Luxury means very different things to different people, of course, but owning luxury objects has always been associated with success and the need to fulfil one’s aspirations. Consumers of luxury goods understand that the price of a luxury item reflects not only the quality of the material and the outstanding craftsmanship needed to create that single object, but also the time it has taken the maker to acquire and hone his or her skills. These are not disposable items; both maker and consumer are making a long-term investment. As 1508 London’s Creative Director and Partner Ben Johnson says: ‘Products and objects become luxury when they are designed by leading experts and crafted from the finest materials by the very best artisans. True luxury should be timeless, not throwaway.’
We are, however, seeing something of a shift in the definition of ‘luxury’. Thanks to websites and social media, we now have unprecedented access to information about the goods we buy. Online reviews and comments instantly reveal truths about a brand, and social media gives customers a direct (and public) line of communication with companies. This is affecting our relationship with luxury and our perception of value, making us better equipped to make informed decisions, more sceptical of big brands and more fickle with our loyalty. While luxury products are still very much associated with the concept of exclusivity or rarity, it’s not just the object itself but the story behind it that consumers want to ‘own’. We expect products to have distinctive qualities that mark them out from their competitors. We have high expectations of customer service and, increasingly, we want to know about the people and processes behind the product; we want to get ‘under the skin’ of the brand. As a result, the most savvy companies are finding new ways to connect with their customers on a more personal level.
The buzz word is ‘authenticity’. An Ipsos MORI report called ‘Redefining Luxury – Trends in the Luxury Industry’ from November 2013 identifies two key emerging trends: personalisation and emotional experiences. It states that ‘Technology will play a key role in enabling brands to offer personalised products and services, helping them to better understand what consumers are looking for, what they like and also building a connection that allows both to work together to create the ultimate personalised luxury experience, making them feel they are being treated as valuable and unique individuals.’
This interest in being connected to the source is linked to consumers’ developing social and environmental conscience and is exemplified in the resurgence of local artisans and small-scale producers. From designer-makers and traditional craftsmanship to local farmers’ markets, craft beer and artisanal bean-to-bar chocolate, we love tales of creativity and innovation. In fashion, ostentatious logos are falling out of favour, the preference now being for a more discreet approach. ‘Green’ credentials have become cool, with designers such as Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood keen to show that high fashion can be ethical and sustainable.
In a world with so many distractions and so many companies vying for our attention, people have begun to look for new ways to experience luxury, with less tangible luxuries such as freedom, time, travel, and the creation (and sharing) of wonderful memories sometimes taking precedence over the ownership of material goods. There is a feeling that life must be enjoyed, and experiences can often provide this enjoyment more effectively than possessions. ‘What best sums up luxury for me is not materialistic,’ says Ben Johnson. ‘It would be a warm, empty beach, a hammock and days of nothing to do.’ Shona Patel, 1508’s Development Director and Partner, agrees: ‘The definition of luxury very much depends on the person and the context – to some people, buying an expensive item is a luxury; to others, merely having enough time to themselves is a luxury. For me, it is treating myself to a nice holiday, or spending quality time with family and friends.’
In the design industry, there is of course still a strong interest in exclusive materials such as marble, but an object’s luxury value isn’t always intrinsically linked to the raw material itself; rather, it can stem from an appreciation of and respect for the skill, time and innovation required to craft that material into something exquisite. Concrete, for example, is an inexpensive, utilitarian material that has nonetheless become associated with luxury because in the right hands it can be transformed into something beautiful and bespoke.
As in other industries, in the design world we are seeing the revival of interest in locally sourced high-end products; not only because they’re beautiful and made to last, but also because they preserve local craftsmanship and traditional techniques.
It’s not all about expensive ‘stuff’, though – after all, in cities such as London, two of the greatest luxuries are space and light. There is a strong focus on living well and feeling emotionally connected to one’s surroundings. This is at the core of the 1508 ethos. Many of our clients are driven not by ostentatious displays of wealth but by a desire to create something elegant, sophisticated and even iconic that will stand the test of time – in itself a form of sustainability.
‘In the context of man-made environments, luxury for me is a timeless aesthetic,’ says Louise Wicksteed, Creative Director and Partner. ‘Context and provenance are so important – spaces that respond to their natural setting are always very powerful for me. From a traditional timber chalet in the Alps to a stone finca in Andalusia, sourcing and working with local materials and craftsmanship creates context, which always grounds a design. In the same way, if an object is well crafted from beautiful materials and designed with integrity, it will be more beautiful and more valued in 50 years’ time than it is now.’