What is luxury? That’s one question we never ask ourselves. If you work from the most basic definition – something that is an indulgence rather than a necessity – almost anything would qualify: one person’s indulgence is another’s necessity. It’s all a matter of what we get used to and come to believe we can’t live without.
Luxury is a shape-shifter. What was an indulgence 50 years ago, exclusive to a sliver at the upper edge of human consumption, has been democratized to the point of ubiquity. Arugula? A luxury? Its available by the bunch at every Korean deli in the city, wedged in between the watercress and the radicchio. Never mind such niceties as indoor plumbing, central heat, trichinosis-free pork. Manicure? Pedicure? 12-year olds stop and have them with their harried working mothers as a kind of bonding time. Spa treatments? Line up for them at the local mall while sipping an Orange Julius.
If luxury is about exclusivity, and in that way anti-democratic, what’s the point in an age where democracy is suddenly in fashion again? Sarah Palin, the rube from Alaska, gets trashed for her sleek new outfits and top-dollar h+m (that’s “hair and make-up”) while the Princeton-educated sophisticate Michelle Obama is lauded for her practicality and her wardrobe selected on-line from J. Crew and H+M (that’s “Hennes & Mauritz AB”). Luxury is not getting caught up in it all. We can all be Michelle…Yes we can!
Speaking of the Obamas: there’s also the luxury of intelligence, of not being spoken down to, of competence, of education. Eight years of W has created the environment where a simple grammatical sentence seems like the most exotic treat. The Bush years were all about Texas and luxury was Dallas (the TV series)-style: the Inn at Turtle Creek, Neiman Marcus and the Houston Country Club. (The WASPy Kennebunkport-luxury of HW of Walker’s Point was suppressed by Karl Rove as too incomprehensible for the hillbilly nation he was titillating.) Texas luxury – i.e. Black Tie and Boots as the first Bush inauguration was charmingly labeled – was readable to the aspirational public because it looked just like the Hollywood-image of luxury: bright, glittery, bouffant luxury.
The recently-poor, permanently-African American, Obamas do not hail from a tradition of wealth or fame that frees them to reconstruct the rules to their own liking. They suggest a luxury based in depth. For the certain segment of citizens, mostly clinging to the teaming edges of the continent, who felt more or less alienated by the Houston-Dallas-Crawford trajectory, this simple fact is almost liberating. Its not that they (dare I say: we) expect Barack and Michelle will be more like them – they wish! – it’s the simple satisfaction that the supreme vulgarity of the black-tie-and-boots mentality has been, at least temporarily, rebuked.
Now overlay the election onto the collapse of AIG, Lehman Brothers and the Big Three and the way forward becomes clearer. The financial disaster suddenly laid bare a level of hedge funded corporate excess and grotesque self-enrichment that somehow had eluded everyone except those who lived on the fringe of it: reporting on it, servicing it, providing it its art work, tailoring its suits or uncorking its old growth Cabs. The fact that the three CEOs of Ford, GM and Chrysler took three separate private jets from the same airport to the same airport and exactly the same time for the same meeting somehow finally flipped the switch. How is this luxury possible and if it is, why are three, super ugly, white middle aged managers the recipients of this incredible largess?
Here’s where the forecast comes in. As Obama-ism is ascendant and as the hedge fund fueled luxury market tanks, expect the old (as in mid-2008) paradigm of rarified exclusivity to shatter with it as it hits bottom. Already the Gossip-Girl-esque foibles of the rich and famous seem fake, shallow, and selfish. But even more profoundly they seem destructive. We’re waking up with the worst hangover EVER and we are swearing we will NEVER drink again. Of course we don’t believe it but at least we’ll cut down for the next few weeks, read more, party less, think more… or just start thinking again.
So the new luxury is meaning. It’s thinking. It’s connecting what you do with what it means for everyone else. That may seem at first like a strange kind of luxury: Is thoughtfulness an indulgence? Are intelligence and articulation so rarified? Well, actually, yes. Does that mean no more fancy wine, tailored clothes, elaborate vacations? No. But it means that that house, that bag, that haircut need to be connected to something: a tradition, a movement, a bigger belief system. It’s the end of lateral signification. Something can’t mean something simply in opposition to everything else at the same price point. The new luxury is vertical: it has roots and branches. Its based in something solid and it aspires to something greater.
Is our job then to stop playing the lateral game, of thinking of the world of things like flipping through a magazine comparing one ad to the one before it and the one following it? It’s our job to reconnect things to the greater world, to make things meaningful and to cut out the ones that stubbornly resist that reconnection. Luxury = Depth + Aspiration.
There was a stark image on the late evening of November 4, 2008. The camera cut back and forth between the McCain and Obama parties. The McCain party, in the Ballroom of the truly-luxurious Arizona Biltmore felt old, tawdry, overly made-up (not to mention overwhelmingly white and hostile). The Obama party, in the decidedly un-luxuriously frigid Grant park, was young, bright, full of…of…I guess full of belief.
It’s a special feeling to believe in something. Go ahead, try it. It feels good doesn’t it? And isn’t that – feeling good – what luxury is all about?
© Michael Rock