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A brand new exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is striving to define luxury today and to predict its possible future. “What is Luxury?” showcases 100 objects, old and new. At a time when museums are boldly linking art with fashion and culture, this exhibition joins the current debate on whether luxury consumption is heading away from a bling-tinged consumption fest of material goods towards the pursuit of intangibles such as discovery – expressed in travel, for instance. It also highlights how these goods are influenced by tech-led processes and outlooks rather than nostalgia-focussed craftsmanship alone, despite what marketing campaigns have been emphasising. While status symbols and showing off possessions remain important, luxury consumers globally are more sophisticated, with high-end purchases now more about demonstrating knowledge and taste in what you buy.“There was such a narrow discourse about luxury that just focused on brands, the industry and the market, we felt it was time to reopen discussion,” said Jana Scholze, the exhibition’s co-curator. “Luxury is shifting to something that is not simply focused on consumption”.
While craftsmanship is central to the allure of luxury goods – with consumers seeking out qualities linked to expertise, refinement, and exclusivity – consumers can only take so much of sepia-tinged ad campaigns and the revival of long-dormant brands. Jonathan Openshaw, author of “Postdigital Artisans” due out in May, warns of a tendency to think of craft as something preserved in aspic, with brands harking back to their heritage “as an antidote to the logo and as a way of distinguishing their brand”. They risk tipping into a nostalgia trap: “…and I don’t think the contemporary luxury consumer is feeling nostalgic” he cautions.
Luxury continues to supersede its classic link with craft and is influenced by broader trends. “We wanted to show that no matter how gorgeous an object may be, it always exists within a larger context of ecology, economy, politics and culture” explains V&A exhibition co-curator Leanne Wierzba. Indeed, Mr. Openshaw emphasizes the importance of the “fingerprint of the maker” rather than handicraft in creating something extraordinary that exudes luxury. In a new annual initiative, the UK Telegraph’s dedicated portal, Luxury, identifies a hit list of visionaries who are as they put it: “the masterminds and aesthetes resetting the luxury agenda”. These luminaries include architects, creative directors, jewellers and watchmakers. Note the accent on the individual visionary here. The creative signature of these style leaders is all the more to be respected, journalists emphasise, as their innovation and experimentation must operate in a sector where tradition is esteemed, progress is gradual and studied craft elevated.
It is significant that a technology specialist, physicist Professor Paolo di Trapani, makes the Telegraph’s luxury visionaries list. His CoeLux company strives for more natural light in interiors, with expected benefits for jetlagged passengers, and those who could bask in the sense of wellbeing sunlight imparts.
Mr. Openshaw highlights that many creative people working in luxury are dedicated to materials and processes in a way that is anything but nostalgic. This is the view of Amsterdam-based fashion designer, Iris van Herpen, whose work features, and who sees herself as challenging the link between craftsmanship and luxury to its limit, using what she terms 3D and 4D printing, biotechnology and metamaterials. “It might sound conflicting, but new technology makes new ways of excellent craft possible again,” she feels, viewing the marriage of craft and technology as the ultimate luxury. Dutch duo Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta of Studio Drift showcase a “Fragile Future 3 Concrete Chandelier”, blending LED lights and dandelion seeds, and light sculptures of silk that can be controlled by iPhone or iPad.
Much of the work in “What is Luxury?” underlines the value of time: “We were surprised to be included in an exhibition about luxury because our work feels very removed from the world of luxury brands and logo handbags, but perhaps we represent what luxury could be,” says Mr. Nauta. “What people who buy our work are buying is a huge amount of time that allows us to put so much thought and care into a piece. That to me is luxury”. Giovanni Corvaja, a featured goldsmith, concurs. For him, the 12 years of research and the 2,500 hours of time that went into his The Golden Fleece headpiece are more precious than its gold content.
“In this age of consumerism, our lives are increasingly occupied by technology; there’s no time to get lost,” says co-curator Wierzba of an exhibit titled “Time for Yourself”, a tool pack helping businesspeople loose themselves with gadgets like an ever-spinning compass. For her, it indicates that “Luxury could become something that’s free, yet incredibly precious, like time itself”.