It's 10 a.m. in New York. On 5th Avenue, a head-to-toe, fully Hermes-clothed, very chic young woman strolls, ever so hastily, through the entrance of Cartier's palatial flagship boutique. Our lady is scheduled for a one of a kind private sale appointment. Her limited edition Cartier Crash wristwatch in pink gold with primrose quadrant just arrived at the shop. This quasi divine, status signalling timepiece has been on her mind for months. She is desperate to see it on her wrist, feel the ostrich leather gracefully wrapping her faintly tanned skin, whilst a small legion of impeccably trained sales clerks validate her catastrophically expensive choice with a kind nod and a cheeky smile.
On the other side of the pond, in London, it's 3 p.m. A leisurely double-breasted gentleman, impeccably tailored in light blue vicugna by Anderson & Shepherd and sporting Edward Green dark brown footwear, enters the Ferrari showroom on Berkeley Square. He is one of the loyal Ferraristi waiting to receive delivery of their brand new Purosangue V12 SUV - "Good luck, old boy!" some of you keen petrolheads might already think. But it so happens that our impossibly well dressed gentleman's car collection already accounts for a La Ferrari, one Enzo, one SP2 and a 1963 California Spyder - all in Nero Daytona (at times, chromatic consistency appears to be essential). I'll make it easier for you: he won't wait long for his new Ferrari to be delivered. He does belong to a rarefied club of deities inhabiting Mount Maranello. His new "baby", made of fine Italian leather, carbon fibre and black sprayed steel, is due for delivery in a week - he promptly ears after making his entrance, preceded by an allotment of greetings so reverential as to almost inspire allegiance to the Scuderia flag - tough life in heaven...
What do these two supremely well-cashed characters have in common? Perhaps just what we may define as a cumbersome relationship with time, physical possessions and money. However, after a closer examination, our lady may simply long to delight her eyes as she looks at time, elapsing against the fine golden backdrop of a soothingly irregular frame gently apposed on her wrist. In contrast, Mr Purosangue may simply aim at enjoying efficient weekend commutes between Holland Park and the Cotwalds, stylishly speeding on his new four-wheel-drive beast - ok, sorry, I can hear your BS detector going bananas there.
They say that even a broken clock marks the right time twice a day. A simple Casio can do the trick just fine - plus, anyone can benefit from having a calculator on their wrist to solve rather testy arithmetic. Equally, an automobile manufactured by Dacia (yes, it is also a car brand, not only a geographic region) will get you (most of the time) from point A to point B. So why all this fuss? Well, Casio and Dacia belong to that category economists call inferior goods. Conversely, Ferrari and Cartier are pure luxury products. Inferior products are called such because they are consumed only if no other option is available, and their demand decreases as disposable cash piles up. On the contrary, pure luxury products are in incremental demand as disposable cash in the bank is unloadable. Win the lottery, and you'll likely forget about the Dacias and Casios of this world in favour of other car alternatives, such as those having dancing horses and raging bulls on their bonnets.
Sociologically, luxury products mainly exist for two reasons: first, to provide a seemingly purchasable fast-track on the lengthy and perilous path towards social acceptance and validation. Secondly, to celebrate beauty in all its forms (thirdly, because if one can why not?!). So it has been since the dawn of time. "The Song Remains The Same", and not because Led Zeppelin say so but because the tuning of our social customs has NOT evolved much through millennia.
Let us momentarily overlook any moral conundrum we may want to grapple with. Let us not finger-point and instead analyse behavioural patterns with an open mind, like a Livingstone observing a group of primates in the thick of the African jungle - remember, we all come from the same jungle, and no… this is a fact, not cultural appropriation. Humans can colonise Mars, but we can't escape our subconscious. We may come to terms with our minds and break bread at Cipriani while sipping Bellinis with our pinkies raised at an upright angle like conquest flags pinned on the summit of the tallest mountain man has ever climbed (quite possibly rising on planet Mars). Yet, sooner or later, the mind will retaliate against us. Humans and their brains are like two branches of the same native tribe engaged in a never ending fratricidal battle.
My fascination with luxury and aesthetics started for no reason other than I wasn't given a choice. First, I am Italian. That is a dooming fate in of itself: I couldn't but involve myself with luxury stuff given my origin. Secondly, I grew up in a city cradling beauty in most of its forms: Florence. There, one's eye is constantly spoiled (or trained) with and by beauty, just like a language model à là Chat GPT. Indeed, Florentines are continuously encoded with aesthetic languages, generating a relentless proclivity towards beauty. Think about some Stockholm Syndrome where your kidnapper is Monica Bellucci. Then you'll understand where the inspiration generating the likes of Gucci, Ferragamo, Pucci, Cavalli, Panerai and many others came from - all made in Firenze.
What does luxury have in common with all this raving and ranting about beauty? In essence, the same intuition behind its very place in our society. Like a beautiful painting or building, luxury aims to sedate a sense of incompleteness in our lives. Hey, hold on! Compose yourself. I promise there's no Kafkaian filibuster à là Camus on the meaninglessness of life about to come your way. What I mean by incompleteness is that just like art allegorically attempts to scream at the quiet desperations of our existence by displaying beauty and sparking emotions, luxury attempts to do something very similar. However, luxury differs in that it does so in a wearable and more consumable fashion.
According to Dostoevsky's Prince Miskin in The Idiot: "Beauty will save the world", and luxury often radiates a great deal of beauty. However, beauty itself is not necessarily the most popular form of currency in the upper echelon of our society. When it comes to luxury, beauty has different layers, and one in particular is status. If one seeks essential beauty, one should look no further than most natural landscapes. Conversely, we enter luxury territory when beauty elevates our position in society and among our peers. Luxury is nothing other than the elevator we prefer to a progressive free climb to reach the summit of the pyramid of human needs. I want, therefore, I am - that is a holy dogma in modern society. Yet such belief often moulds into a tabu. We cannot admit to ourselves and our peers that we are so (self-judgementally) superficial. Thereby (if we can afford them), we all end up having luxury beliefs just as much as we do luxury goods (Rob Henderson's interviews on YouTube share more insights on luxury beliefs).
Both luxury goods and luxury beliefs signal one's status. However, the main difference is that one doesn't need to spend much cash to acquire immaterial beliefs. Yet, ironically, it seems recurrent that those who flaunt luxury beliefs are also quite loaded, for sufficient cash provides a margin of safety from the negative consequences of one's beliefs. It is basically a form of moral hazard. Think about someone born with the most oversized silver spoon up their lower backside. A person so keen to jet set around the world at any given occasion yet regularly entangled in chanting away how global warming is humanity's greatest challenge - indeed, hardly anyone invited to the COP26 climate summit flew commercial. One can be pro-transgender rights at dinner parties and quickly change sidewalks when encountering an actual trans on the street. Someone can be pro-freedom of speech but then think that all Republicans are idiots or that the Labour Party welcomes only corrupt Marxists. Or perhaps a self-professed aminal rights supporter who can't say no to a new pair of Loro Piana suede shoes. In summary, someone may be pro anything morally elevating when, in reality, one may be utterly wretched. Again no finger-pointing, but good god, how much less virtue-signalling crap we could save to our eyes and ears.
Where the cynic might say that the reason luxuries are so in demand (and will never fade) is that only a tiny percentage of us all have the guts to stare into the vast void inside ourselves, the optimist may dispute by saying that we all instinctively yearn for beauty, which is the very natural language of our higher selves. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. Dante said that "beauty awakens the soul to act". I believe he was right.