For hundreds of years, a “luxury” item was something that was so well produced, so exclusive, and thus so expensive, that only the few – the elite – had access and the financial means to buy it. Luxury was marketed to the rich as being a part of their social fabric, and to everyone else as being nothing more than an aspirational ideal. In terms of fabrics, traditional luxury fibers (such as silk, cashmere, or Sea Island cotton) are today being given a run for the money by high tech fibers.
The most intriguing shift underway in our definition of luxury may well be the changing nature of individual expectations. Luxury in the past was most often defined by things, and the value people place on those things. But increasingly, possession or association with “things” seems less important as an end than as a means to something else—how those things combine to help create a sense of self.
Luxury has become more about your state of mind than the size of your wallet, as people define luxury by such things as a long lunch, or the good health to run a 5K, or escaping into a book. It means different things to different people (think “luxury camping” – some people can’t see the vaguest relationship between the two words) – but any discussion about luxury is inevitably about time, one of the only things money can’t buy. Dolce far niente. Waking up in the morning and doing exactly what you want all day. Enjoying the pleasures of the moment.
Luxury today is also about responsibility: it just doesn’t feel o.k. to buy things when people are starving and the world is becoming overheated. And maybe, as we evolved to the point where a robust middle class means that we no longer have to work just to put food in our mouths, we have found that acquiring things doesn’t provide the transcendent experience we hoped it would. We’re seeing a shift from mindless indulgence to, perhaps, justified indulgence. It’s about products being defined by how they make you feel – which is why we’re hearing about “conscious consumption”.
How can we go to bed at night and sleep the dreamless sleep of the just when the sheets we’re sleeping on have been produced by slave labor, using a slew of toxic chemicals that affect both your own health and the ecosystem. The same is true in the fashion industry – where sweatshops are still, unbelievably, common. War on Want has a campaign to fight the sweatshops that still employ millions.
We think a “luxury” fabric is one with impeccable provenance: the best quality fibers were grown organically (or if a high tech synthetic, were produced using GOTS accepted chemicals in the dyeing and weaving); the manufacture was according to GOTS standards and the workers were paid a fair wage while working in safe conditions.
Luxury is still about buying the best quality – but today you must know why it’s the best – and being knowledgeable that what you’re buying is good for the world – or at least that it doesn’t compromise my life (or yours) in the process.