a brand that, in a mere 30 years, has emerged as a contender to the title of creator of the best pianos in the world. What fires and inspires Fazioli, is the pursuit of the perfect piano, certainly, but equally and as steadfastly, it is about what Fazioli will contribute to the evolution of the piano over time. In a recent interview at the time of the Hermès exhibition in London, Pierre-Alexis Dumas was quoted on the imperative of the Hermès brand and culture: “We want to share our culture. We are tenants of a culture that is age-old.” This is the essence of meta-luxury.

 

 

BP: You suggest that for a true luxury brand, “business results are not a target, they are a means,” and that “economic success is therefore a requisite and a consequence, but not the primary objective.” Do you really think this is accurate, in an age when most luxury brands are owned by conglomerates and clearly profit driven?

 

RR: While it is undeniable that many luxury brands exist under the umbrella of conglomerates, it is also evident that the spirit of independence holds strong and true. Furthermore, we are witnessing the rise of many new and emerging brands. And let’s not forget that some of the brands that we are talking about are still ‘young’ brands. Pagani has attained the status of creator of one of the best supercars in the world, and yet has not even marked its 15th anniversary. In a space of 30 years, Fazioli has taken on the pursuit of the perfect piano and is now heralded by many world-class musicians as the pinnacle in piano performance and sound.

 

The very premise of meta-luxury brands is that they operate counter to the accepted notion of the business driving the brand. In meta-luxury, it is the brand driving the business. Everything that these brands do revolves around one single-minded objective – the pursuit of excellence. Whereas other brands may sacrifice ‘focus’, through the level of diversification, or ‘rarity’, through making their products widely available, meta-luxury brands sacrifice nothing and protect the integrity of the brand at all costs. The pursuit of excellence is inherent in everything the company does and all else is a consequence.

 


 

MR: We live in times when, for instance, the hugely successful IPO of Brunello Cucinelli was based on what the entrepreneur calls a “gentle” notion of growth and profit, which can ensure prosperity and excellence from one generation to the next rather than quarterly results. Meta-luxury is about mitigating risk rather than maximising short-term results. It is not about disregarding profit, but merely making it sustainable.

 

BP: You chose to profile a diverse range of individuals: from a violinist to the chairman of Bulgari. Why these particular people?

 

RR: Meta-luxury engages with a redefinition of luxury – one that is established on an economy and a culture of excellence. One that goes ‘beyond’ luxury. As such, our conversations naturally went ‘beyond’ what would be considered the accepted and expected. The premise of meta-luxury is one of ‘unique achievement’ and these individuals represent this in every respect. The book spans perspectives from creators of excellence, to masters of excellence and academics. The inclusion of creators of excellence whose brands are still young brands (consider Pagani), alongside more established brands (such as Bulgari), was also very deliberate.

 

BP: Do you believe that it is possible for a modern luxury brand to be successfully developed without all of the key factors you’ve identified? 

 

RR: There are a number of brands that are highly successful through the pursuit of a different model – consider Armani, as one example. It is one that sacrifices the meta-luxury pillar of rarity – its products are made widely available and cannot be considered unique achievements;  and one that sacrifices ‘focus’ – through its articulated architecture spanning Armani Casa, to Armani Jeans. Nonetheless, it is a highly successful business. Meta-luxury represents a different space of offer and demand.

 

 

BP: With the cost of doing business rising as well as the cost of production, where do you see meta-luxury’s application when major European luxury brands are increasingly forced to produce their goods overseas. Does such practices in fact dilute their  “brand story” and integrity?

 

RR: This raises a number of pertinent points and one that also goes back to the start of the economic crisis. In times of crisis we tend to anchor ourselves to certainties, to things that are constant, that we can trust. As such, we saw a return by many brands to their core values, to their heritage and history. It’s about an authentic story and as consumers become more demanding than ever before, as scrutiny of companies’ behaviour and supply chains is held to ever greater account, that story is rendered more transparent than ever.

 

Where so much of luxury has become about surface and stretch, the authenticity of meta-luxury brands is unquestioned. Faziola’s pianos are crafted from wood from the same forests from which, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Stradivarius violins were made. The story of meta-luxury brands runs deep and this is what resonates with a dynamic that unites craftsmen and connoisseurs rather than manufacturers and consumers. These brands refuse to compromise on short-term targets, in order to protect the brand over time and ensure its longevity for generations to come.

 

Meta-luxury: Brands and the Culture of Excellence by Manfredi Ricci and Rebecca Robins ($40.00, Palgrave Macmillan). To order the book or learn more about the authors, please click here.

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