This essay was contributed by our Luminary Dr. Laura Nash.
I’m standing in front of the windows at Bergdorf’s and I’m transported. I do this every time I can when in New York. Inside, I have a lively exchange with a salesperson about the price of the most fantastic silk brocade coat I’ve ever seen (let’s be fair, no names). I look around and notice a woman angrily snatching at a dress on the rack, frowning and comparing it rather unfavorably to her great grandmother’s couture dress. Another is checking for size 0s and exuding body anxiety. A third woman with an edgy sequin T-shirt, sky blue hair, and a “strictly business” arrogance is clearly shopping as her boss’s surrogate abusive consumer. What is their problem? The whole place is GORGEOUS! Can’t say it isn’t luxurious. So why aren’t more customers and salespeople having a yumilicious time?
Luxury has a powerful appeal and yet is capable of such disappointment. I wondered why the quest for a luxury item or experience sours so easily. As a middling-savvy consumer, passionate lover of fine art, music, fashion, and literature, and an experienced business educator and former philologist, I couldn’t resist exploring the question. As I thought about the times luxury has either transported or deflated me, and about the grotesque ways in which some people experience luxury, I realized it’s actually a very complicated phenomenon—you want to go about the luxury quest properly prepared, or your time and dough will not only be wasted, they may buy you unhappiness!
What is luxury anyway? While different people on different wealth scales will put very different prices on what qualifies as a luxury item, behind their choices are a fairly commonly shared set of attributes: “expensive (for me or my peers),” well crafted, pleasurable to the senses. The higher your bracket, the better the words become: bespoke, exclusive, unique, hand-tooled. Well-chosen words are a terrific luxury in themselves, as good as precisely-fitted joinery on an antique bit of cabinetry. “Haute” has yet to be ruined, and one of my current favorite luxury terms is Haute Horlogerie.
The majority of people say time is a bigger luxury to them than things, but it almost begs the question…time to do what? Obvious. To put aside the hum-drum email checking, the calendar, and the drudge catchups. Luxury to follow one’s whim, steep in the bath, take a deep dive into a museum, get a manicure where a wow choice of color is already determined. Stress free? Maybe not totally, but the power driving the appeal of luxury is very much about release.
Even if the object is ultimately functional and highly crafted, many luxury goods makers understand the importance of release through designs that include fantasy. Things that appeal to all five senses also help. As in a whiff of a great perfume from an un-stoppered bottle. It takes over your senses. I am a sucker for beautiful fabric, color and design, but also a bargain hunter after a lifetime of designer markdowns in the original Filene’s basement in Boston. If you add in softness of touch to a good design (I’m thinking really luxe silk cashmere in a style that doesn’t make me look like Bibendum, the Michelin Man), it gets my “mmmmmmm” and my dough.
The time lovers are right though, luxury is not just a thing, it’s an experience. But things still count because they help create the luxury experience. A Saturday morning in bed with the weekend Financial Times and Mr. Nash bringing coffee is not expensive but it is luxury. Fine china and a bedroom decorated by a London interior designer from whom we used to rent a flat would make it truly luxurious for me.
Of course, David Tang in the FT might not be YOUR go-to luxury read. Or spending an afternoon looking at William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones creations in the upper back recesses of the V&A in bespoke shoes. Luxury is personal. For some it’s the day of total pampering in a perfectly appointed spa; or titanium and Kevlar fittings on the summer yacht. I could go on. Luxury travel is not totally about upscale hotels and private jets but also about a “well-curated experience” that releases stress and allows you to soar: you may find it the greatest luxury to get filthy with dust and scared to death in awe of lion close-ups, but a choice pair of sunglasses and luxury itinerary, lodging and dining can enhance the experience by providing temporary release from the discomfort. If you are open to the contrast.
The key here is to recognize the power of luxury to transport you and others, and to cultivate your own ability to access that power. Know what you are looking for, because it’s easy to get side-tracked. The securing of luxury may be driven partially to establish your status, for whatever reasons, and to a degree that works! But you may lose out on the real power of luxury, which is personal transformation, an opening of your heart. We know from brain scans that happiness fires neurons in a different area of the brain than rational executive functions like determining whether something is “worth it” or who wins (also fun but different). Compare and contrast: which luxury experience do you find more powerful in your life: the one where you best everyone for the moment only to find that someone else has bested you in a cycle of “Never Enough,” or the “mmmm” moment that touches on your own deep understanding of beauty in all its forms? The best way to approach luxury is to cultivate your values, your aesthetics, develop your sense of harmony and balance. Listen to others for education, but in the end this is yours to experience.
Luxury is primarily in the happiness (pleasures active and passive) realm: lack of ego, immediate pleasure, fading effect. You have to let it go and then return to it again.
Don’t give ego a license to ruin the effort. It’s not about a stamp from others that “I deserve it;” or a sign of impeccably superior judgement. About ten years ago I wrote what I hoped would be a timeless book called “Just Enough” with my colleague and co-author Howard Stevenson from Harvard Business School. We studied leaders who were able to thrive rather than fail on their success, experiencing four very different emotional satisfactions along the way: achievement, happiness, significance to others, and legacy. Our point was, these satisfactions are not interchangeable; they require different approaches, time frames, and emotional processes. Managing the mix requires emotional versatility and choice: you have to be able at times to put three down and focus on one. Very few experiences blend all four.
My children’s school taught the kids to ask “is this a competitive game or a cooperative one?” You need to know the difference in order to appreciate luxury and garner its satisfactions. You should come away from a luxury purchase or experience with an arc of emotions starting with surprise and release and ending with renewed, creative and peaceful enthusiasm. Much like a long laugh at a good joke or a piece of music that moves you to tears. Be brave, let go. Choose creatively and let luxury take its course.
Laura Nash, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of Piper Cove Asset Management, which manages a hedge fund based in Cambridge, MA. She has been an educator and writer in business ethics and management for many years, and is the co-author of “Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life.” Her nonprofit passions center on public gardens and conservation, especially in her role on the board of directors of Mount Auburn Cemetery.