There can be few more appropriate venues for an exhibition about luxury than the V&A. The traditional criteria we use for defining luxury products – excellence in craft, innovation, exceptional materials and so on – are evident in almost every exhibit. But a major V&A show opening this month, What is Luxury?, seeks to do more than just present products from the luxury brand industry for us to stand and admire.
“We had no confidence in just putting a celebration of luxury out there,” says Jana Scholze who, with Leanne Wierzba, curated the show. An unquestioning, uncritical showcase of labels, the curators felt, would be problematic given the V&A’s position as a public institution and its audience. “If we only speak about the branded luxury industry, that is just for the rich and super rich: our public is a very different one,” Scholze says. Instead, the curators asked “What is our responsibility? That started a conversation about looking at the subject from a different point of view – is luxury something we all have a relationship to or is it just for a small number of people?”
Instead of accepting luxury as defined by the industry that surrounds it today, Scholze says the curators’ approach was to question the meaning of luxury and bring together ideas about its future and how it will develop in response to changes in society. Rather than a parade of big brands, the show presents projects from artists and designers exploring these themes.
First, though, came the question of what luxury actually is today. “The industry itself struggles with defining what the framework is – is this product ‘luxury’ or not?” Scholze says. “The edges are really interesting because they are so blurry. There is a certain understanding of the middle [ground] but at the edges it kind of fizzles out.” Hence the endless discussions about whether such and such a brand is ‘luxury’ or merely ‘premium’, about ‘masstige’ or ‘affordable luxury’.
Scholze says they were also anxious “to ground the [discussion] in history and not to claim luxury as a contemporary phenomenon…. Luxury has gone on forever because people are naturally fascinated by a technique or material and get so obsessed with [perfecting] something,” she says. “Luxury is so often driven by this need to be better … innovating with techniques or working with materials that were not previously considered to belong in this realm.” Hence the inclusion in the exhibition of, for example, a 17th century Italian lace priest’s chasuble and a golden ecclesiastical crown from 18th century Portugal.
These objects highlight luxury’s traditional relationship with status. In their 2009 book, The Luxury Strategy, Jean-Noël Kapferer and Vincent Bastien talk about the twin concepts of luxury for oneself and luxury for others: that we might buy a luxury item in order to enjoy it for its own qualities but also in order to show off to others, to indicate our belonging to a certain social group. So what happens to luxury goods when there’s no-one to see you displaying them?
Scholze says, “I got quite obsessed with the last question on Desert Island Discs, when they ask people what luxury they would take. There is no-one else on the island so the question of status falls away. No-one ever chooses a car, even though you could drive it around the island!”
In November 2010, the Guardian analysed all the responses to Desert Island Discs’ luxury question since 2003. The most popular choice was music – either in recorded form or musical instruments (and books on how to play them). Very few people chose what we might typically think of as a ‘luxury good’, although Sir Christopher Frayling did want to take the entire V&A away with him.
That Desert Island Discs question also brings us to the idea that luxury has an element that is rooted in the non-essential. “We struggled around this so much,” Scholze says. “It’s not essential to have luxury in order to survive but it probably is essential to be motivated or to have those little moments that are special to us and then maybe [your idea of luxury] does become essential. What would you keep if your house is burning down? ‘Essential’ is perhaps your passport but most people would save that little box with their photographs in and that is where the non-essential becomes essential.”
The show will also look at the materials that we consider to be luxurious and why. For Tendered Currency, artist Shane Mecklenburger has manufactured diamonds using materials including road kill, gunpowder and even a script from a Superman film. The resulting stones are molecularly identical to mined diamonds but are worth far less. Why? Are we assigning value to something based on how hard we know it was to obtain? Or the fact that it occurred ‘naturally’? Why would we value that over the application of a scientific process that has taken years of research to perfect?
“This touches on a theme that runs through the exhibition,” Scholze says, “that in luxury you have to believe in the product, especially if it is an investment.” There are elements of myth and faith in luxury – that those who buy luxury goods believe that certain objects are worth the enormous prices they command even though they may not perform as well as cheaper alternatives. And that those prices will continue to rise, so long as there are enough other people who believe the same thing.
Luxury brands in the past have sought to ensure that only the ‘right’ people bought their products – by using price, by limiting distribution and by the often intimidating nature of their shops. The internet challenges all these mechanisms.
“The luxury industry has struggled with this for a long time,” Scholze says. “At first they didn’t even want to have websites.” The commercial realities of brands that are now part of major international holding groups has meant that ignoring the web is no longer an option but most luxury brand sites still don’t allow consumers to buy directly online. Instead, they usually direct interested shoppers to their local stockist in an attempt to maintain a degree of control.
But the luxury brands, by seeking to have their beautifully decorated cake and eat it, have undermined themselves. Their products are available on the high streets of almost any substantial city in the world. A few clicks of a mouse is all it takes to gain access to this previously secluded world. Any pretence toward exclusivity has surely long gone.
The wider impact of the digital world on luxury is one of the key themes of the show. “As society becomes more digital and networked, it becomes more immaterial, so experiences become more important, there is an increased reliance on service, for example,” Scholze suggests.
“How different generations respond to ideas of luxury, or where there might be a change coming” is something the show will explore in depth. The always-connected nature of the digital world also suggests new ‘luxuries’ – now that, thanks to the GPS systems in our phones and the way that we are always reachable, and highly scheduled, might the ability simply to get lost be the ultimate luxury?
This concept is investigated in the show via Marcin Rusak’s project Time For Yourself. Described as “a playful toolkit for misdirection”, it features a watch with no dial, a compass which spins to random co-ordinates and a pen with no ink, inviting visitors “to contemplate the potential pleasure of getting lost and their relationship to the luxuries of space and time”. Many people would say that the greatest luxury they have is time – what does that mean for an industry that is based upon packaging and selling objects, asks Scholze?
“I don’t want to predict anything but this belief in branded products that are very costly is something that more people are questioning the value of in relation to their life,” Scholze believes. “A lot of luxury has to do with status, with competing with our neighbour, doing what others do, but hopefully the younger generation will challenge these norms and routines and rather go their own way.”
What is Luxury?, a V&A and Crafts Council exhibition, sponsored by Northacre, is at the V&A from April 25 – September 27, vam.ac.uk/whatisluxury