How luxury survived the pandemic
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By Rhonda K Garelick
What becomes of luxury in a global pandemic? Is the pursuit of luxury incompatible with our drastically changed lives under Covid? Luxury can be so external, and life lately feels so internal.
A big part of luxury is theatre: the couture gown that dazzles the crowd, the splendid car gliding past onlookers, the Instagrammed vacation. The admiration, desire or even envy of others creates part of luxury’s allure.
The pandemic scrambled this. It isolated us physically, reducing opportunities for “performing” our luxuries. Travel was shut down or severely curtailed, as were many parties, openings, galas and all other occasions for gathering and display. Without social interaction, is luxury doomed?
Not at all, it turns out. In fact, luxury sales overall have risen during the pandemic, as the wealthiest have grown wealthier, and even the less-than-billionaire class, having been stuck at home, has accumulated more cash to spend and more time to spend it.
In the process, the quest for luxury has simply expanded - encompassing not only a surging market in some traditional luxury items but also more inward-focused versions of luxury, plus novel digital methods of projecting luxury theatre that are pandemic-safe. Far from disappearing, luxury has proved more central to our culture than ever. Like a river diverted by rocks, it has simply sought other paths.
While we may no longer think of the pursuit of luxury as a moral or sexual vice, it remains tied to our sense of bodily, or at least censorial, delectation. And given that Covid is a physical illness, it has necessarily altered the relationship between luxury and our bodies.
The pandemic has made personal health a topic of constant anxiety and conversation. Of course, access to the finest doctors and treatments constitutes significant privilege, but health luxury extends beyond the medical. Maintaining a high level of personal fitness has long been a sign of privilege. And in a pandemic, fitness means more.
With disease all around us, a fit body feels like symbolic armour, an escape route, protection from illness or even mortality. As Italian theorist Patrizia Calefato writes in her book Luxury: Fashion, Lifestyle and Excess, “luxury ... challenges the idea of death itself”.
And that challenge, that protection, can be pricey. Or as Leslie Ghize, executive vice president of the forecasting firm Tobe TDG, puts it: “Wellness is a luxury . . . the luxury of keeping yourself in good condition.”
The advent of "spiritual concierges" makes clear that luxury has mutated but not completely transformed under covid. In the Before Times, a hotel concierge would enhance your luxury travel experience by granting you access - to a sold-out play, perhaps, or a hot new restaurant. Today, a spiritual concierge also grants you access, but to pandemic-proof pleasures that are more metaphysical than physical, enhancing travel that occurs not over land or sea, but inwardly, in the realms of soul and spirit - without leaving your apartment.
As affluent fitness and health buffs abandoned expensive group classes, gyms and private trainers (the industry lost $13.9 billion in the second half of 2020), equally upscale alternatives gained popularity. In the first seven months of the pandemic, sales revenue of home fitness equipment more than doubled, reaching over $2.3 billion.
Even the humblest workout accessories can metamorphose into luxuries: For about $3 000 (R47 500), fashionistas can tone up with Louis Vuitton hand weights - crafted of lustrous metal and engraved with the LV logo. Yves Saint Laurent dumbbells, in hand-cut black marble, are a relative bargain at $2 000. All are attractive enough to double as home decor when you're done with your reps.
The allure of the virtual fitness space has proved enduring enough to entice even Christian Dior to plan a line of digital fitness devices, Dior Vibe, created in a collaboration between creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri and the Italian high-end fitness equipment company Technogym. So now instead of wearing Dior, couture lovers can run on wired-in Dior treadmills (and then maybe imagine their own bodies being, in a sense, “designed” by Dior).
Given that the pandemic has sent many of us on a quest for bodily and spiritual comfort, it’s unsurprising that fashion too has changed. With the near-total shutdown of work and social life, fashion took a tremendous hit, yet its role in our lives remains too vital for it to disappear entirely. More than a necessity or even a luxury, fashion is our most intimate residence - our body's enveloping, sartorial home. And home means more now than ever.
Fashion, accordingly, has forged homier new paths, notably through the rise of “luxury comfort”: clothes emphasising bodily wellness benefits - sensuous pleasure and physical ease, to be enjoyed more privately than publicly. “High-end comfort wear is super desirable,“ says luxury expert Pauline Garris Brown, former chairman of European conglomerate LVMH North America and author of Aesthetic Intelligence.
Luxury comfort fashion comes in soft fabrics and forgiving shapes, featuring hidden elastic waistbands or more flowing cuts. It skims and caresses the body, freeing the wearer from discomfort and assuaging what’s been called “skin hunger“, the craving for physical touch brought on by pandemic isolation. It’s caftans by Jason Wu or floaty, prairie-style dresses by Anna Sui. It’s voluminous pants by Fendi or Stella McCartney; the easy, oversize drape of Peter Do's fall collection. It’s athleisure - a continuing megatrend - such as the Luxe Leisure line by Reiss, puffer jackets from Gucci's collaboration with North Face or chic tracksuits from Pyer Moss.
And above - or rather, below - it all are the breakout luxury shoes of the pandemic, whose levels of popularity now exceed anything they garnered beforehand: the cushy, pillowy, ungainly sneakers and sandals that have toppled sleek stilettos from the shelves. Gucci, Prada, Balenciaga, Chanel and Louis Vuitton all now sell rubber-platformed athletic shoes for women - in fuchsia or electric blue, embellished with crystals, flowers or couture logos - at prices that can reach $2 000.
The Sculpt, the super-sleek, $600 sneaker designed by Kerby Jean-Raymond for Pyer Moss, looks like a miniature racecar. Even clunky Crocs have grabbed the limelight. Couture sneakers exist for men too, including Virgil Abloh's fabulous co-creations between Louis Vuitton and Nike, but pain-free shoes are hardly new for men.
Along with all these shifts has come a hopeful development: a heightened awareness of luxury’s - particularly fashion's - most significant failings, especially the rampant racial inequities of the industry, as well as the environmental damage caused by the entire luxury sector.
Faced with Covid’s sobering reminder of our deep planetary interconnectedness, many luxury creators refocused their attention on the urgency of reducing the industry's deleterious impact on the environment. Examples abound: Japanese luxury giant Takashimaya announced a massive fashion collection made from upcycled materials. Gucci launched its first sustainability collection, Off the Grid. And François-Henri Pinault, CEO of the Kering luxury group, announced a ban on fur across all his brands.
Some traditional items - fine watches, jewellery and classic, exclusive handbags such as the Hermès Birkin - have seen strong sales throughout the pandemic.
For many, luxury is now inextricable from social and environmental awareness. Yet perhaps the most dramatic broadening of luxury has taken place around the matter of time. When asked for their most valued luxury now, many people I interviewed for this article cited time first. It’s fair to say that the pandemic has altered our sense of time. It’s forced all of us to take stock of the brevity of our lives.
This article first appeared in Saturday Insider, Nov 27, 2021