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November 25, 2017

The Meaning Of Luxury In The Age Of Social Media

Text by Ranjabati Das. Illustration by Rutuja Patil

With age-old brands giving in to social media, we ponder how the meaning of luxury has evolved in an age of information and choice overload

Many moons ago, much before Instagram was born, I was a regular fly on the wall — on more than one Facebook wall, actually. They were windows into the public worlds of a particular group of ‘friends’, whose albums were as glamorous as their lives seemed to be. Posing in matching Ritu Kumar lehngas or pouting for a group selfie at a by-invitation-only event, the clique was always dressed immaculately and accessorised with an aura of confidence that shone brighter than any solitaire. My mind turned a blind eye to the artful contrivance inherent in each post, conjuring up images of whatever was left undocumented, and to my imagination. Their Carrie-Bradshaw-like shoe closets bursting with the Louboutins…garages lined with a fleet of cars, with an Aston Martin here and a Bentley there…holidays in heritage havelis, butlers à la Alfred, chartered jets, the works….

Cachet on delivery
Many of the luxuries, including the private plane, can be booked with a tap of your finger today. And all those who want to live la dolce vita sans the guilt can turn to luxury rentals, now plating up a delectable spread of services, fashion, fine jewellery, accessories, furniture, art and real estate online. Increasingly subscribed to by wealthy millennials, are rentals the new future — a more egalitarian one, which is more about optimisation than ownership? Cutting down on hassles like maintenance, storage and relocation, they advocate a new eco-conscious behaviour in the bargain, and court customers with a spectrum of features which, from delivery to pick-up, are moving emphasis from the product to the experience in toto.

The globalisation and digitalisation processes that dovetailed to democratise luxury have also prodded a rise in peer-to-peer platforms and services that appeal to those who want to monetise commodities and assets (like, say, a villa) sitting idle. Like ownership, newness is no longer intrinsic to experiencing luxury, and a sizeable chunk of the previously-excluded are now eyeing luxury rentals and pre-owned portals to supplement central staple furniture or fashion items in a bid to enhance their lifestyle. Surprisingly emerging as two of the strongest contenders in this arena are ensemble and accessory rentals — because who thought that so many would be open to wearing clothes and ornaments worn by others? For stylish millennials, who want to keep up with the trends without cluttering their wardrobes, make an impression at a special event or avoid repeating the same ensemble on Instagram, leasable fashion has emerged as a boon. The last decade was also when a number of megabrands started queueing up to invest in both their own off-price outlets as well as those in partnership with online and offline retailers. Unsurprisingly, some luxe brands have even taken to designing lines with these avenues in mind. Where discounts were once thought to be detrimental to brand equity, luxury fashion houses are now waking up to strategies like keeping iconic items far away from these channels (thinking of getting the Chanel No 5 on sale? Forget it!) and, literally, distancing the offline discount sites from flagship stores — which remain untainted.

Open To All
Powering online business is the young demographic of upwardly mobile professionals who now have easy access to the brands and are open to occasion-specific splurges online. With a little help from EMIs, it’s a profitable business for all concerned.

Ergo, if the mid ’90s cult hit Clueless was made today, Cher wouldn’t have to be living in a gated mansion in order to flaunt those outfits. She could simply run a Google search, filtering results by brand, price, discount, or occasion — festive, bridal, cocktail, holiday, etc — if she so wished.

The online realm — regarded with suspicion by the old guards till the last decade — is now progressively becoming the norm, with the most exclusive brands getting on the social media bandwagon and collaborating with shopping and rental apps to clear their unsold inventories. Rather than cheapening the image, going digital has helped them to stay current and connect with the masses, who they are now luring with entry-level ‘masstige’ products. The focus remains on making the entire shopping experience a seamless journey where customers ‘feel’ luxury at every junction, from searching for products on the websites to the delivery. In a nutshell, the masses must get a whiff of the in-store ambience on the site.

Irrefutably, what is lost out on the web is the personal element, the intimacy, the touch and feel of the product, the drama of being courted by in-the-know salespeople (who expertly take you through the journey of the product from inception to finish) and the sheer joy of browsing through the goodies, assured of the impeccable service that will come your way, should you need it.

The tectonic shift to digital reflects an aberration of old-world values and the original iron pillars of luxury. This is not to say that traditional luxury or brick-and-mortar stores are going out of style. They will continue to stand tall but only as long as they are willing to acknowledge the importance of nurturing a strong online presence.

The New Elite
As the culture of collaborative consumption dashes centuries of conditioning, the super-rich are not the only ones ordering in an Hermès bag anymore. Unwilling to view luxury solely through the lens of snob value, the new consumer class is busy cultivating an individualistic style that is emblematic of their personalities. The underlying message today seems to be that just as a discounted Prada is no less authentic, nor are you, should you choose to rent one.

Today, ‘luxury’ is a tag earned, not just a price tag; something valuable, not merely expensive. The vanguards gauge value through craftsmanship, design, innovation and quality, not to mention top-class, bespoke service that makes the experience memorable. Gone are the days when a meaningless acquisition was paraded as a vanity project or a status symbol. The problem with this old-fashioned view of luxury was that it was isolated in an ivory tower of outdated ideals which diluted its relevance and connect. The challenge today meanwhile lies in convincing the global consumer that the old-world values of luxury forms the core of the new tech-savvy identity, without making the modern-day iteration look like a compromise, a half-experience or, worse, a fake.

Inconspicuous And Inclusive
In these times when the boundaries between the leisure and the middle classes are blurring, the fixation has moved from accumulating objects to cultural capital — intellect, style, education and so on. None of what is consumed here are inherently obvious or ostensibly measurable but they are, without a sliver of a doubt, exclusionary.

In the end, luxury is about security and self-worth. For one, it could be the act of slipping on a one-of-a-kind family heirloom passed down through generations. To another, it could simply be the freedom to exercise a fundamental right. Health may be wealth, but the right to sanitation remains a luxury to millions.

We treat or reward ourselves with a luxury item only because it’s the very best and by ‘earning’ it, we self-validate ourselves. Hence, anything less than the very best would not arouse the same genuineness of emotion. In a similar vein, the salespeople at, say, a Chanel store in India have to uphold the same etiquette and credibility displayed by their counterparts in Paris, besides embodying the ethos of the brand. They also have to be knowledgeable about what they are ‘selling’ to each customer — the brand itself, not a product.

Luxury is also totally relative. For the famous, for instance, anonymity and privacy are the buzzwords. For professionals operating out of stressful work environments, it’s about maintaining a work-life balance or avoiding getting burnt out. For a space-starved city like Mumbai, it’s a sprawling mansion or a verdant residential locality — which, for the most part, eludes even those with deep pockets.

I had asked National Award- winning director Gurvinder Singh why he chooses to live off the map in a little village in Himachal Pradesh, only to be counter-questioned: “Do you mean villages and mountains are not on the map?” Then, he said, “It teaches you how to live in sync with nature and the seasons. And you learn to control your own material urges. You find that the basic requirements in life are free: clean air and water…. I value that more than anything else.” Singh chose to retreat to a tiny village for these bare necessities — I would call them luxuries in a country as dichotomous as ours. Eschewing the fast life, a certain demographic of youngsters has been moving away from the big bad cities symbolic of materialism. They are choosing to live life on their own terms and pace rather than run out of steam in a fast-paced concrete jungle.

For, ultimately, everyone is pursuing the biggest luxury of all, the great leveller. Time.

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