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LUXURY: is ethical luxury the new black?

Luxury to me is not about buying expensive things; it’s about living in a way where you appreciate things.

— Oscar de La Renta

 Ethical Luxury : the divine bamboo fibre dresses by Stix & Roses, made in Chicago.


If luxury in the post WWII part of the 20th century 

was defined by the heavily-marketed label, rather than the object,

and if luxury prior to that was defined by

the scarcity of the material,

then, in these early decades of the 21st century,

with mass consumerism being increasingly perceived 

as a crass thing,

where do we find ourselves when trying to define luxury?


LUXURY : a state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense; an inessential, desirable item which is expensive or difficult to obtain.

— origin : from Latin "luxuria" or excess

 Crown from the Victoria & Albert Museum.


It seems so ironical that the original meaning of luxury was "excess",

but then perhaps we have come full circle.


If the modern accepted meaning of LUXURY is about scarcity,

then by default the absolute plethora of both real and fake

"luxury labels" which are worn as a visible item in the developed & developing world

(Chanel bags, Hermès scarves, Prada shoes: those with obvious labels)

are not technically luxurious

They are ubiquitous amongst the increasing numbers of wealthy consumers.

Dare we say they display excess?

Do we therefore need a new definition of luxury?


 Intricate hand made lighting by Studio Drift, on display at the What is Luxury exhibition at the V & A.

It's such an interesting question, 

that the foremost design museum in the world,

the Victoria & Albert Museum in London,

in conjunction with the British Craft Council,

is about to launch an exhibition posing this very reflection.

What is Luxury

(April 25 - Sept 27)

will explore whether our concept of luxury has changed over time,

and whether it is now more about craftsmanship

and less about consumption.

Affluenza. Stuffocation. There’s no shortage of punning neologisms when it comes to our uneasy relationship with having too many things. The unease mounts when we enter the territory of quantity and quality, excess and taste: the land of luxury.

— Annie Warburton, Creative Programmes Director, Craft Council

 Body 1, El Ultimo Grito, on display at the What Is Luxury exhibition at the V & A.


The interesting thing about the rise of the craft movement

is that it places an emphasis on the hand-made, the artisan, the individual person,

and perhaps this is where we are going with our evolving sense of 

what defines luxury.


As it becomes more & more expensive to make things by hand,

rather than mass production of "luxury goods",

it is perhaps this cost which makes the items perceived to be luxurious, or valuable.



But there is an even greater change in the air....


It seems to me that as people are reflecting more 

about where we are going, 

what we are about,

and what's important in life,

there's an increasing questioning of

the ethical cost of conventional luxury.


What is the ethical cost of conventional luxury?

The cost of underpaid workers in unsafe conditions,

the cost of animal cruelty in unregulated practices,

the resource cost of transporting materials & goods across the world

and back again,

the cost of environmental damage in order to obtain the "scarce" ingredients.


Do we want to continue to pay the high ethical price,

for the sake of luxury?


Or will we redefine the notion of luxury itself to demand

a lower ethical cost

(which generally equates to a higher actual cost)?


Perhaps this ethical luxury, is the new black.


It’s really the job of fashion designers now to turn things on their head in a different way, and not just try to turn a dress on its head every season. Try and ask questions about how you make that dress, where you make that dress, what materials you’re using. I think that’s far more interesting, actually. I think that the way to create sustainable fashion is to keep asking these questions while making sure to make desirable, luxurious, beautiful clothing and accessories that women want to buy.

— Stella McCartney

 Ethical luxury: Stella McCartney lingerie made with new age fibres, rather than silk.

There is absolutely no doubt that today's well educated,

well informed and well off consumers 

are increasingly seeking out cafes, restaurants, and foods

with a provenance.

Local, organic, simple, free-range unprocessed foods are definitely the new black.


And increasingly, more and more brands of clothing, footwear,

jewellery and home wares are also embracing the trend.

Huge technological developments in fibre production

will eventually mean that synthetic materials are selected

over high-ethical-cost materials because they will actually be superior

in performance,

driven by increasing consumer demand for a lower ethical cost.


Canada's Matt & Nat bags are made without leather or any animal-based materials, and the quality has to be seen to be believed. These are covetable bags: truly a product worthy of the "luxury" tag.

Already, some of the most beautiful products in the world are 

available with a low ethical cost:

products not tested on or made from animals,

and not manufactured without regard to waste of production.

Stella McCartney shoes, Matt & Nat handbags, Aesop skincare:

each are considered luxurious because they are quality products,

and their commercial success is a fine example

proving that consumers will clearly pay more in dollars so they can pay 

a lower ethical cost.



Ethical Luxury : Products which define their owners or wearers as people with human and ecological consciences.

— Tom Ford


And it seems that if the traditional luxury brands do not follow 

in the same direction, they will eventually be perceived

as relics from another, excessive, past.


Luxury is not going out of style. It needs to change its style. We need to replace hollow with deep.

— Tom Ford

I think this will be the future of luxury - 

that ethical luxury will indeed be the new black.


Do you agree?


This post is part of the BIO series of thoughtful topics which are discussed each month by a group of bloggers around the world who each bring a very different perspective to an agreed topic. To see the rest of the perspectives on "luxury" click here.

images : lingerie & white dress stella mccartney, all other clothing by Stix and Roses / handbags by matt & nat / What Is Luxury at the V&A from April 25 / jewellery by meek / bootie by brava / flower & breakfast images by me




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