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We’re fast becoming a ‘post-luxury’ society. So how should luxury brands be defined today?

Like ‘innovation’, ‘disruption’, or ‘outside the box’, ‘luxury’ has become an overused term stripped of much meaning. It’s been reduced to a buzzword, signaling a certain high-mindedness, but ultimately lacking in punch. Whereas in the past, it would’ve been a genuine, and accurate, description of a brand, service, or experience, that’s not quite the case any more.

To further complicate matters, a new generation has brought with them a new set of consumer preferences and behaviors. Increasingly, shoppers are more thoughtful in their purchases, and they’re willing to spend more of their income on products and experiences that resonate with their sensibilities. Slick marketing campaigns, however, often over-promise and under-deliver — and they also end up  confusing people. So consumers, myself included, are seeking more guidance on how to best navigate this new reality.

As we head towards a post-luxury world, now is the time to refresh and revise the current definition of luxury. It’s time to give the word meaning again. But before we do that, it helps to understand how the original idea of luxury has come to lose its virility.

First, in making luxury about logos, celebrity, and mass market scale, large “old-luxury” megabrands, the likes of Prada and Louis Vuitton, for instance, have over multiple decades effectively diluted themselves. It’s gotten to the point now where they’re increasingly less desired in mature markets like North America, Europe, and Japan. A great book by luxury expert Dana Thomas titled, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster, nicely illustrates this shift.

Second, today’s digital age has made it far easier to launch a shell brand and dress it up with the ‘right’ contemporary luxury messaging, imagery, and branding. (The recent launch of accessories brand, Pop & Suki, might be a good example here.) Fast fashion products can easily be gussied up with “new-luxury” narratives now, and in many cases it’s difficult to know what truly lies behind the digital curtain. As a result, this makes it very hazy for consumers to decipher what’s genuine when it comes to new brands.

Today, because of the above, we are in a transitional period in the luxury timeline, and it’s hard to know what the future holds. Home furnishings designer, Jonathan Adler, voiced this sentiment in a 2015 WSJ interview. “When people look back on early 21st-century design,” he said, “they will remember [one thing]: the chaos produced by the technological revolution, a chaos that can be interpreted as either depressingly meaningless or excitingly free.”

From my perspective, it’s an exciting juncture given that we have more access to experiences and products than at any point before. But at the same time, very little is filtered or edited, which makes it is hard to know what to trust. Initiatives like Monocle’s “Unlimited” partnership with UBS are accepting this challenge head on, though. In this particular case, they’re attempting to define what “new luxury” now means, and they’ve distilled it to five key ingredients:

1. Provenance – Where was it made and by whom? During the decades of rampant globalisation, few people asked these questions; now they are key to a luxury brand’s appeal.

2. Sense of community – Transparency has become a key ingredient of luxury and has been demanded by more discerning consumers. The recent revival of the open factory and the atelier shop are the perfect example of this trend towards ethical production.

3. Craftsmanship – Before we built in obsolescence, we used to build objects to last. Age-old craft techniques are still often the best ones for guaranteeing the quality of a product.

4. Narrative – Consumers want brands to have a story that they can buy into, of which they can feel a part and to which they can show their loyalty. Heritage is something you can’t manufacture.

5. Local pride – Luxury should not look the same no matter where in the world you are. People now want experiences that are true to their roots, wherever they may be.

Monocle’s guide is a good one. I was curious how we might better determine the new luxury ‘purity’ of particular sets of brands. So to better put these ideas into action, I’ve created a chart grading brands by how closely they abide by Monocle’s new luxury principles. You can apply this to any consumer goods category, but I’ve applied it to the industry I operate in at David Kind: eyewear. The closer to the center a brand is, the purer they are as a new luxury brand.

The new luxury chart applied to eyewear brands | Graphic courtesy: Dave Barton

Again, you can apply this chart to any upscale consumer goods sector — shoes, fragrance, shirting — and with a little digging you can determine what’s what. The point is that this helps to give an honest assessment of brands, and helps media and consumers navigate our new post-luxury world. This way, we’ll all be able to separate the bullshit from the brilliant whenever brands come knocking.

Dave Barton is CEO of David Kind, an eyewear company based in Santa Monica, CA. The views reflected here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Lean Luxe.

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