A deep look at how luxury survived the pandemic
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What becomes of luxury in a global pandemic? Is the pursuit of luxury incompatible with our drastically changed lives under covid? Luxury can be so external, and life lately feels so internal. A big part of luxury is theater: the couture gown that dazzles the crowd, the splendid car gliding past onlookers, the Instagrammed vacation. The admiration, desire or even envy of others creates part of luxury's allure.
Luxury, that is, can be a group sport, involving participation of an audience that recognizes and assesses distinctions of quality or exclusivity. The playing field for this sport is rarely level, since distinctions among things lead to distinctions - and divisions - among people, enforcing hierarchies of wealth or privilege, taste or knowledge. Luxury is a social communication circuit, a language with meanings agreed upon and upheld by a collective. This is how luxury signals work.
The pandemic scrambled these signals. It isolated us physically, reducing opportunities for "performing" our luxuries. Travel was shut down or severely curtailed, as were many parties, openings, galas and all other occasions for gathering and display. Without social interaction, is luxury doomed?
Not at all, it turns out. In fact, luxury sales overall have risen during the pandemic, as the wealthiest have grown wealthier, and even the less-than-billionaire class, having been stuck at home, has accumulated more cash to spend and more time to spend it.
In the process, the quest for luxury has simply expanded - encompassing not only a surging market in some traditional luxury items but also more inward-focused versions of luxury, plus novel digital methods of projecting luxury theater that are pandemic-safe. Far from disappearing, luxury has proved more central to our culture than ever. Like a river diverted by rocks, it has simply sought other paths.
The word "luxury" finds its roots in two Latin terms: "luxus," which means sumptuousness and excess, and "luxuria," which denotes offensiveness in a moral, even carnal sense. In Elizabethan English, "luxury" referred to lechery or adulterousness. (In "Much Ado About Nothing," Claudio impugns Hero's sexual chastity, claiming: "She knows the heat of a luxurious bed.")
While we may no longer think of the pursuit of luxury as a moral or sexual vice, it remains tied to our sense of bodily, or at least sensorial, delectation. And given that covid is a physical illness, it has necessarily altered the relationship between luxury and our bodies.
The pandemic has made personal health a topic of constant anxiety and conversation. Of course, access to the finest doctors and treatments constitutes significant privilege, but health luxury extends beyond the medical. Maintaining a high level of personal fitness - a perfectly Pilatified figure, for example - has long been a sign of privilege. And in a pandemic, fitness means more.
With disease all around us, a fit body feels like symbolic armor, an escape route, protection from illness or even mortality. As Italian theorist Patrizia Calefato writes in her book "Luxury: Fashion, Lifestyle and Excess," "luxury ... challenges the idea of death itself." And that challenge, that protection, can be pricey. Or as Leslie Ghize, executive vice president of the forecasting firm Tobe TDG, puts it: "Wellness is a luxury . . . the luxury of keeping yourself in good condition." (Ghize is a member of the board of governors at Parsons School of Design, where I am the dean of the School of Art and Design History and Theory.)
As affluent fitness and health buffs abandoned expensive group classes, gyms and private trainers (the industry lost $13.9 billion in the second half of 2020), equally upscale alternatives gained popularity. In the first seven months of the pandemic, sales revenue of home fitness equipment more than doubled, reaching over $2.3 billion.
Even the humblest workout accessories can metamorphose into luxuries: For about $3,000, fashionistas can tone up with Louis Vuitton hand weights - crafted of lustrous metal and engraved with the LV logo. Yves Saint Laurent dumbbells, in hand-cut black marble, are a relative bargain at $2,000. All are attractive enough to double as home decor when you're done with your reps.
In the realm of home exercise, "connected fitness" took off during the pandemic. Equipment-plus-digital-subscription systems such as Peloton (with a $32 billion market capitalization) and Mirror (bought by Lululemon for $500 million in 2020) have attracted huge followings. With these, the luxury consists not only in acquiring gym-quality machines (costing thousands) but in gaining access to premium online classes and instructors (for additional fees). While virtual fitness predates covid, sales in this sector skyrocketed last year. (Peloton's stock rose 440 percent during 2020, though it has lost ground lately.)
The allure of the virtual fitness space has proved enduring enough to entice even Christian Dior to plan a line of digital fitness devices, Dior Vibe, created in a collaboration between creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri and the Italian high-end fitness equipment company Technogym. So now instead of wearing Dior, couture lovers can run on wired-in Dior treadmills (and then maybe imagine their own bodies being, in a sense, "designed" by Dior).
Digital systems like these promote bodily fitness without the presence of other bodies, dematerializing the experience and removing its physical risk. Trainers, classmates and even the gym itself are reduced to pixels. And so, even as you focus on your flesh-and-blood body, you enter an alternative space - fleeing the covid-riddled ordinary world. This too is a kind of luxury, one rooted in escapism.
Hydra Studios, a gym with two branches in Manhattan and others to come in Miami and Los Angeles, takes escapism to another level. Founded in 2020 by former Wall Street professionals Marie Kloor and Dan Nielsen, Hydra specializes in what you might call "personal, dematerialized" fitness. For a monthly fee, members can reserve private fitness studios, small to midsize rooms cordoned off by heavy curtains. These miniature gyms accommodate just one person at a time. Each contains a digitally connected cardio device such as a Technogym bike, Hydrow rower or "smart" mirror, along with iPads synced to the machines that provide virtual options - group classes or digital landscapes - to help structure your workout.
Hydra's neutral, modernist decor feels soothing, even anesthetizing. The hushed corridor of drawn white curtains makes it hard to tell if anyone else is around. The effect is disorienting: You're at the gym, but you're not. Among other people, or maybe not. You're cycling or rowing through imaginary vistas (The Caribbean! The Alps!), but really sitting indoors, in a space the size of a small bedroom.
Maybe this is how we "do" luxury in a pandemic: attending to our bodies while simultaneously escaping, even transcending, them. For some, the isolation of gyms like Hydra can be a kind of alternative luxury. Kloor reports that some members find they love working out in total solitude because it frees them from worrying about how they look. Sometimes, it seems, luxury lies in the absence of display.
Luxurious - and digital - paths toward spiritual fitness have attracted many new followers during the pandemic. Like virtual physical fitness, virtual spiritual fitness offers the promise of escape, a liberation from the constraints of lockdowns, isolations and even the body itself. Spiritual wellness opens a metaphysical window in an otherwise confined world.
Aree Khodai is a pioneer in this space. As a "spiritual concierge," she curates private experiences of transcendence for the residents of luxury apartments. Like Hydra's founders, Khodai is a former Wall Street executive who left the grind of high finance for high wellness. After training as a yoga instructor and leading groups on self-discovery expeditions, including ayahuasca retreats, Khodai joined forces with the Society Group, a luxury real estate public relations company based in Los Angeles. Lately, the Society Group has been promoting residential amenities geared toward spiritual fitness - building perks such as meditation rooms lined with pink Himalayan salt (reputed to have air-purifying powers).
"Mid-covid, people are looking for other solutions" to enhance their well-being, says Alexander Ali, CEO of the Society Group. "Wellness has progressed beyond fitness." At the Maverick, a luxury condo building scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2022 in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood, and at the Park, a luxury rental complex coming soon to Santa Monica, spiritual concierges will confer with residents about their spiritual goals and hook them up with practitioners offering services such as in-home sound baths, apartment blessings or "full moon intention ceremonies." Consultations, as well as many of the healing rituals themselves, will take place on Zoom. Khodai, who will consult with residents at the Park, will be a "spiritual guide on speed dial," as Ali puts it, offering luxury spirituality tailor-made for the pandemic: accessible via laptop or smartphone.
The advent of "spiritual concierges" makes clear that luxury has mutated but not completely transformed under covid. In the Before Times, a hotel concierge would enhance your luxury travel experience by granting you access - to a sold-out play, perhaps, or a hot new restaurant. Today, a spiritual concierge also grants you access, but to pandemic-proof pleasures that are more metaphysical than physical, enhancing travel that occurs not over land or sea, but inwardly, in the realms of soul and spirit - without leaving your apartment.
Despite the solitary nature of the healings Khodai arranges, she stresses that her work enhances human connectivity. "Each person is a little pebble," she says. "Their healing is affecting their friends and family." Perhaps such "contagious healing" offers the perfect luxury antidote to a time of contagious illness.
Given that the pandemic has sent many of us on a quest for bodily and spiritual comfort, it's unsurprising that fashion too has changed. With the near-total shutdown of work and social life, fashion took a tremendous hit, yet its role in our lives remains too vital for it to disappear entirely. More than a necessity or even a luxury, fashion is our most intimate residence - our body's enveloping, sartorial home. And home means more now than ever.
Fashion, accordingly, has forged homier new paths, notably through the rise of "luxury comfort": clothes emphasizing bodily wellness benefits - sensuous pleasure and physical ease, to be enjoyed more privately than publicly. "High-end comfort wear is super desirable," says luxury expert Pauline Garris Brown, former chairman of European conglomerate LVMH North America and author of "Aesthetic Intelligence."
Luxury comfort fashion comes in soft fabrics and forgiving shapes, featuring hidden elastic waistbands or more flowing cuts. It skims and caresses the body, freeing the wearer from discomfort and assuaging what's been called "skin hunger," the craving for physical touch brought on by pandemic isolation. It's caftans by Jason Wu or floaty, prairie-style dresses by Anna Sui. It's voluminous pants by Fendi or Stella McCartney; the easy, oversize drape of Peter Do's fall collection. It's athleisure - a continuing megatrend - such as the Luxe Leisure line by Reiss, puffer jackets from Gucci's collaboration with North Face or chic tracksuits from Pyer Moss.
And above - or rather, below - it all are the breakout luxury shoes of the pandemic, whose levels of popularity now exceed anything they garnered beforehand: the cushy, pillowy, ungainly sneakers and sandals that have toppled sleek stilettos from the shelves. Gucci, Prada, Balenciaga, Chanel and Louis Vuitton all now sell rubber-platformed athletic shoes for women - in fuchsia or electric blue, embellished with crystals, flowers or couture logos - at prices that can reach $2,000. The Sculpt, the super-sleek, $600 sneaker designed by Kerby Jean-Raymond for Pyer Moss, looks like a miniature racecar. Even clunky Crocs have grabbed the limelight, showing up painted gold on Questlove or emblazoned with the Union Jack on Helen Mirren, not to mention on the feet of the Duchess of Cambridge, Ariana Grande and Drew Barrymore, among many others. (Crocs has been partnering with Balenciaga for several years now, and recent versions of their jointly created clogs start at about $650.) Couture sneakers exist for men too, including Virgil Abloh's fabulous co-creations between Louis Vuitton and Nike, but pain-free shoes are hardly new for men.
Beyond their prestige labels, "ugly" fashion shoes offer women the luxury of speed and movement, lending energetic bounce to their stride, which is especially welcome in otherwise physically hindered times. And after such foot-freedom, will we ever again submit to the tortures of yore? For Jaine Mehring, a high-finance professional who appreciates fine fashion, the answer seems clear: "I really do have a stunning collection of Louboutins and Manolo Blahniks," she says. But the thought of wearing "high heels now almost makes me anxious." Garris Brown concurs: "I'll be damned if I put those [high-end stilettoes] on my feet. I can feel pain before putting them on."
Some of the most intriguing developments in luxury are taking place in recent collaborations among online gaming, high-end fashion, art and the NFT market. When the pandemic forced Balenciaga to shut down its runway shows in 2020, for example, the company wound up releasing its entire collection as a video game called "Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow." In fall 2021, it teamed with Fortnite to create a Balenciaga-designed immersive world online, complete with entirely virtual couture available for purchase and use in the game.
This fashion exists only digitally, yet it is bought with real money and "worn" - albeit by the game characters. It's a form of virtual luxury escape that both transcends the body and grants a new version of that most bodily of pleasures: fashion. Dressing avatars in high-end couture, gamers experience a meta-version of the Before Times luxury of sartorial display. Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry and other haute brands have also created digital games, which have soared in popularity throughout the pandemic.
These games and the social media buzz they generate are alluring gateways into high luxury for the next generation of consumers. "Social media and the gaming world . . . have been especially active for the luxury space," says Jelani Day, executive vice president of Dapper Dan of Harlem (and the designer's son). "Social media platforms and gaming communities [are] two of the biggest proverbial rooms that a luxury consumer can set foot in [and] are . . . driven by youth culture and younger consumers."
Fashion is far from the only luxury good to go virtual. With the ever-expanding world of NFTs - non-fungible tokens - even art, that most tangible and three-dimensional of commodities, can now live an entirely digital life. NFT artworks, which are unique and exist only online, are now bought and sold exactly like "real" art. Almost anything can exist in NFT form - parcels of land, fashion, real estate - but NFT art is attaining stratospheric levels of both popularity and monetary value, with prices reaching into the multimillions. In March, an NFT video by the digital artist Mike Winkelmann, a.k.a. "Beeple," sold at Christie's for $69 million. Before October 2020, the priciest artwork Beeple had ever sold was a $100 print. According to the auction house, Beeple now ranks "among the top three most valuable living artists."
NFTs take the idea of luxury theater to a new level. As author and New York University business professor Scott Galloway told me, "I can buy a Picasso, but the value is only visible to the people I invite into my home. I can alternatively buy a crypto-punk NFT, whose value is verified on a decentralized ledger, and make it my Twitter profile picture to display to the thousands of users in my network. It's still luxury, just scaled."
Along with all these shifts has come a hopeful development: a heightened awareness of luxury's - particularly fashion's - most significant failings, especially the rampant racial inequities of the industry, as well as the environmental damage caused by the entire luxury sector.
"Luxury has had to evolve with the customers' changed preferences and demands," says Abrima Erwiah, the co-founder of Studio One Eighty Nine, which promotes African and African-inspired fashion, and inaugural director of the Gromek Institute for Fashion Business at Parsons. "We have seen more brands develop programs around DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion]. We have seen many industry shifts." Erwiah cites the Black in Fashion Council, which emerged at the start of the pandemic and promotes the advancement of Black people at all levels across the industry. She also notes the significant presence of designers of color such as Abloh and Telfar Clemens. To that list we could add, among many other names, Edvin Thompson, Sergio Hudson and Aurora James (the founder of Brother Vellies, which focuses on sustainable luxury goods).
Faced with covid's sobering reminder of our deep planetary interconnectedness, many luxury creators refocused their attention on the urgency of reducing the industry's deleterious impact on the environment. Examples abound: Japanese luxury giant Takashimaya announced a massive fashion collection made from upcycled materials. Gucci launched its first sustainability collection, Off the Grid. And François-Henri Pinault, CEO of the Kering luxury group, announced a ban on fur across all his brands.
For many, luxury is now inextricable from social and environmental awareness: "There shouldn't be a trade-off between what is luxurious and what is kind," remarks Garris Brown, meaning kindness to both people and the Earth. Or as veteran luxury goods designer Mariza Scotch says, "The pandemic brought some key facts about our future into stark focus. . . . There was no way not to see the effects of continuing to live as we had." For Scotch, "when we touch materials that are lovingly assembled, nurtured by the Earth and people, that's something we can feel."
Some traditional items - fine watches, jewelry and classic, exclusive handbags such as the Hermès Birkin - have seen strong sales throughout the pandemic. "Classic, well-made pieces are more desirable now," says Leslie Ghize of Tobe TDG. It might appear, on the surface, that these items, often called "hard luxuries," should have lost their luster in an era when traditional luxury theater is in decline. But it turns out that such objects hold a deep attraction far beyond their display value.
Given the pandemic's continual reminder of life's impermanence, possessions that feel solid and long-lasting can provide a kind of talismanic comfort - another way to challenge mortality. As Garris Brown says, "Real luxury lasts forever." Hard luxuries bespeak a connection to history and tend to remain in families for generations. And the most iconic brands in this sector boast deep roots in the past, enhancing this sense of legacy and longevity - companies such as Rolex (founded in 1905), Cartier (1847) and Patek Philippe (1839).
All of this might explain the recent "great Rolex shortage" - a startling scarcity that left dealers' vitrines empty and passionate collectors bereft. In September, Rolex explained the phenomenon this way: "Our current production cannot meet the existing demand . . . without reducing the quality of our watches - something we refuse to do."
If all of this - the reassertion of older forms of luxury alongside the invention of new ones; the growing intersection of luxury with health, exercise, spirituality and digital life - makes your head spin, you're not alone. The pandemic has shifted cultural bedrock, upending fundamental assumptions about value, pleasure, bodies, communication, freedom and even what constitutes ownership of a "thing" or traveling to a "place."
Yet perhaps the most dramatic broadening of luxury has taken place around the matter of time. When asked for their most valued luxury now, many people I interviewed for this article cited time first. It's fair to say that the pandemic has altered our sense of time. It's forced all of us to take stock of the brevity of our lives.
For many of us, time has seemed to warp, passing at once more swiftly and agonizingly slowly. Even odder still, we now realize that the pandemic itself will likely not have a distinct endpoint. There will be no day when we celebrate the struggle's conclusion. Instead, the experts tell us, the coronavirus will gradually become endemic rather than pandemic, hovering over us like a shadow.
Covid, that is, disorients us in time, just as it disoriented us in space. We have addressed that spatial disorientation with virtual experiences of multiple kinds. Addressing temporal disorientation feels far harder: We can neither simulate nor escape time.
For this reason, time itself may turn out to be the ultimate luxury to emerge from the pandemic. To have enough time, to appreciate it fully, and to feel less troubled by its odd, telescoping and protracting nature - this might well prove the rarest and most sought-after of privileges.
THE WASHINGTON POST