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The need of luxury

High-end markets staying positive thanks to the enduring lure of exclusive items

by Thomas Schellen

In life and in luxury, everything is a matter of definition. Take the Chinese luxury market. While the core capitalist markets of North America and Europe have been the centers of conspicuous consumption in the past few years, Chinese shoppers in the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan constitute the main new demand engine for luxury. It is a priceless irony of our time that the Chinese, whose country is constitutionally defined as a “socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class”, in 2012 spent $35.9 billion on largely European-branded luxury goods.

Luxury has been around for as long as mankind. From every epoch, we find a heritage of items made from the most precious contemporarily available materials, with the best possible quality and artisanship. These items were often void of practical use or luxuriously crafted for purposes of representation or ritual. 

Of course, what represents exclusivity in one era may eventually become an everyday item. The car, the television set and the cellphone were each transmuted rapidly from items of luxury to basics of daily mass use. But even then there are always luxury cars, TVs and consumer gadgets that find their lucrative niches with prices and features that reach far beyond the technically necessary. 

Given its pervasiveness, one can define luxury outright as a universal human need, and specifically an intangible need that is totally real even though it is not a necessity of physical sustenance. Moreover, as the desire for luxury finds two main expressions: items of opulence and extravagant experiences, this deep-seated need even seems to have elements corresponding to two existential modes of “having” and “being”. 

While any luxury market passes cyclically through high and low phases, the resilience of the luxury economy is often thrown into sharp relief when the wider economy experiences times of distress. Touring the Lebanese market for prime luxury possessions such as the $10,000 suit, the $45,000 television set or the $192,000 bed of all beds, Executive heard time and again that the vendors of these luxury items are not panicking about their present or future turnovers. 

In the Lebanese market for ultra-pricy vehicles and leisure craft Executive witnessed troughs in demand that appear to indicate the negative impact that hard economic pressure and depressed spending have on the most aspiring and affluent consumers. Yet, ownership of the ultimate status symbols like supercars and yachts is such an unfading element of the “having” mode that dealers of these luxuries say they too are staying comfortably afloat. 

As every economist in town is sounding the alarm over dismal inbound Arab tourism, it is heartening to find that outbound luxury travel is a story of good demand. In the context of Beirut’s messed-up urbanity and the depressing perceptions of our current economy, an escape into luxury must be a particularly inviting way to preserve one’s sanity as a high-end consumer.  

Personal luxury is a way to put oneself visibly apart from others but also from one’s own past. A luxury good or experience marks an aspiring person’s arrival to a higher state of wealth. As millions move up socioeconomically in emerging countries, markets for such self-affirmations are growing from the “affordable luxury” bracket to very small markets for smart, passion investments.   

In the mosaic of the wider economy, the luxury segment is an economic booster offering average folks attractive employment opportunities. Luxury markets also open doors for creative talent from designers to exceptional artists. 

Luxury has its drawbacks in its extreme vulnerability to avarice, however. It is habitually entwined with addictions to money and power, and thus remains an intricate challenge to integrate wealth and luxury into a virtuous spiral of happiness. According to recent studies, increasing wealth and its gains translate into higher amounts of momentary happiness. Not entirely a surprise. But the studies also showed happier people give more and people who spend more on others than themselves tend to become both more productive and happier. 

This, then, ties in with timeless truth: it is more blessed to give than to receive. 

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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