Last November Moscow hosted its annual Millionaires’ Fair, where roubles flow as freely as vodka, and Russia’s burgeoning elite flock to find new ways to spend. With items like a solid gold mobile phone, a Mercedes covered in diamonds and a piano that plays itself, the fair is designed to instruct the newly wealthy in matters of taste and style. They are, in other words, learning luxury.

For luxury requires not just money and extravagance, but the ability to recognise quality and value. It’s a byword for class, elegance, exclusivity. And although it’s a way of life for those who have inherited centuries of wealth and entitlement, for the outsider, the newcomer, the aspiring social climber, it’s a quality that demands assiduous study.

Sally Feldman's spread from New Humanist, January/February 2008Luxury is redolent of the most noble and the most base of human desires. On the one hand it denotes an appreciation of beauty and excellence, a striving for betterment, a lust for perfection, ultimate comfort: textiles that swathe the body in soft caresses, cushions that allow you to sink and float; a fine wine sliding, velvety, down your throat.

On the other, excessive indulgence leads to vulgarity, obscene waste, a shallow valuing of appearance over substance. So luxury also means that even the most extreme taste is catered for and every need predicted, however absurd. It’s enjoying a film in your own cinema, and a leisurely game in the bowling alley on your $168 million yacht; gliding up a heated marble driveway to your 100-room home so that not even your Porsche need feel the cold.

Above all, though, it’s a totem of inequality. Luxury, the province of the privileged, is the enemy of democracy. Since luxury is characterised by its exclusiveness, it can never be more than a property of the elite. Traditionally, royal palaces of gold and silver, robes of precious silks and velvets, bejewelled crowns and marvellous treasures would be a declaration not merely of superiority to the common masses but of a far more elevated status: that of the gods. Sultans, kings and emperors would imitate the more elaborate conceits of heaven – that panoply of gossamer wings, golden harps, delicate ambrosia and nectars – to demonstrate their immortality.

In fairy tales, the palaces and castles of kings are the heaven which the poor must worship as they gaze up in awe. Magic, the power of the divine, is the agent that transforms the lowly to greatness, sour beer to sweet wine, rags to riches, flax to gold. Magic turns the ordinary into luxury.

The exquisite treasures buried with King Tutankhamun, the vast army of terracotta soldiers guarding the body of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi, are testimony to the hubris of the powerful. Their wealth not only sets them above other men but guarantees their place in the hereafter.

It was the French Revolution that finally put paid to these divine claims of monarchs and aristocrats. Revulsion against the lavish extravagance of the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette fuelled the fury of the insurgents. Citizens were urged to adopt simple robes, to eschew finery and to favour sobriety over excess.

And yet during this period there was also a lively debate about the virtues as well as the decadence of luxury, according to John Shovlin in The Political Economy of Virtue: Luxury, Patriotism, and the Origins of the French Revolution. As far back as the 1740s, Shovlin maintains, French political economists were troubled by luxury, believing that it undermined virtue by detracting from the public interest. Louis XV’s mistress Mme Pompadour provided an ideal target because luxury was regarded as a feminine vice and she was connected through her family to the financial world.

But not all political commentators disdained luxury. During the 18th century, Shovlin writes, an increasing number, influenced by Louis XIV’s minister Colbert, believed that production of luxury goods could increase trade and thus promote France’s international power. They distinguished between the harmful luxury of the aristocrats and financiers and that which benefited modest consumers. If pursuit of this luxury was open to all, merit would be rewarded.

This was the view of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume whose essay “Of Luxury” argues that the cultivation of the mind and of the arts is as vital to society as developments in science and agriculture. Countering those “severe moralists” like Rousseau who dismiss the quest for luxury as decadent, Hume maintains that it is, rather, a definition of civilisation. Once the most essential, physical needs are satisfied, he argues, a society craves sophistication, beauty, betterment. “Riches are valuable at all times and to all men because they always purchase pleasures such as men are accustomed to and desire; nor can anything restrain the love of money but a sense of honour and virtue, which, if it be not nearly equal at all times, will naturally abound most in ages of knowledge and refinement.”

So luxury can be both virtuous and decadent. And a further paradox is that while it can be glimpsed and aspired to by the masses, it can only ever be available to the rich and privileged. Mass production is its antithesis; mass ownership its obliteration. That was the view of sociologist Thorsten Veblen, writing at the end of the 19th century. Like Hume, he saw luxury as a symptom of societies which have moved beyond their original barbarism. But its currency has changed. In his most celebrated work, The Theory of the Leisure Class, he argues that it’s no longer the intrinsic worth of expensive purchases that gives them their prized value; it’s the status they bestow.

Veblen observes how the substance of what is bought has become uncoupled from its original value or purpose. So, for example, the aspiring middle classes regard a closely trimmed lawn as a sign of upward mobility. Originally, cropped grass was evidence of wealth because it showed how many grazing animals you kept. Now, the lawn itself is enough.

Veblen is especially scathing about the value that has come to be placed on crafted rather than factory-made goods. It’s the fact of their production that gives them what he terms “honorific” or symbolic value, regardless of the quality.

“Hence has arisen that exaltation of the defective, of which John Ruskin and William Morris were such eager spokesmen in their time, and on this ground their propaganda of crudity and wasted effort has been taken up and carried forward since their time.”

Veblen was lampooning the vain attempts of the arts and crafts movement to halt the progress of mass production. Once the rich began to appropriate hand-made as desirable, the project to restore loving craftsmanship for the masses backfired: it became luxury for the few.

And there’s still an aura of luxury surrounding the very word “hand”. Restaurants abound with lavish descriptions of sautéed liver from “hand-reared” calves, “hand-cured” salmon that has been “hand-caught”, served with “hand-picked” strawberries and “hand-made” ice cream. Cachet surrounds garments that are “hand-knitted” and “hand-embroidered”, while if you can’t afford a “hand-finished” top-of-the-range Audi you can at least get your Fiesta “hand-polished”, probably by a “hand-beaten” car valet. The term has become more or less meaningless.
And that is also what is happening to that most obvious symbol of luxury, the designer logo. You no longer have to have a discerning eye or an arcane knowledge to recognise and invest in quality. The label will do that for you. Famous designer brands have become a short cut to luxury, a signifier of value, tradition, craftsmanship and excellence. The trouble is that, gradually, that guarantee has become worthless. That’s the view of Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Lustre. A cultural and fashion journalist based in Paris, Thomas takes a world tour of the luxury industry to expose just how debased it has become. What was once produced for old money, royalty and aristocracy is now, she says, a “$157 billion business that produces and sells clothes, leather goods, shoes, silk scarves and neckties, watches, jewellery, perfume and cosmetics that convey status and a pampered life.”

What has happened is that these small, rarefied cottage industries, serving a tiny, monied clientele with lovingly crafted unique pieces, has been taken over by corporate finance. Family businesses have been bought by conglomerates, floated on the stock exchange and marketed to the upwardly mobile middle classes with disposable incomes and an eagerness to acquire the trappings of luxury.

Lust for profits, claims Thomas, has collided with the very qualities that used to be the hallmark of luxury goods. To achieve those gigantic bottom lines, luxury “has sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history and hoodwinked its consumers. In order to make luxury ‘accessible’, tycoons have stripped away all that has made it special. Luxury has lost its lustre.”

In Grasse, for example, the international centre of the perfume industry, Thomas discovers how corners are being cut by the luxury houses. Concentrates are diluted, flower essences reduced in favour of chemicals, cellophane wraps and corrugated packaging are eschewed.

While it used to be perfumes that kept the fashion designers afloat, these days it’s handbags, which now make colossal profits. According to Dana Thomas, the mark-up on these goods is 10 to 13 times the cost to retail, with the average price of a designer bag around £1000. At the end of last year LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton), the world’s largest luxury goods maker, saw revenues climb nine per cent to £2.8 billion.

Dana Thomas offers a withering exposé of just how these luxury items have moved into the mass market. People buy the brand believing that they’re getting a beautiful piece that’s been hand-crafted in an Italian workshop with every thread carefully worked. In fact, these bags are more likely to have been put together on an assembly line in China, with just the handles attached in Italy.

At the same time, there’s an explosive, billion-dollar worldwide industry in counterfeits – sometimes convincing copies of designer goods, sometimes so laughably inferior that the fashion houses are able to shrug them off. But whether the goods are fakes or merely mass-produced, they’re far from the precious pieces that used to be synonymous with their sewn-in labels. They’re no longer luxuries.

Nonetheless, the passion for purchasing these branded goods persists as more and more people have access to them. And the reason, according to Veblen, is that what really gives value is the act of spending itself. He developed the notion of conspicuous consumption, where being seen to spend and to acquire is as important as what is bought.

“The need of conspicuous waste,” he writes, “stands ready to absorb any increase in the community’s industrial efficiency or output of goods, after the most elementary physical wants have been provided for.” And waste is an essential component of this activity, because what is valued has to be unnecessary. It is merely a display of the purchaser’s ability to buy.

And that has to be a key motive of that contemporary champion of conspicuous consumption Prince Jefri of Brunei, who has just been ordered to repay some £10 billion to his brother, the Sultan, who has accused him of siphoning off funds from the country’s reserves. In addition to smart hotels and houses in New York, LA and London, Prince Jefri’s possessions include a 170-foot motor yacht, two Mercedes Benz fire engines, 16,000 tons of Italian marble, rooms full of Baccarat crystal, a flight simulator, 200 Victorian wrought-iron lamp posts and a recording studio. Before they were sold at auction he owned three boxes of lavatory brushes finished in gold plate, a warehouse full of Italian chandeliers valued at £10,000 each, dozens of marble whirlpool baths and a Formula 1 racing car simulator. He also bought up Asprey in Bond Street.

Among the treasures so incontinently accumulated, the most valuable, the most coveted, are the most unusual. And this, Veblen argued, is the true definition of a luxury purchase: it must be expensive, it must be pointless, but most of all it must be rare. “Great as is the sensuous beauty of gems, their rarity and price adds an expression of distinction to them, which they would never have if they were cheap.”

So just any old cashmere won’t do. What the luxury connoisseur must seek is wool sheared from the soft underbelly of the Yangir, a rare wild mountain goat. And forget Perrier. The bar at Claridge’s stocks 30 brands of bottled water, including Berg, emanating from melted icebergs in Newfoundland and selling at £30 per litre. Caviar may be a luxury, but you must be sure to go for the eggs of the practically extinct beluga sturgeon, found only in the Caspian Sea, and traded by poachers and crooks. So you really aren’t anyone unless you’ve accessed your party canapés from a Russian smuggler.

And yet, despite the massive cachet of these recherché luxury items, there’s also an uncanny desire for uniformity among devoted followers of fashion. Why else is everyone lining up this season for Roland Mouret’s latest dress, the Moon, which costs just under £1000 and was on the Christmas list of any woman rich enough and thin enough to squeeze into it? There may still be a waiting list for Hermes’ signature Birkin bag but that’s getting a bit too common now that any Colleen or Victoria or Kate can get hold of one. What the ultra-wealthy are now after is the Lieber, a hand-made crystal evening bag shaped like a rattlesnake and retailing at a cool $4,955.

Choosing exactly the right branded item is a tribal gesture, signalling social ranking and what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu termed “cultural capital”. Property, he maintains, is a manifestation not merely of wealth but of belonging. “The dialectic of conditions and habits is the basis of an alchemy which transforms the distribution of capital, the balance-sheet of a power relation, into a system of perceived differences, distinctive properties,” he writes in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Like Veblen, he regards the pointlessness of luxury as a key to its meaning: “The ostentatious, gratuitous expense implied in the purchase of a ‘priceless’ object is the most indisputable way of showing the price one is prepared to set on things that have no price, an absolute testimony of the irreducibility of love to money which only money can buy. . . What is at stake is indeed ‘personality’, ie the quality of the person, which is affirmed in the capacity to appropriate an object of quality.”

A luxury purchase can also satisfy an aspiration to acquire a higher status, which explains the current proliferation of magazines devoted to how to achieve the looks of the rich and famous. A whole industry of stylists and fashion gurus has developed to ensure that products are placed in the right movies and on the appropriate slender frames of the famous.

Right from the Golden Age, Hollywood has always been a natural partner of fashion. When Joan Crawford wore a white gown with organdie ruffled shoulders in Letty Lynton, Macy’s sold half a million copies. Grace Kelly’s wedding dress was one of the most copied ever. These days, though, what stars wear off-screen is even more crucial.

“When Madonna wore a sapphire satin shirt and black velvet hipsters from Gucci to the MTV Awards in 1995, sales exploded,” writes Thomas. “Within days there were waiting lists in Gucci stores worldwide. After Princess Diana was photographed in 1995 carrying a Dior handbag – dubbed the Lady Dior in her honour – the company sold a hundred thousand at $1,000 apiece.”

It does seem astonishing that women will pay astronomical prices not for something original and different but to look the same as their idols. It’s another paradox of luxury that serious shoppers who endlessly seek out the exclusive are also craving conformity. Dana Thomas was particularly struck by this seeming contradiction when she visited Japan, a country where 20 per cent of all luxury goods are sold. She suggests that this passion for brand names reflects the national psyche, which prizes both wealth and conformity. “By wearing and carrying luxury goods covered with logos,” Thomas concludes, “the Japanese are able to identify themselves in socioeconomic terms as well as conform to social mores. It’s as if they are branding themselves ... the Japanese, in other words, homogenised luxury.”

But they’re not the only ones. Huge new markets for designer goods are developing in China, the Middle East, India. You can get Armani in Beijing, Dior in Dubai, Prada in Delhi. Globalisation has made luxury items so ubiquitous and often so debased that they’re just not luxury any more. The mass market offers the promise of uniqueness while peddling sameness.

But that doesn’t discredit our longing for true luxury. Seeking joy, excess, comfort, beauty in order to rise above the dull, the routine and the merely serviceable is a basic humanistic instinct. But we also need to be ourselves, to develop a style and a taste that distinguish us from others. It’s conformity, fear of being different, that is the antithesis of both luxury and humanism.

So don’t be downhearted when you crave something gorgeous and pointless. Allow yourself to dream of that white-sanded paradise, tropical palms fanning your jojoba-glistening body as you sip the finest rum with freshly-fallen pineapple before plunging into coral-shimmering seas. Wrap yourself in cashmere so soft it will slither through your diamond and sapphire wedding ring before you slip it off to slide into a hot tub foaming with orange blossom, ylannis and a hint of rosemary essence. Give in to any fantasy, any treat, any lovely thing that you know will make you smile as you face the bleak, drizzly days of yet another January. Just don’t be fooled by the label. Make it your new year resolution to cultivate your very own must-haves, free of taint, free of vulgarity: intriguingly original and reassuringly expensive.