The changing definition of luxury in 2021

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A new world order is afoot. As 2020 forced us into confinement to (re)consider our callousness, consciousness and conscientiousness; conversations began to shift. For the fashion industry, the year accelerated urgent reforms, and set in motion wheels of inevitable change. How lasting or fleeting these will be, only time will tell. But one thing is for certain: there’s no mindlessly rewinding to the old guard anymore. The way forward has been declared a more thoughtful one; particularly for the luxury industry.

Let’s examine the word ‘luxury’ for a moment. The dictionary-approved definitions vary from ‘the fact of enjoying special and expensive things, particularly food and drink, clothes and places’, to ‘a state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense.’ In 2021, these ring hollow as rather one-dimensional vantage points. Luxury was already evolving beyond being the prerogative of just a privileged few in the pre-pandemic world. Today, many of its previous associations and subliminal snobbishness have become increasingly irrelevant.

It’s not to say that products once considered luxury will now cease to be so. It’s the direction that is more wholesome now. When 2020 shut us in our houses, it afforded us time to re-evaluate life (and luxury) as we knew it: Was the old paradigm serving us? And if not, how could it be remedied? Enter a new manifesto, where handmade, slow fashion and emotional connections were finally embraced in their entirety and not just as buzzwords or PR strategies. What does this new dawn mean? We asked industry insiders to give us an insight.

The significance of slow luxury

“Luxury means something that is rare. But in 2021, the definition has become more progressive. It also encompasses that which is environmentally neutral, socially beneficial and culturally sustainable,” Rahul Mishra, internationally renowned for his craft-focused sustainable couture brand, tells Vogue. While the lockdown served as a catalyst, real change needs a decade to fully manifest. So, the tide is turning, but we won’t land on new shores overnight. “2020 brought wisdom, which I hope we can retain. Consumers are starting to appreciate slowness now. They are asking questions. They understand that the environmental crisis is real. They are cognisant of materials, ethical practices, crafts, and the people making their clothes. They want rhythmic fashion.”

This steers the narrative towards slowly-made luxury. “The aim is to bend the status quo. The new standard of luxury doesn’t treat people and the planet like inexhaustible resources. It respects indigenous cultures and the interconnected nature of life,” explains Mia Morikawa, one of the founders and directors of conscious luxury brand 11.11/eleven eleven. “Timelines are also changing. We are realising that nothing of value can happen very quickly.” Which is why ‘conscious over conspicuous’ is the current mandate. As the luxury consumer discovers the poetry in savouring every purchase, mindless consumption is on the way out. “The past year has reinstated the notion of waiting and treasuring, which I hope will continue,” adds Rosh Mahtani, founder of Alighieri Jewellery, where each piece is inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. Her designs, which take six weeks to finish, are all handmade end-to-end in London (the brand’s birthplace) by working closely with casters in Hatton Garden. “This slower process ensures everything is of the best quality and standard, and ensures ethical and sustainable practice along the way.”  

A renewed approach to access

The old concept of luxury being completely unattainable is outdated. What’s in? A focus on the intangible element, one that’s all about how it makes you feel. When you marry this with the current climate—a world where the fight for representation has gone global, and where Kamala Harris just made history by being sworn in as America’s first female vice-president, and also the first woman of African-American and south Asian descent to hold the post—brands that make you feel alienated or unworthy have no place. We want to feel seen, we want to be heard, and we want a seat at the table. Luxury labels which succeed in inspiring these feelings of inclusivity will win. And even though luxury will continue to be associated with investment pieces, it will be about more than just privilege and products. Patrons will also invest in the brand’s story, the experience and the relationship with the creator. It will be about deriving pleasure from the pursuit.

“The goals of aspiration have undergone change. Luxury products must be accessible yet special while retaining their desirability,” opines designer David Abraham, one half of textile-driven design house Abraham & Thakore. “Today, the perception of luxury extends well beyond a mere physical product to something as ephemeral as an experience or a state of mind.” Mahtani talks about taking people on a journey and making them feel part of something bigger. For her first-ever pop-up shop in August last year, she married luxury shopping with an engaging set-up. “We created an old Italian piazza in the middle of London. Customers could dine, attend art talks, enjoy wine tastings and also have a bespoke necklace made.”

The age of emotional intelligence

But what about maintaining that coveted elusiveness? Mishra feels the easiest way to achieve this is by resigning from the cacophony of oversharing, citing Bottega Veneta’s recent decision to log out of Instagram. “There is a sense of content fatigue now. Taking a step back will help retain an aura of mystery in this hyper-digital world,” he adds. Abraham emphasises thinking beyond design and presentation, to be transparent about provenance. “Communicate a coherent narrative that resonates amidst the clutter. A brand must articulate its core values clearly, it cannot pretend. It has to be honest to build a lasting relationship.” This connection is key, according to Morikawa too. “Pre-pandemic, we were preoccupied with what we communicated about us to the outside world. We are much more in tune with ourselves now, and gravitate towards brands that can enhance and elevate our mood.”

The democratisation of luxury

Gen-Z, luxury’s future (and also part of the present) consumer, is looking for something new, not something old. The result is the need to think younger, read the room, and adapt. Especially in the case of legacy brands. Not just in playing the right cards with the thoughtfulness and intent. But by also embracing newer technologies. The lockdown sealed the fate of e-commerce as the future, as non-native Internet users clicked yes to online shopping too. “Established brands who were dependant on their showrooms to deliver a certain experience don’t have the option anymore. The rise of e-commerce means that one cannot depend on the old formula. The internet is a democratic space. In this flat world, you must be able to compete with products from every category,” says Abraham. The trick, he feels, is to strive to be the, “haute couture of the Internet. The experience will still be a big part of your luxury offering. Deliver it digitally but with your signature aesthetic. Use tools like private calls, customisation, and nurturing personal relationships.”

This convenience will co-exist with comfort and elegance, as cosycore continues to dominate our minds and wardrobes. No one will be willing to compromise on ease even when stepping out in their finest finery. “I recently read about a pair of $4,000 sneakers (not six-inch stilettoes!) that were encrusted with crystals. That, to me, neatly sums up the new meaning of luxury! Does it not?” Abraham concludes.

Also read:

Want to start a conscious brand in 2021? Here's what it takes

“You have to believe we can win”: Stella McCartney on the sustainability lessons we need to put into action

All the positive moves in fashion that gave us hope in 2020

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