Let us go back to Darwin: one could compare the world of luxury until the
turn of the 20th century to the animal population of a large island, long
isolated from the rest of the world (as South America once was, or as
Madagascar and Tasmania are today), and on which a varied and totally original fauna has developed in a specific ecosystem.
One fine day, due to continental drift or falling sea levels, a spit of land joins
this island to the continent; suddenly, the fauna on this island find that they
have all this vast space into which to expand, but at the same time have to
compete with much larger fauna that have adapted to their own ecosystem. In
what way do the new fauna need to evolve in order to conquer new territory?
Which species are going to disappear, and why? Is hybridization going to lead
to the appearance of successful new species?
Let us pursue the analogy: since the dawn of humanity right up to the turn
of the 19th century, the world of luxury has been virtually totally isolated
from the rest of the economy, its pleasures and delights reserved for a very
small elite; practically the entire population were living in a subsistence
economy, firmly rooted in their rural environment or living a life of misery in
towns and cities, without any access to culture. So this world of luxury, with its
10 Back to luxury fundamentals
own economic rules, has gradually developed and, over the centuries,
acquired a truly idiosyncratic character.
From the 20th century onward, this world of luxury gradually ceases to be a
world apart. An ever-growing slice of the population is beginning to have access
to it, partially at least: an ever-widening spit of land now connects Luxury Island
to the continent of the industrial and consumer society. Luxury can now set out
to conquer the world, but at the same time it must overcome fierce competition
from industrial products and their sophisticated marketing. It is equally true to
say that luxury has to set out to conquer the world as it cannot remain holed up
on its small island, otherwise it would disappear, as almost all the endemic South
American species have disappeared, failing to adapt to the new situation that
resulted from the joining of North America with South America, or as the
Australian marsupial fauna are in the process of disappearing following the
arrival of the Europeans accompanied by placental mammals.
As it sets out to conquer the world, even though its idiosyncratic nature does
not at first really prepare it for such a venture, and even though it has to overcome some powerful adversaries along the way, luxury does hold some major
trump cards, with many drivers of social and economic change taking place in
the second half of the 20th century working in its favor.
The drivers of change
The two fundamental sociological trump cards that luxury have today are, of
course, female emancipation (though there has always been a market for luxuries among the rich societies, even in those as unfeminist as the Ottoman
Empire) and world peace (however theoretical, but nevertheless publicly
proclaimed). These two aces in the hole were boosted in the 20th century by
four new and powerful drivers, and in order to understand what is happening
today and be able to come up with practical strategies for luxury it is vital to
have a detailed understanding of how they work.