I will never forget the first time someone asked me the question (it was circa 1990). My husband and I had just arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, and we ran into a fellow Harvard Law School grad. After the usual air kisses and humble brags about work, she asked when we had arrived on the island. And where we were staying. Then came “The Question”: Do you rent or own?
Fast forward 25 years, and the tech world has given us the sharing economy. For most people it seems to be working out rather well. Uber and Airbnb are thriving, the drivers and the hosts are making extra money, and the customers are generally satisfied.
But one of the core elements of old-school luxury is exclusivity, bespoke products and services. It’s about an audience of one, and keeping “other people” out. So does the sharing economy actually penetrate through to the luxury sector? Or is there a rope line? And if sharing is the new luxury, then what’s a snob to do?
Interestingly, both Uber and Airbnb already have a slice of the luxury pie. Beyonce rented a $10,000/night crash pad for the Super Bowl this year on Airbnb (in turn, you can rent Beyonce’s house in the Hamptons for $1 million per month, if you have the scratch). Uber Black is the car service’s higher-end offering, and Uber is also branching into limos, helicopters and private jets as part of its portfolio. The private jet service BlackJet failed earlier this year, despite backing from an Uber co-founder and several A-list celebrities. But there’s still JetSmarter, and the Uber brand and infrastructure may succeed here when others have fallen short.
Not to be left behind, BMW is getting in on the act by starting its own luxury version of Uber.
On the designer apparel and accessories front, Rent-the-Runway and others have carved out a business in the sharing economy, allowing you to wear a $1,300 dress for the night and then return it, at a cost of $200. Or you could rent a $1,000 Oscar de la Renta necklace for $150. Eleven James just launched a similar service, but for luxury watches. Meeting your partner’s family for the first time and need to “borrow” a Rolex or a Patek Phillipe? Going to Capri and in need of a rented Breitling to match your Vilebrequin swim trunks? They’ve got you covered.
My question is whether these luxury shared offerings are being consumed by wealthy people, or whether they are essentially aspirational “reach” products for the upper middle class. As a general rule, highly wealthy people value control, privacy, and genuine exclusivity. If too many other people are doing it, then it’s not luxury.
On the other hand, this could be another of those pesky generational issues where the young ones are onto something. A millennial friend reminds me that flexibility and novelty are also important tenets of luxury. Why buy a Rolex, when instead you can rent a different gorgeous watch for every day of the week? Why buy a house in St. Bart’s when you can rent a different one somewhere new in the world every time you go on holiday? I have actually heard millennials (rich ones) say that their goal is to never own anything! This makes me shudder. I am clearly fossilizing right before your very eyes.
The arguments about shared luxury that resonate a bit more with an ancient person like me are: first, you can try-before-you buy with these luxury sharing services. Consider it like a test drive, so you can decide which dream watch, or beachfront home, or evening gown is right for you. Second, Eleven James cleverly has a rent-to-own option – so if you are dreaming of an IWC watch, you can basically get it on lay-away. What could be more old-school than that? And finally, these new services are a way of breaking down the barriers to experiencing something very special and rare. Objects and experiences that were once the province of the ultra-wealthy (some of whom worked hard for their wealth, and some of whom didn’t) are now more accessible to all, thanks to shared ownership and club models. More luxury for more people! This can only be a positive step forward.
So what do you think? Is snobbery just so 1990? Some would say that if you can truly afford a $50,000 watch, or $500,000 diamond earrings, it’s a fair bet that you will never rent them. But they could be wrong.
I do wonder, though: is the trend toward more personalization in luxury goods a direct result of more sharing amongst the hoi polloi?
If your Goyard bag has your initials on it, then we know that you definitely own, not rent.