Part 3: What Is Luxury? Embracing the Immaterial (or, There's No Such Thing as Luxury)

To compete within the luxury market, a product must have a balance between material, immaterial and distance characteristics. However, all points are subjective. In the end, there is no universal luxury product.

The Immaterial: Notoriety or Status

It is obvious that the term ‘luxury‘ implies a high level of quality, which we also understand is subjective. However, most of the value that sets one brand apart from another, in terms of luxury, is immaterial. That is, to say the symbolic properties that are related to identity, whether through self-identity or through status and group-membership. Fashion itself is centered around this concept: beyond clothing ourselves for protection, what we wear is on some level an indication of who we are or who we aspire to be.

Immaterial values are dependent on the cultural perceptions of luxury in each market. For example, the display of ostentation fluctuates between show-off and understatement, and what is considered to be modest in Miami is different from what is viewed as modest in, say, Vienna. An icon of the show-off class is Paris Hilton, especially in her pre-jail days. Note her shift to represent herself in a more understated way once she faced sentencing: she wanted to demonstrate to the world (and, more likely, the judge) that she had suddenly become more respectable, responsible, and less wild... and that she was willing to "tone it down". However, when you're opening a nightclub called “Vanity“ (and Paris is doing just that), it is pretty clear that ostentation and a show-off attitude are part of your identity (or brand, as it were). Contrast that with the late yet infamous Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, who is still known for her classic, understated elegance. She will likely remain a timeless icon of good taste and class, as her parred down and chic look seem less dated, more refined. Consider the difference in the communication of identity between these two:

Paris vs Carolyn example

The same point can be made for brand identity. Whether in furniture or fashion, architecture or art, each brand or designer has a core identity that fits somewhere between the show-off and understated categories. For example, Versace has built a brand image based on the va-va-voom Botticelli Babe, South Beach, the supermodel society, and bleach, bleach, bleach. Contrast that with Armani's roots in minimalism, androgyny, clean lines and a subtly striking silhouette, or with Ralph Lauren's foundation in American Classic and aristocratic elegance.

Versace vs RLauren example

Of course, even within one brand there are varying degrees of ostentation, and this is typically presented by way of line diffusion.  In order to appeal to different market segments within the broader "luxury market," a brand will often produce a top-level line (haute couture or designer, for example) and then one or more diffusion lines that target a lower price point.

As you move further down a brand's diffusion into these lower price points, logos become increasingly important as quality and innovative design diminish. Armani can produce a basic white t-shirt that looks just like a Hanes, but if they stamp a massive logo across it, a consumer can still feel that they are buying into a piece of the Giorgio Armani lifestyle. That's the idea, anyway.

However, not all brands take this approach. A particular characteristic of French luxury brands is that they are often built around an elegant and iconic figure such as Coco Chanel or Dior's New Look lady, rather than a lifestyle, and these brands often avoid diffusion lines. For this reason, a brand like Chanel is able to offer both understated and show-off looks within the same line, though typically in separate stores, with less variation away from the core look, and always on the same pricing level.


The factor of distance often stands out as the definitive characteristic of the luxury product in the minds of many consumers. Rarity illuminates the notion of desire; it validates the idea that something is unique, special and somehow worthy of the term luxury. This is why companies like DeBeers take great measures to limit the number of diamonds on the market. More generally, this is also why limited editions are created: limited supply (plus great design, excellent quality and/or spectacular marketing) can create a frenzied sort of demand and support a premium price.

When considering the point of rarity or distance, you'll find that luxury brands go to extreme measures to exaggerate this point (as they well should). Aside from the obvious limited editions, distance is displayed (or hinted at) on every level.

In store merchandising, distance is conveyed by hanging only one or two units/sizes (SKUs) per product, instead of crowding the racks with every item in inventory. You must ask a sales representative for help, and he or she serves as a symbolic barrier between you and the product (any subtle intimidation there serves as an added psychological filter... you're welcome!).

In store displays, rarity comes across in carefully thought-out strategies. The Prada SoHo store displays merchandise like a museum with products arranged in still life settings or behind glass cases. Those Pierre Hermé cake shops in Paris are not designed like jewelry stores just to symbolize the quality of the products; it also communicates a sense of "Hands-off! Rare and precious items here! You can look, but you can't touch."

Prada store SoHo NYC

The Balancing Equation

A company could be said to be competing in the luxury market when they have a balance of three components: the material, the immaterial, and distance.

When one or two of these components are low, the other(s) must be high to compensate. For example, in lower level diffusion lines, where the quality (a material value) is similar to mass market products, the logo (or the immaterial) must be more prominent. If the material value of a Gucci key-chain is quite low, the immaterial value must compensate.

Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945 label

For a very rare and/or high-quality product, the immaterial value need not be so high. In 2006, a bidder at Christie's auction house broke the world record for the highest amount ever paid for a case of wine ($345,000 for a 6-bottle case of magnums). Unlike Gucci or Armani, Ferrari or Porsche, the brand of the wine was unknown to most non-connoisseurs. The wine was Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945. The background story is beautiful (man returns to his family vineyard in Bordeaux after WW2 and the Allied liberation to find his entire world destroyed, rebuilds and produces one of the most glorified wines of all time), the label is special and unique (marked with a V for victory after WW2, commissioned by a French artist and signed by the producer), and the quality of the wine is regarded by connoisseurs worldwide as remarkable.

Material: Is it a high quality wine? Many wine connoisseurs would argue that this Mouton is among the finest wines ever produced, however some would consider it merely good. Is it expensive? I certainly think so, but others might disagree.

Distance: Is it rare? Certainly: there were only so many bottles produced in 1945, so this is definitely a limited edition.

Immaterial: Does it convey status or identity? In some circles, yes; it is very famous. However, unlike many luxury brands that boast near universal fame, this Mouton is known only within more closed, expert circles. But, hey, if that's the group you want to be associated with, Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945 is certainly a hot entry ticket.

In the case of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945, the material and immaterial properties are relatively subjective, however the rarity of the product is indisputable. Is it luxury? At $28,750 per bottle, and with a story like that, I would certainly consider it a luxury to experience this wine... however, I have been wine tasting in Bordeaux and would consider just about all of it to be luxury. To each their own.

(By the way, there is a great history of the Château Mouton-Rothschild estate and wines here.)

In the end, there really is no definitive luxury product, just a balance between these three points.

Part 2: What Is Luxury? Understanding Quality

Defining luxury through price, the six key points of quality, and the shopping experience.

Material Values in Luxury

So, if the industry defines luxury partially through Material Values (price & quality), what does that mean?

As we all know, the fact that something has a high price does not indicate that it has a high level of quality, and vice versa. However, a premium can be tacked onto the price of a product or service for a customer experience that is considered above and beyond, whether that experience is through customer service, or through being introduced into an admired community or tribe. After all, luxury is an indicator of status. Therefore, unlike most mass-market goods, the price for luxury goods and services is not based on tangible values alone.


Quality is subjective, depending on who you ask.

For example, for someone with little knowledge about luxury watches, their perception of quality will be based on the brands they know, as opposed to the perception of a connoisseur (or especially an artisan) who will understand quality from the details of craftsmanship. Ask me about the performance details of a car, and you will receive a meek "beats me" shrug. Now, ask me about shoes, and we're in business! I KNOW shoes: materials, heel dimensions, construction practices, secrets of comfort, stitching, design and brands. But I digress…

There are many dimensions of quality, and any given product may have points that conflict in degrees of excellence. Here are a few to consider:

  • Organoleptic Qualities (feel, smell, taste)
  • Performance
  • Resistance & Longevity
  • Visual Qualities
  • Quality of Manufacturing & Finish

How might these points of quality conflict? There are many examples, and I'm sure we all have our stories.

For example, resistance and longevity might conflict with feel, because tougher materials are often rougher to the touch.

Hermes silk twill scarf

Hermes scarves have great visual and organoleptic qualities, but the quality of the finish and the resistance and longevity are questionable. Each scarf is beautifully printed with many incredible colors, but the dyes are not fixed. Unless you want your Hermes scarf to turn into a blotchy mess, you absolutely cannot get it wet. That means you can forget about wearing it on that fabulous yachting tour, much less on a day with a chance of rain.

A haute couture Chanel wedding gown will have tiny inconsistencies in the stitch, simply because the fabrics are too fine to be manipulated by a sewing machine and must be constructed by hand. One person might look at this as a mark of the artistry, while another person will prefer the "perfect" finishing of a mass-produced gown, together with fabrics that are not so fragile.

Verifying Quality through Experience

In non-luxury industries, it is often easy to challenge product quality. However, even in within the industry, it is not enough to prove one's product legitimacy in terms of quality. Quality should be made an experience that one feels, first through the product and then through the product's environment, and the consumer's experience of both.

Pantofola d'Oro began making made-to-measure athletic shoes in 1886. The quality of their shoes has remained so high that many athletes continued to wear them, even after they are contracted to represent other brands. To avoid giving up the quality footwear, they commonly apply the sponsoring brand logo (Adidas, Puma, etc) over their d'Oro shoes. However, d'Oro is not a luxury brand. The shopping experience is poor.

A brand can sell a high-quality product, but in order to move into the luxury industry, they must verify the quality on an experiential level. This begins with the shopping experience.

The Shopping Experience

Think of a couple of luxury shopping experiences, off the top of your head. For me, the first one that comes to mind is the Prada Flagship in NYC, designed by Rem Koolhaas. I went there as a teenager when they first opened, long before I even considered moving to Milan. Although I was barely a college student at the time and unable to make a purchase, the service staff was attentive and the store design blew my mind. That's the kind of experience that sticks with a consumer, converting the experience into potential long-term sales and loyalty when they grow into the target market of the brand.

Another luxury shopping experience I had the pleasure to encounter was in the Pierre Hermé cake shop in St Germain area of Paris. It is designed like a jewelry store, with the cakes laid out in splendor. Actually, it's not just the store design that is modeled after the luxury jewelry sector; it's also the marketing... and the pricing for custom desserts. Want to know why "French Women Don't Get Fat"? It's because the sweets are too gorgeous to eat.

This is the legendary type of shopping experience that people make a special trip for, tell stories about, and share with their loved ones, even if it's just for a macaroon!

How to Convey Luxury in the Shopping Experience

Most of the following points seem like no-brainers after you read them, but we can all think of a bunch of examples for each point where the ball has been dropped, and luxury brand value negatively impacted.Here they are:

  • Urban & Cultural Areas: Luxury flagships are located in First-Tier Cities (Paris, Milan, New York, London, Tokyo, etc). These world capitols provide a wealthy base customer within the local population, but more importantly, they offer a huge number of tourists. This was especially important when you had to travel to obtain national luxury items (Want couture? Go to France. Want Chianti? Go to Italy.). However, today it is important to house a brand flagship in these capitols in order to provide a sense of the spirit of the brand, whether it is a piece of the American, French, or Italian lifestyle the brand represents. Furthermore, these cities offer a sense of refined culture through history, events (opera, theatre, special conferences) and exhibitions (cultural, professional), and the brands benefit through association.
  • Co-Presence: Who is the place shared with? You'll notice that luxury stores rarely stand alone. If not sharing a roof or directly adjoining one another, luxury stores are at least on the same street or within the same district. Think about Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills, 5th Avenue in New York, or Montenapoleone here in Milan. Even as the humblest immigrant communities or the richest McMansion neighborhoods, luxury powerhouses gain strength through community and mutual association. Just like buying a flat overlooking Central Park in the Upper East Side is a statement, opening a store on any of these streets tells the world, "I have arrived. I belong with thesepeople/brands." Many established brands have a presence in multiple districts to target a variety of consumer markets. Consider the Louis Vuitton stores in Paris:
    • Champs Elysee: the largest store, full of tourists
    • Montaigne: smaller, more chic
    • Saint Germain: smallest, highest sense of luxury, quite local and exclusive
    • Store architecture & scenography: Although the recent trend for Starchitects to create branded temples is a testament to this point, store architecture goes beyond the fame of the designer and touches on points of the interior. Note that luxury stores do not display every item in inventory. Racks are not crowded  with various sizes. You'll find very few sizes on display because the staff is there to assist you. The luxury customer should not dig through piles of garments to find an item. Further, the store architecture should represent the brand, especially in emerging markets where new consumers are just beginning to speedily acquire a brand education. What are the core symbols of the brand? Who is the target customer? You should be able to identify that from the store. (Ralph Lauren is the champion of branded store design, by the way.)
    • Store entrance & accessibility: Did you ever notice how heavy the doors to most luxury stores are? These are not your typical motion-sensor sliding doors. Rather, these doors make you slow down before entering. Often a meaty man or two is flanking the door to assist/intimidate you. Yeah, that's right, I said "intimidate." Why? It's the bouncer-affect. Are you on the list? The theory is that if they can scare you off, you probably don't belong there. Plus, the last thing a shoplifter of premium merchandise wants to see is a prize fighter guarding the door. This also has to do with co-presence, but not the co-presence of other brands like we went over above. Rather, this point attempts to ensure that the co-presence of the patrons meets a certain standard. However, it's hard to spot some luxury consumers or future luxury consumers, and so the probability of offending someone is high and the repercussions can be disastrous for a luxury brand. Obviously it's best to be discrete in this form of psychological filtration.
    • Welcoming Service: In addition to the bouncer-types at the door, a luxury shopping experience should provide friendly service that extends above and beyond the call of duty. This is unfortunately where most luxury stores fall short, and we've all heard stories of or actually had rude, snobby or lazy sales assistants, which drive away sales and tarnish the brand image. The fact of the matter is that it is at times difficult to find sales staff that represent the brand values with class, intelligence and politeness. However, I believe this is due less to a lack of available people and due more to a problem of luxury brands not fully understanding and conveying their core values to employees, and lacking quality customer service training programs. This is perhaps the single greatest weakness of luxury brands (and you could relate it to their lagging online presence, because that translates to customer service as well), and yet it seems to be quite low on the priority list of many brands. Curious... they could learn a lot from Zappos!

Other sectors can also achieve a sense of luxury for mass-market goods by applying the above principles. We have seen this increasingly in the last ten years, as luxury companies target downward into the mass market, and commodity companies target upwards into the luxury market.

For example, Sephora applies all points of the luxury shopping experience to its stores, but it is a democratic store lacking exclusivity which carries some luxury brands in the product mix (even if it is owned by luxury powerhouse LVMH). The Sephora stores are centrally located in world capitols and cultural centers, often surrounded by luxury brand retailers; they have a grand entrance that is discretely guarded, and the staff is friendly and helpful without being pushy.

Siena Duomo, by Arnold van Wijk

Furthermore, the displays are clean and organized like a luxurious market, and the branded interior design is based on the awe-inspiring cathedral (the Duomo) in Siena, Italy. While most customers will not recognize the trademark black and white horizontal stripes of the store as being related to the Duomo, the effect is quite nice in providing a sense of Renaissance splendor, don't you think?

So, if Sephora offers all of this, aren't they a luxury retailer? Not quite. While you can find products from Chanel, Dior, Frederick Fekkai (I love), Sephora still offers mass market goods that you could find in your local pharmacy, making the experience inclusive of the mass market.

Premium Price + Quality Products + Grand Shopping Experience = Luxury Brand? ...Not Yet

We're not there yet. In order to achieve true luxury status, immaterial values of brand identity and group-status, as well as exclusivity must be proven. More on that in the next segment of this series...