What is luxury? If you opened your browser right now and did a quick search on the internet for its definition, you would find 1,001 opinions and no consensus.
People will say, often unequivocally, that luxury is exclusive or expensive or authentic or anything that provides comfort that is not considered a necessity or any combination of these sprinkled with other adjectives until there is no meaning left in the word at all.
This is not a failure of Google to offer clarity nor is it a failure of language to succinctly define a complex notion. The problem is that we incorrectly frame luxury as something intrinsic to the product itself rather than as a unique and ungeneralisable consumer experience.
We do not—and we cannot—land on a single definition of luxury because we all differ in what we deem to be luxurious.
Do the richest-of-the-rich and the middle class agree on what constitutes a luxury product? I do not think that’s always the case.
Do you agree with me that Mysore Sandal Soap is a luxury product? Though it is neither exclusive nor expensive? Perhaps not.
I wanted to make this point before talking about what the ‘Future of Luxury’ might be. As a leader in the market, I must always view my products first and foremost through a framework that contemplates consumer experience as the driver of value.
My challenge, along with any brand that wishes to be considered ‘luxury’, is, and has always been, to understand what consumers want before they know they want it. Because every year, and for any reason, each individual’s opinion of what they consider luxury to be might change. Brands need to zero in on the changing tides of consumers’ desires, and the most successful brands of the future are the ones who are best at predicting it today.
This is especially important now. We are in the midst of a global crisis whose emotional and financial toll will be felt not for months, nor years, but decades. In confronting this pandemic, we have been asked—or forced—to change our routines. We have remained at home. Forgone travel. Lost jobs. Lost friends. Lost family. There is a collective sense of grief which we will all have to grapple with.
In times like these, when we face such seismic shifts in the paradigms we’re accustomed to, there is no question that it will reflect in consumer attitudes and shopping habits. I’ve given much thought to what these changes will mean for my brand and the industry as a whole. When thinking about what the future of luxury is, brands need to answer the following questions: To what will consumers assign the most value? And how will that be different from before the pandemic? Whether bags or lehengas, products will need to represent much more to potential buyers than they ever did in the past—they will need to be an invitation for something larger, communal and aspirational
Image: Courtesy Sabyasachi
Here are my answers: Authenticity:
Consumers are increasingly looking for authenticity in experiences and products. In this digitally connected world, gone is the appeal of buying a kimono at Gucci. When a consumer can, within seconds, find the most reputable and authentic kimono brand in Japan, why then would they shop elsewhere? This bodes well for brands who tell a story that is rooted in culture and history—it is under the premise of authenticity that relationships between consumers and brands will form.
Another appealing aspect of authenticity is that it is often moored to exclusivity. Mass production makes it possible for any brand to produce any product from anywhere in the world. It is much more difficult to find brands that celebrate craft traditions and centre their product stories around their own unique culture.
Connectedness to a Greater Story: After we’ve all been homebound and isolated for so long, I see a much greater desire for emotional connectedness. In terms of luxury shopping, consumers will look for products that present an entrée into a story larger than themselves.
Luxury brands will need to find ways to weave stories that appeal to the weary consumer who has been stuck at home for far too long. A bag will not just be a bag, a lehenga will not just be a lehenga. These products need to represent so much more to potential buyers than they ever did in the past; they need to be an invitation for something larger, something communal, and something aspirational.Utility:
We learnt how fragile society can be. Within a matter of weeks, our world, quite literally, shut down. The ensuing economic anxiety brought about by a potential loss of income, even if experienced vicariously, will affect how people spend their money. Consumers will question the value of every purchase they make. Is this product worth it? Will it add value to my life? Will it last? Can I use it and reuse it frequently?
I am not suggesting that people will embrace austerity. On the contrary, I think people’s appetite for shopping and spending has reached voracious levels. However, consumers will scrutinise purchases like never before, and make decisions based on the presumed utility of the product to their lives.
Over this past year, people realised that it’s possible to buy fewer things of higher quality and still be happy. That will be the prevailing wind of post-Covid consumption.
After so much turmoil, grief, loss and anxiety, what is more luxurious than the feeling of joy? Of levity?Sustainability and Ethics:
Whether or not a mass awakening of some sort has happened as a result of this pandemic is yet to be determined. But the conversations that we as a society have so intently ignored in past generations have come to the fore in our younger generation’s psyche. Racial and ethnic injustices, gender and LGBTQ equality, and the havoc our lifestyles wreak on the environment have become major topics in public discourse.
This will all translate to increased consumer demand for accountability and transparency. Brands will need to learn how to navigate the calls for ethical practices and do so authentically. Consumers are savvy—savvier than brands have given them credit for; they’ll know what’s pandering and what’s real. Joy:
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is joy. After so much turmoil, grief, loss and anxiety, what is more luxurious than the feeling of joy? Of levity? We’ll all be seeking products and experiences that simply make us happy. I think consumers will feel empowered to express themselves through products that make them the happiest—whatever they may be and however they may look.
While what people consider luxury is ever-changing, there is a formula to it that has remained constant throughout the history of commerce. Luxury is never intrinsic to the products, it is a word whose very definition is decided by the consumer. Luxury brands are those brands that seek to understand what the consumer wants and create products to satisfy those wants in a beautiful way. ● The writer is a fashion designer, jewellery designer, retailer and couturier who sells his designs under the Sabyasachi label
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(This story appears in the 21 May, 2021 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)