With Liberty and Luxury for All

Some of Europe’s oldest and most prestigious purveyors of luxury goods, including Burberry, Louis Vuitton, and Prada, have since caught on to Lauren’s genius. Dana Thomas’s Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, published last fall, explores the effects of globalization and marketing on high-end fashion. She chronicles how these design houses, once admired by a small but loyal clientele for the quality of their materials and craftsmanship, came instead to capitalize on intensive marketing, celebrity cachet, and mass production (often in Asia). Their profits ballooned accordingly.

The luxury hotel industry is expanding in similar fashion. Glen noted that over the last twenty years there has been a huge increase in the number of people traveling, many of them in luxurious style. The Ritz-Carlton is adding nineteen hotels and resorts to its chain in the next three years; the Four Seasons will add seven to its existing seventy-five before the year is out.

All talk of affordable, likable, casual, and/or approachable luxury aside, there is, of course, still an ultra-elite. In fact, there’s so much wealth pooling at the top, a thickening of the crème de la crème, that the very tip-top elite has become stratified from mere multimillionaires. (And we all know a million dollars doesn’t buy nearly what it used to.) For the really rich, then, old-fashioned seclusion and segregation—from the luxury gawkers, the splurgers, those treating themselves to a $5 coffee—is still the norm. They stay at hotels we have never heard of (which are featured in magazines we don’t read). And increasing numbers of them forgo hotels altogether in favor of a new growth sector in luxury travel: residence clubs where members pa
y hundreds of thousands of dollars to join, plus the tens of thousands in annual dues. There’s no way for a middle-class interloper to splurge on this kind of travel; moreover, membership buys access to private estates, penthouses, and villas.

Yet even this market is stratifying. Now that chains like the Ritz-Carlton, the Four Seasons, and St. Regis have established luxury vacation and residence clubs, middle-market brands are edging into the game: Hyatt recently opened its version of with luxury time-share lodging in Aspen.

Maybe the real question is not whether or how luxury is democratic. Now that the masses have co-opted the word, “luxury”—like “classy” and its odious cousin, “premium”—is becoming, well, déclassé. So where do the elite go from there?

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