What is Luxury?

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Luxury consumption in the West dates back as far the time of the Romans and the Etruscans. While Rome initially eschewed lavish consumption habits, the Empire’s conquest of more pleasure-loving peoples such as the Greeks led to them absorbing some of their traditions and making peace with the art of luxury. Similarly, during the Middle Ages in Europe, luxury was frowned upon as a disruptive extravagance and laws were even drawn up to stipulate which classes of people could wear what clothes. But with the expansion of global trade and communication in the 17th century, cultural attitudes to luxury began to shift as Europe’s wealth, power and connectedness grew. France’s Versailles court played a key role in establishing the prestige and meaning of luxury at this time. And the international traffic in exquisite and luxury goods only grew with the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Into the twentieth century, the development of mass production gave a further spur to the sector. After the restrictions and dourness of the First World War, the ‘roaring twenties’ were a brave new dawn for liberated culture and consumption; it was in 1921 that couturier Coco Chanel unveiled her debut fragrance, Chanel No. 5—a luxury good still avidly sought after today. (It’s said a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is sold every 55 seconds somewhere in the world.) After the Second World War, thirty years of economic expansion in France—the so-called Trente Glorieuses—saw luxury become accessible to wider and wider swathes of the populace. Similar processes were occurring in other European countries.

Vintage Advertising Art documents a choice slice of that history of luxury consumption in the 20th century, by collecting and trading in the advertising art of the 1940s and 1950s in France. Some of the brands for whom designers and illustrators created the fine artistic productions on our website are still very well known today, including Moet & Chandon, Chanel and Rolex. These continue to be big hitters in the global marketplace—as of May 2017 Chanel has a brand value of $7.3 billion, for example. Other brands whose advertising we collect may have lost the limelight, but their memories live on in the exquisite poster art that we pride ourselves on preserving here at Vintage Advertising Art.

Indeed, luxury remains big business today. In 2016, the world luxury market grew by 3% to gross $240.47bn—true, a more modest rate than in previous years. That’s in part due to Brexit, reduced consumer spending, and terror-related disruption at key luxury shopping venues. But the market is expected to grow in 2017, in part powered by the continued spending of non-European consumers such as the Chinese, Japanese and those from BRICS countries. Thus, the sector today is a cosmopolitan beacon for European producers as emerging markets discover the value of Europe’s art of luxury.

The French shoe designer Christian Louboutin has said that ‘luxury is not consumerism’. Indeed, though luxury has become increasingly mass market over the years, what truly defines it is its uniqueness and exclusivity, not any kind of uniformity and reproducibility. Luxury is about craft, attention, intimacy, tradition, history, care, design, and artistry. It is these things which the original family-owned houses of luxury brands—like the fashion house Hermes and the perfume house Guerlain—prided themselves on. Vintage Advertising Art hopes to preserve that exquisite uniqueness for posterity.

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