Column: Return Luxury to Its Rightful Place

It is a pretty depressing business trudging on through this downturn, recession, depression or whatever your euphemism of choice for the financial Götterdämmerung. And in the midst of such overpowering dysphoria luxury might seem to have little point. However, I would argue that these are the times when we most need cheering up with small helpings of the better things that life has to offer.

Nevertheless, our relationship with luxury is changing. On the most fundamental level, the very overt way in which we have used our possessions to demonstrate our status and communicate how we wish to be perceived by others is no longer regarded as acceptable. The old maxim of nothing succeeding like success needed constant reinforcement through the acquisition of trophies—yachts, jets, art. The last chairman of Merrill Lynch,

John Thain's $1.2 million office refurbishment spree would probably have been regarded as perfectly unremarkable 18 months ago; today it falls somewhere between Imelda Marcos's heroic support of the footwear industry and Nero's musical accompaniment to the flames engulfing Rome.

It would appear that an understanding—really, a misunderstanding—developed whereby working long hours and making a great deal of money were equated with virtue. For a while, we all colluded in this status quo, with the world's rich spending their money in a very public way for the entertainment of the rest of us, who looked on as if at some ancient Roman spectacle. The growth of celebrity culture encouraged us to gawp at their excesses and mimic their appearance and habits. We became multilingual experts in brand literacy, and luxury became increasingly regarded as a commodity. For anyone who wanted to get in on it, the grandes maisons de luxe obligingly lowered their entry requirements. If we could not afford the ultraproducts then we were able to able to start on the nursery slopes. I cannot remember when I first heard the term "entry-level luxury," but I must admit that my heart sank when I did.

And I suppose it was this commoditization of luxury that struck me as prima facie, oxymoronic. I am a snob and I like my luxury to be just that: recherché, a little arcane and, quite frankly, not for everyone. Perhaps it is indicative of some psychological frailty in me. However, I understand that this is not good business, and in recent years the luxury sector has boomed in part because of items that were affordable. The brand became an end in itself, assuming a talismanic significance.

Take for instance Louis Vuitton. Monsieur Vuitton was a maker of luggage in 19th-century Paris, and it would be interesting to pinpoint exactly when Louis Vuitton's reputation for ingenious, practical and elegant luggage was overtaken by the power of the brand, now associated with a wide range from products, from change purses to high fashion. When a brand breaks out of its comfort zone, it has to work harder to convince the customer that its products beyond its area of expertise have legitimacy. Vuitton is in the enviable position of having started out on this journey of conquest of new spheres of operation many years ago. Nevertheless, its current advertising campaign—featuring a Panama-hatted Sean Connery with a tropical island in the background and the strap line "There are some journeys that turn into legends"—shows how, in difficult times, it is keen to stress its authenticity and return to what in marketing speak is called "core competency."

The same is true in a sector that has been very badly affected by the financial downturn: the luxury-car market. Bentley is a marque that I have long respected; I have written two books about its cars and the men and women who drove them. For a while I even wrestled with ownership of one, a fabulous black vintage turbo, before realizing that I was unequal to the financial struggle. Bentley's chairman, Dr. Franz Josef Paefgen, tells me he is dealing with the financial crisis by returning to what the marque is known for.

In Bentley's case it means using a unique set of skills to make cars that have a hand-built personality, rather than investing in research to develop new technological gimmickry. Of course Bentley will make use of the latest technical expertise available … but only insofar as it is consistent with the character of the brand. "We have to deliver what our customers are looking for and not create technologies which are then searching for customers that want them," he says. Increasingly, this is the sort of line that luxury companies need to take if they want to emerge from the current crisis intact. In short, it will be a process of realigning products with the heritage and reputation of the brand—making them special in their own way rather than embarking on programs of brand extension.

Until the end of last year, currency was still being given to the idea that there is a stratum of society that is somehow recession-proof. This notion is now discredited, not least because even those who do have it certainly do not want to be caught flaunting it; thoughts of Marie Antoinette and cakes spring to mind. But I have picked up anecdotal evidence that there is activity at the very acme of the luxury pyramid. The other day I was speaking to Jean Claude Biver, the boss of watch brand Hublot, who noted that though it is impossible to escape the effects of the crisis, timepieces costing more than 100,000 Swiss francs are proving less difficult to sell than the more affordable products. I also heard from Neapolitan bespoke tailor Mariano Rubinacci that some of his wealthiest individual clients have been in touch with him to order new clothes.

The truth is that once we have digested the psychological impact of the crisis, and once we have counted the financial cost, we will again be faced with the realities of human nature. It has been true from the time that man first garnished the neck of his cave-mate with a necklace of animal teeth that we have liked, on occasion, to reward ourselves and those we love with items we do not really need. "Why should someone buy another diamond ring for their wife or fiancée?" asks Caroline Scheufele, co-president of the jeweler Chopard, rhetorically. "Of course you have those who were not hurt, and they are in love, and they are going to buy a nice ring for their future wife."

A hunger for luxury is a human instinct; it's just that our appetites got out of check. There will be a period of readjustment, an Augean clearing of the branded bric-a-brac that came to clutter our lives and obscure from view the beauty of true luxury. Luxury works a kind of magic on us, but only if we allow it to be special and rare rather than quotidian and readily available. I remember once suggesting to Anne-Marie Colban, proprietress of the legendary Parisian chemisier Charvet, that she should think about appointing a distributor for her eaux de cologne. She looked mildly pained and said something along the lines of "But then it would become too available." She understood that over-familiarity breeds the risk of stripping luxury of its power through banalization.

It was Stendhal who said "Beauty is nothing other than the promise of happiness," and the same can be said of luxury. However, I prefer the rather more cynical observation made in a wonderfully wry film called "Nothing but the Best." Made in 1964, it stars Alan Bates as an ambitious young man on the make, who gives voice to one of life's eternal truths: "Face it; it's a filthy stinking world, but there are some smashing things in it." I liked it so much that I had it translated into Latin and made it the motto of a quarterly newspaper I edit called Finch's Quarterly Review. And as the world has turned particularly filthy and stinking, we need those smashing things more than ever.