By Kate Hubley
Many industry professionals regard Montréal as a vibrant fashion and design mecca. The city is host to several famed international events, including the Montréal Fashion & Design Festival, which offers a multitude of opportunities to experience luxury.
During last year’s Fashion & Design Festival, I attended an afternoon conference called “The Place of Luxury in Montréal,” which featured many esteemed panellists, including Jean-Christophe Bédos, president and CEO of Birks Group, and couture fashion designer Marie Saint Pierre of Maison Marie Saint Pierre. Attendees explored a number of interesting questions: what is luxury? Is the term relevant in North America or is it laden with Old World connotations of opulence and ornamentation? Moreover, how do we redefine ‘luxury’ within the context of today’s shifting consumer landscape?
The conversation surrounding the semantics of the ubiquitous term was somewhat philosophical and, as a linguist as well as a goldsmith, I found it fascinating.
Call it happenstance (or suddenly being more attuned to the world around me), but I started noticing more and more luxury offerings at every turn, ranging from luxury sightseeing, to bathroom fixtures, to retirement—and, for the very first time, I took notice of the Lamborghini showroom off of the highway I take three times a week.
Once I was home, I decided to take a few minutes to catch up on social media. Low and behold, popping up everywhere were ads for ‘luxury jewellery’ brands. As I was in the mindset, I took the bait and clicked, expecting to see something special. Instead, I found myself staring, squinting, and blinking at the unremarkable, poorly crafted pieces.
“Is this what passes as ‘luxury’ these days?” I asked myself. “Why is this ‘luxury’? Who’s classifying it as such?”
Thus began my investigation! I decided to reach out to industry experts in search of a definition.
Evolution of the term
‘Luxury’ is a subjective, evasive expression that begs defining, yet continues to shapeshift, depending on to whom you are speaking.
Historically, ‘luxury’ conjures up lavishness, indulgence, and wealth—even exclusivity and ostentation. All of these attributes are cast with a shade of judgement and envy.
Upon further post-conference reflection, however, I realized the notion of luxury is far more layered, especially these days. So, I pulled out my 1971 Oxford English Dictionary, complete with magnifying glass, to get an idea of how the term has evolved over the years:
Abundant, sumptuous enjoyment . . . The habitual use of, or indulgence in, what is choice or costly, whether food, dress, furniture, or appliance of any kind . . . Refined and intense enjoyment . . . Something which conduces to enjoyment or comfort in addition to what are accounted the necessities of life. Hence, in recent use, something which is desirable but not indispensable.
Want versus need
The formal definition of the word, especially the notion of ‘desirable but not indispensable,’ led me to think of some of the social media comments I often read in regards to products—remarks such as, “Oh my gosh! I love it so much! I need it!”
What these users actually mean to say is, “I really love this and would like to own it.” In days gone by, a consumer might have expressed this sentiment by saying things like, “That’s beautiful. Can you imagine owning it—or even trying it on?” or “A girl can dream….”
The term ‘luxury’ has certainly evolved, largely due to the prevalence and ease of access to democratized media. With platforms such as Instagram providing users with a constant stream of brand images, influencer sponsorships, and product placements, our understanding of luxury and our perceived ability to experience it have changed.
Ben Smithee of the Smithee Group, a New York City-based marketing and consulting firm that specializes in the jewellery industry, classifies this evolution as the ‘Instagram Effect,’ commenting that the social media network has “given us greater visual access to celebrity and traditionally defined luxury”—so much so that things that were once seen as impressive have now become commonplace.
Smithee offers a 3-carat VVS1 diamond as an example. In the not-so-distant past, such an item would have solicited many an ‘ooh’ and ‘aah.’ These days, the same gemstone receives a mere double-tap or cursory view on someone’s social media feed.
“That 3-carat diamond is now the norm,” he explains. “The bar has been raised and we have a greater appetite for luxury.”
“Further, millennial consumers have been raised in a culture of aspiration and attainment, creating a dream around achieving a more elevated lifestyle than their own, but one that is not exclusively related to wealth,” Smithee says.
Establishing a lifestyle
Adding to Smithee’s theory, luxury continues to include the ownership of high-end goods, status, and conspicuous consumption; however, in today’s climate, the notion appears to also be associated with the necessities of a fulfilled life. This desire to achieve one’s aspirations has an impact on mindset and is shaping the concept of the ‘luxury lifestyle.’
This expectation persists despite the reality that a true luxury purchase—what may be referred to as ‘premium luxury’—continues to remain economically unattainable for a broad swath of consumers, despite their desire to own or experience it.
In their panel discussion, Bédos and Saint Pierre explored the proliferation of products that fall into the category of ‘affordable’ or ‘accessible’ luxury and how this popularity is, in part, explained by their ability to satiate this appetite. Stamping a prestigious logo on an item manufactured relatively simply and with modest materials is a business strategy that seeks to include the middle-class consumer by allowing them to experience a premium luxury brand while improving the long-term viability of the label.
Beyond dollar signs
Putting derivative nomenclature aside, we turn to designers, goldsmiths, and jewellers and ask, what classifies a piece as true luxury? The first answers that spring to mind likely fall into one of three categories: price, quality of materials, and brand name.
However, Michelle Orman, the owner of Last Word Communications, which spearheads public relations for Emerald Expositions’ jewellery group, including the Las Vegas Couture Show and Premier among others, adds more nuance to the definition of luxury.
“Indeed, using the noblest of materials is a top criterion, but luxury is much more than the monetary value of its components,” she explains. “Luxury is also artistry and craftsmanship.”