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LUXURY IN 2023: THE UNREAL
PART 1 OF THE LUXURY IN 2023 SERIES
One of the most significant phenomenons in today’s luxury market is the shifting definition of luxury itself. New approaches to ownership, creativity and desire have all contributed to a hugely varied selection of goods and services being considered part of this era of luxury.
The first chapter of this series is dedicated to the most intangible, ineffable, and impossible to categorize luxury goods, what I’m terming ‘The Unreal’.
The Unreal is broken down into four categories:
Our day-to-day social and entertainment consumption is infiltrated by dichotomized yet interweaved concepts: real / fake, physical / virtual, legitimate / counterfeit, authentic / inauthentic. The luxury market is an extension - if not extrapolation - of these ephemeral and ethereal polarities.
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For the younger demographic of luxury consumers, access to luxury isn’t (only) determined by affording high prices - but also how culturally relevant you are, how much credibility you bring to the brand by wearing it, and most importantly, how good you’ll look online while wearing it. What determines desirability within the streetwear/hype brand model is best summed up by the mantra “IYKYK” - if you don’t know (and you aren’t a professional influencer) you’re simply not getting your hands on The Unattainable.
The most immediate example of this are the MSCHF Big Red Boots, set to be a viral product the moment the first images of them were released. Knowingly oversized and cartoon-inspired, these boots were reverse engineered from their intended purpose: to be photographed and filmed, and have the content featuring them spread quickly by polarizing opinion, leading to high engagement and virality.
Virality like this is what Tiffany&Co. tried to achieve with their latest collaboration announcement with Nike: maximum reach and engagement creating high desire. But in both cases, the nature of virality means that the hype for these products is fading (if not gone) before they’re released for sale. Luxury brands now see social capital (preferably, cultural relevance) as a shortcut to success, but the definitive qualifier of that success is only high sales volume and engagement, rather than long term brand credibility.
It’s the impossibility of getting your hands on these viral products that qualifies them as a luxury; conversely, a brand could use materials like diamonds and precious metals, but it’s the branding itself that is the biggest single factor in determining whether the product achieves luxury status.
Those who were able to wear the MSCHF boots during their short spike of fame certainly had access to one of the most desirable fashion items in the world at that moment - criteria that means this luxury status only lasts as long as the viral cycle. The Unattainable luxury is entirely defined by gaining access to the product immediately and aligning yourself with it, with extra social capital points awarded if you cop before public release.
Along with big name collaborations and rare editions of design classics, products from independent designers and artists with cult followings can achieve desirability comparable to luxury brand releases. Offgod has created a dedicated following as one of the earliest to spot the potential of the Apple AirPod Max headphone trend, seeing an opportunity to customize the look of this incredibly popular tech product with 3D printed accessories. The detachable designs transform the look of the headphones into something wildly fun, cartoonish and bold. 274k followers and counting can be found in the comments BEGGING him to release his products for sale in the five months since he began posting his prototypes.
It’s not just limited access that drives desire though - ultimately, it’s a level of creativity which leads to truly unique products and experiences that’s often the luxury status kingmaker - with genuine novelty being the rarest, most desirable characteristic of all.
So much of the jewellery industry’s ‘best’ is considered unwearable: fine jewellery brands created an echelon of luxury which may surpass any other in terms of cost, perception, rarity and exclusivity in couture high jewellery collections. Only occasionally seen momentarily on the biggest celebrities, most of these pieces attract a small amount of industry press as they’re released, but barely cause a ripple in broader culture.
Some brands still believe that the formula to measure high jewellery’s desirability is: highest carat weight = most luxurious. The psychological profile of the luxury jewellery client has morphed immeasurably since this rationale was established.
With looming expectations of recession at every turn, few are surprised by the news of BIG diamonds seeing poor sales results at auction.These giant gems are scarcely bought to be worn, but instead are a financial asset, kept under tight security - perhaps the pinnacle of Unwearable luxury.
The long, drawn out divorce of meaning from high jewellery has eroded the romance of big diamonds and gems in pop culture. Decades of using high jewellery for headlines has diminished the perceived rarity and preciousness of these pieces. After 22 years of gem-studded ‘Fantasy’ bras shown as the finale of Victoria’s Secret runway presentations - with several valued at over $10million and jewelers as prestigious as Harry Winston putting their name to them- can we wonder that the cultural caché of high jewellery has been diminished?
Mass social media platforms arguably caused a unique damage to the highest end of luxury jewellery - where easy access to content featuring these designs eroded the mystique of this closely-guarded treasure. A slew of social media accounts realised early on that as a visual medium, Instagram was a place where content featuring bigger (carat weights) meant better performance, and giant stones were an easy trick for getting engagement. Both the algorithmic platforms and the tech through which we access high jewellery content have diluted the sense of rarity that is innate to high jewellery.
How can the jewellery industry foster greater functionality out of largely unwearable high jewellery pieces? Promoting the extremely elusive level of craftsmanship housed within fine jewellery brands, as well as the creative talents of design teams and artisans certainly aligns more comfortably with luxury sensibilities in 2023. These are objet d’art, and should be discussed alongside other fine art mediums, they’re 1 of 1, unrepeatable, inspired by the visual codes established by some of the greatest jewellers of history - all talking points which rarely reach beyond the silo of jewellery industry journalism.
There has been an exciting increase in fine jewellery exhibitions, like Van Cleef & Arpels ‘Art of Movement’, and Cartier & Islamic Art, ‘In Search of Modernity’. Prestigious galleries and museums are the appropriate context for this high art to be showcased, communicating the stories of these pieces and their cultural significance throughout history to new audiences. Those high jewellery houses which focus on rooting their designs and brand narrative within history - as well as broadening into modern cultural dialogues could find increased brand loyalty amongst luxury consumers as their reward.
Placing high jewellery in more pop culture moments is key to reaching new luxury consumers too. Promoting varied styling (demonstrating how potential clients who prefer casual fashion over traditional occasion wear) can create a context for incorporating fine jewellery into younger aesthetic tastes. Rihanna’s Super Bowl HalfTime Show outfit and fine jewellery accessoriesserved as a perfect example of this - antique jewellery, fine jewellery and a diamond watch worth millions paired with a baggy jumpsuit and Salomon shoes? If you doubt luxury looks different today, there’s no better mainstream cultural moment to prove it.
Celebrity PR is not the golden ticket it once was for luxury brands either though, as evidenced in the polarized public reaction to Pharrell Williams’ appointment as Creative Director at Louis Vuitton. The shift of interest from the glamour of celebrity to relatable ‘real’ people sees the biggest Hollywood stars and supermodels lip synching to viral songs in unglamorous locations for TikTok.
The world has changed radically, and even luxury jewellery needs to adapt its PR strategies to reflect this. Connecting with influencersand events that are aligned with high fashion and streetwear cultures in sincere and meaningful ways is an obvious and necessary step - wealthy consumers want to buy their way into the zeitgeist with their luxury purchases too.
To sell high jewellery to luxury consumers today and in the future, the jewellery industry needs to collectively invest in creating long-term cultural impact, reinforcing the extremely personal psychology unique to jewellery, and using these ideas to forge intimate relationships with new types of luxury consumer.
This year, A.I. art going mainstream is playing with our perceptions of reality itself, deep fake technology allows faux-celebrity endorsements to populate the internet, and speculative designs flood the fashion landscape - all further stretching the elastic nature of physics, truth and reality itself.
Contending with ideas of luxury, desirability, “forced novelty” and proximity to fame is Elizaveta Federmesser and Carl Rethmann’s ‘IT BAGS’ digital art project. Federmesser describes ‘IT BAGS’ as “an ongoing research into what really makes a bag 'it'. Preliminary answer: The bag should have a counterfeit.” Their thesis explores the idea that luxury bags can only be determined to be ‘IT’ when there are ‘fakes’ and replicas produced. Promotional content for the project featured the likenesses of celebrities created with A.I., with their faces partially obscured. "It Bags is a speculative design project that questions the idea of forced novelty in fashion. Is every new it-bag a remix of a previous one? There is nothing new except what has been forgotten. Using A.l. as a trend forecasting machine, Federmesser and Rethmann produce a collection of It-bags for the Spring/Summer 2023 season. These new designs are based on a dataset of pictures of iconic IT bags from history."
Less than 24 hours after the Tiffany&Co. X Nike collaboration promotional images were released, images of A.I. ‘alternative’ design options from digital artists started going viral too. These designs look impossibly attractive (because they’re digital art, not actual shoe design) and featured multiple aesthetic elements which wouldn’t be achievable in production.
The online audience has become so used to this fantasy spectacle that A.I. and digital artists are able to create that the boundaries of physical possibility (let alone cost and myriad other practical limitations) mean that actualised designs are beginning to pale by comparison. The most common response to the various Tiffany&Co. X Nike release parodies and inspired designs was a version of “THIS is what they should’ve made.”
At the beginning of February, Vogue released an A.I. trend report using composite images of men’s runway presentations.The results didn’t garner much attention, as this use of A.I. was simply a functional amalgamation of physical creations, rather than using A.I. technology to depart from reality altogether.
Concept design brands are a strange new phenomenon of mass social media, where designers (many using A.I.) are able to replicate, re-design and respond to luxury brand’s output almost immediately. The day after the first images of the MSCHF boots were released, the designer @Junpenelope posted an image of speculative design for a MSCHF X Nike X Tiffany&Co. collab - with the tagline “the collab we’ve actually been waiting for.”)The image has over 32k likes at the time of writing.
Using a luxury brand’s IP has become a popular marketing strategy - attaching the names or visual codes of a recognized luxury brand to your work is a shortcut to gaining an audience. The MetaBirkins NFT project created by Mason Rothschild in late 2021 reportedly made over $1million in salesbefore Hermès sued them for copyright infringement. Rothschild lost the case - but what made the project so successful in the first place? MetaBirkins were digital artwork based on the shape of Birkin bags, but each was rendered to appear as though they were covered with different versions of brightly patterned fur. The appetite for these designs was clearly based on the desirability of Hermès Birkin, with the added novelty of design elements that were trending in that moment proving irresistible for many.
The popularity of this speculative content is buoyed by the anarchic sense that smaller, independent designers and artists are purposely challenging concepts of corporate ownership and creative IP, as well as our perceptions of luxury.
All luxury goods are prone to suffering by comparison now that these impossibly beautiful, unique, unachievable speculative designs are being shared en masse - creating a desire that can only be fulfilled by virtual products...
The Untouchables represent an obviously emergent next stage in luxury, where digital representations of physical pieces are available for digital spaces. As soon as motion capture technology is able to closely track movement in video and live footage, it’s reasonable to expect an enormous surge in interest in virtual jewellery and fashion. On top of the opportunities for experimentation and self expression that digital assets offer, virtual designs are a fraction of the cost of their closest physical counterparts.
With The Untouchables, the luxury experience is completely redefined. Seeing yourself ‘wearing’ shapeshifting, colour-changing gowns or giant sparkling earrings is only reminiscent of the luxury experience you would have if you were wearing a physical version of these designs. The real luxury here is infinite choice, immediately being able to radically transform your appearance within virtual worlds is a huge benefit as we anticipate the future of web3.
The jewellery industry is on a long plateau in use cases for AR/VR technology, where most brands still only employ ‘virtual try-ons’ - a technology which has been widely available since the early 2010s,but brands like Tiffany & Co. continue to announce AR filter launches - the most recent was February 15th 2023, continuing their long-term collaboration with Snapchat.
Luxury AR/VR will still have to play with the principles of prohibitive access to assure desirability - whether through higher prices, limited availability, or prioritising hyper-engaged fans (likely all three.)
Digital fashion is still believed to be in its emergent phase, though key players like The Institute of Digital Fashion (consulting), DeMaterialised (marketplace), The Fabricant (collaboration partners), and DRESSX (AR filters) have been gradually gaining the attention of major investors and fashion futurists alike for years now. Whether or not we believe in the promises of the metaverse, the potential market for the brands involved with customising avatars and dressing our digital selves is predicted to be gargantuan, as gaming blends with entertainment, as mass social media platforms splinter into smaller niche community spaces, and as we spend more and more time in virtual worlds.
Celebrity and influencer digital luxury endorsements will become more common, encouraging interest and experimentation. Digital assets also have the enormous benefit of adaptability, wherein they can be created in a manner which allows alterations, edits and wholesale changes by the creator over time. It’s easy to envision that having an ongoing relationship with a luxury brand (as is currently required to buy a coveted Birkin or Kelly bag at Hermès) in the short term future will include being offered custom digital jewellery assets.
Reconfiguring what luxury means in a digital landscape requires creativity far beyond simply making digital versions of pre-existing physical products. Leaning into the enormous market for live streaming and gaming entertainment, seeing the biggest stars of these industries flex their digital luxury in situ solves the problems of reaching a younger demographic who are socializing online away from mass social media platforms , while also providing easily accessible use cases for those who are struggling to see the novelty and potential joy in dressing our digital selves. Phygital sales packages are still necessary for this transitional period too. It’s easy to foresee that gamers will want to display physical tokens of their digital purchases, expressing and identifying themselves offline as serious luxurians too.
The next installment of this series will cover an altogether more tangible element of luxury in 2023…
Thank you for reading.
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“The definition of luxury has long been consistent: products made from the finest materials, highly-priced, obvious in quality, often with a highly visible brand and sold only in exclusive venues. [….] But a Hearst survey found that age is a key factor in new definitions. Younger consumers use more descriptors for what they consider to be luxury. While all ages are swayed by traditional descriptors, younger groups are more likely to associate luxury with beautiful packaging and prestige over category and price point.”
Bulgari has done this especially well in the last 18 months.