Nick Foulkes: Luxury Can't Be Taught in Class

The dawning of the new academic year reminds me of my distrust of vocational education. Of course, there are exceptions: medicine, say, or the piloting of large aircraft. However, I believe that the line should be drawn long before one gets to luxury. Don't get me wrong; craftsmen should be skilled in their disciplines. But it is the pernicious cult of the M.B.A. and its increasing influence on the world of luxury that concerns me.

Luxury is not something you can pick up in a classroom. The appreciation of true luxury is a lifetime's work. I find the idea that one can be taught luxury—and the thought that the world's great brands are going to be run by a bunch of spreadsheet jockeys—really rather dispiriting. This sense of gloom was compounded by the death of British luxury-nightclub owner Mark Birley last month.

I was privileged to count Mark as a friend. More than 40 years ago he founded the world's grandest nightclub, Annabel's, in Berkeley Square, and every decade or so thereafter he opened another establishment in Mayfair: Mark's Club, Harry's Bar, the Bath & Racquets and George. Years may have passed since they opened, but the sense of his places as beautifully crafted environments into which the harsher realities of life dare not intrude remains. Yet to see him just as a club owner is to describe Enzo Ferrari as a carmaker.

Mark made the pursuit of perfection his life and his living. He was a man of artistic temperament, and he understood that luxury is a complex amalgam of esthetics and ergonomics. I believe he introduced Britain to the idea of tying muslin around half lemons, so that when you squeezed them stray pips did not interfere with your Dover sole.

His backgammon set was typical: commissioned from Hermès, it had a tapestry playing surface to muffle the sound of rolling dice and create a more relaxing atmosphere.

But his languorously elegant exterior was a foil to an astute business mind. Back in the 1950s, he opened a branch of Hermès in London. He explained that the beauty of such a brand was that if you did not sell a crocodile handbag one season, you could keep it at the same price and sell it the following year. This concrete definition of the enduring value of quality is one of the simplest ways I know of explaining the difference between true luxury and seasonal fashion.

For this reason alone I suggest that all those eager young M.B.A.ers study the life and works of Mark Birley. If they need a further incentive, they might be interested to learn that a couple of months before his death he sold his clubs for a reported £100 million. As far as I know, he did not have an M.B.A.

Nick Foulkes: Luxury Can't Be Taught in Class | World