Gilles Lipovetsky is an esteemed French sociologist and essayist, who often writes on the subject of high fashion and luxury. Particularly on the role of luxury and the luxurious as a product, a social mechanism, and in it's relationship with the artistic. This interview was conducted in 2003 to coincide with the release of his work Le Luxe éternel.
PIERRE-HENRI TAVOILLOT : Why should we bother to consider the idea of luxury? Nothing seems more futile and insignificant, especially in such dramatic times.
GILLES LIPOVETSKY : Man is not made only of deep and serious aspirations! And modern man cannot be reduced to an obsession with efficiency. There is also superfluity, dream, excess, frivolity, beauty. The Greeks, then the eighteenth-century philosophers, considered that it was essential to reflect on this dimension of infinite desire. I believe it valuable too. In addition, the current interpretations of the phenomenon have moved very little: the time has come to "reoxygenate" this type of interrogation. It's true that it may seem insignificant, even indecent. La Bruyère already expressed it in his time: "There is a shame in being happy at the sight of certain miseries. Some have nothing, others have everything, or at least, "too much": a scandal is never far away.
P.-H. T : From our modern point of view, there are two great types of criticisms: moral criticism, which sees in luxury the proud expression of an insatiable desire of man to the unhappy life; and social criticism, for whom luxury is the ostentatious reminder of the class struggle.
G. L. : Certainly, but these critics forget one essential point: the universal, anthropological character of luxury. We can not think of humanity without luxury, because, through it, man attests that he is not a simple animal and that his horizon is not reduced to survival, conservation and need. Shakespeare had said it well: "Remove from man the superfluous and you take from him his share of humanity. "
P.-H. T : This is the dimension you call "eternal luxury". But why, in our democratic world - passionate about equality - does this luxury always seems to find a second youth and remain, in any case, a real social force?
G. L. : Can humanity do without dreams? The great utopias, scientistic or political, are exhausted; we no longer have faith in a future that is mechanically better and more just. There remains for individuals the hope of a better-being, the feast of the senses, the expectation of beauties that take us out of the gray of everyday life. Luxury is no longer the cursed part, but the part of the dream and the journey, the excellence and the superlative that man can not do without.
P.-H. T : While being eternal, luxury has a history and this dimension of "human, too human" has taken various configurations over time. You draw a very impressive panorama of it by starting to wring your neck to an accepted idea: that which makes the luxury of developed civilizations. Even so-called subsistence economies, supposed to be closer to nature, experience this depraved taste of waste.
G. L. : Indeed, as far back as we go, there is luxury. Anthropologists have shown that even among the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic, who have nothing, or almost nothing, there is already "superfluity": ornaments, skins, parties, etc. The spirit of luxury - that is, the spirit of expenditure - begins even before the luxury item. These sumptuary practices, however, have nothing free. They obey, in primitive societies, a profound necessity. Social necessity, first of all, since it involves, by the exchange of gifts, to win honours and titles, to ensure community bonds, to substitute the alliance for hostility; cosmic necessity, then, insofar as the ritual gift and the festive prodigality make it possible to restore the link with the forces of the invisible, with the spirit of the dead. Against a certain materialism, religion must be considered as one of the conditions for the appearance of primitive luxury.
P.-H. T : A second period begins with the appearance of the state, and prioritizing it also establishes dichotomy between people - rich and poor, the powerful and the serfs - and between orders of reality - the here - the now and the afterlife.
G. L. : Exactly. With the theologico-political hierarchy, visible distinctions are established in the way of life, of dress, even of death. It is the time of palaces and grandiose temples, these "dwellings of eternity", as the Egyptians say. Luxury then expresses the cosmos of inequality, whether human or divine. There are beings who are of another essence than the common one: the luxury is in charge to concretize it. So it is not something superfluous, but a symbolic necessity of the inegalitarian order. It is a logic of ostentation that works, but, again, luxury is part of a cosmic and religious vision. That's why luxury critics are marginal. They focus on private luxury, that of women in particular, because their taste for makeup is perceived as a betrayal of natural truth! Public luxury, on the other hand, that practiced by the euergetists, these Greek and Roman patrons, deserves to be celebrated, even if this or that philosopher can denounce the pride and the vanity of the madness of their magnitudes.
P.-H. T : This old device begins to run out with the Renaissance, which marks the advent of modern luxury.
G. L. : Towards the end of the Middle Ages appear two series of phenomena. First, luxury blends with the taste of culture through the love of antiques. There is no longer any prince who does not boast of having a collection of books, statues, & so on. Its purpose is neither economic nor religious, but aesthetic: to savour these beautiful things! Luxury becomes a form of sensualism that does not account for the distinctive passions of social recognition. Parallel to this craze for the old, fashion comes in the strict sense, with its cult of the ephemeral. Unlike luxury, fashion is not eternal. For it to appear, novelty must become a positive value, which is obviously unthinkable in the world of tradition.
P.-H. T : It is from here that luxury will enter its phase of democratization, which you start with haute couture in the second half of the nineteenth century. It seems very inegalitarian ...
G. L. : Until the nineteenth century, the world of luxury operates according to a model of aristocratic and artisanal type. The luxury object is the exclusive domain of the aristocrat-client, and, if we know the artists, the craftsmen remain anonymous. It is the materials that make the value of things. Three major changes occur with haute couture. First, the designer becomes a creator with a recognized name, prestige, independence from the client. Haute couture appears as a composite of artistic creation and industry (the limited series). Next is a half-luxury, more accessible, whose department stores will become the showcase. Finally, third element of this democratization of luxury, the appearance of the famous "luxury of simplicity". Until then, luxury has always obeyed an ostentatious aesthetic. With the age of equality, luxury will be "euphemised", as a democratic way of not symbolically crushing the other. He must be discreet and sober. For men, it is the black coat, which, in principle, levels the differences. For women, it will take more than a century, and the aesthetics of Chanel.
P.-H. T : How did we come out of this modern phase to enter a period that you call "hypermodern" luxury?
G. L. : Since the 1990s, there have been two major transformations. On the supply side, luxury has entered into a contract with marketing and financial logic. Huge international conglomerates are formed which buy and sell prestigious brands unrelated to the original family or semi-artisanal dimension [LVMH owning newspapers, for instance]. Moreover, we see the world of luxury engage in practices similar to those "in force" in the consumer (inflation launches, megastores, advertising, porn-chic, humour).
On the demand side, luxury no longer appears to be a social constraint dictating obligatory behaviour. The "bobo"*, unlike the aristocrat of yesteryear, can without fear of losing his rank buy at both Tati [French discount department store] and Dior. The strict sealing of class cultures has disappeared. Everything that once was "high" now appears as a "right for all". The society of mass consumption has generalized the desires of leisure, well-being and quality: there is less democratization of luxury than mass democratization of the desire for luxury, the whole society aspiring to what was, in the past, the emblems reserved for a small minority. The taste of brands extends in all groups. One in two Europeans bought at least one luxury brand during the past year.
At the same time, luxury has ceased to be only the expression of a desire for social recognition. One of the first sales arguments for a luxury car is the safety ... When a woman goes to a health centre, it is not to show social superiority, but to seek personal "betterness". This is what I call "emotional consumption". Does this mean that we are in a complete subjectivism of luxury eliminating its elite dimension? Not at all. Elitism remains, but transformed: when one buys an object of luxury, there is a jouissance which, as Nietzsche said, is "the pleasure of being different", of the feeling of one's own exception. "Because I'm worth it," said L'Oréal's slogan. It does not matter if others know it:
P.-H. T : In classic analysis of luxury, the pattern of the symbolic class struggle has often masked the differences between the sexes. Luxury still seems to be dominated by women's consumption, even though some people expect a male catch-up.
G. L. : The feminization of luxury is a relatively recent phenomenon. Premodern luxury is masculine, as it is synonymous with power. Things begin to change in the 18th century. Around 1700, in all social classes, the women's wardrobe is twice as important as that of men. The woman, confined in a nascent private sphere, is installed in the dual role of the fair sex (the decorative) and the housewife (the consumer). These two statuses give her a privileged place in the world of luxury. Is there today, thanks to the equalization of roles, a sexual standardization? I do not believe that. Despite the emancipation movement of women, the "fair sex" is always the feminine. All surveys show that the house remains the privileged domain of women. Even if she has a professional life outside, even if the man spends more time inside, it is she who remains the master of work of the house. This is what I called "the third woman": women's autonomy is combined with norms inherited from tradition. If this interpretation is correct, the feminization of luxury has a bright future ahead of it.
P.-H. T : In what sense does luxury remain a dream in the disenchanted world of ours, which seems doomed to the frenzy of the present?
G. L. : Since the beginning, luxury has an intrinsic link with time. We give to the sacred to win eternity. Ancient patrons spend fortunes so that their memory is immortalized. Today, luxury homes do not do anything else, even if it is in a more paradoxical form. On the one hand, you have to innovate constantly: it's the logic of the present and the fashion. On the other hand, they must celebrate the founding legend, the myth of origins, tradition and ancestral know-how. We find this ambivalence in consumption: to be in the shot, but also to enjoy what has a temporal thickness. Anyhow, one does not "consume" the luxury object. Ritualization is part of the pleasure: it is also of the duration, the memory, the eternity that the we buy and we love. In our "Kleenex society", luxury brings this counterbalance of duration that conjures death by giving us back a depth of temporality. There is paradoxically a metaphysical dimension in the heart of the most materialistic passions.
P.-H. T : In a recent article in the magazine Le Débat (Gallimard, March-April 2003), you give this analysis of luxury a broader framework: we would have recently entered a new age of the consumer society: what you call the "hyperconsumptive society". What is it about ?
G. L. : Three main features characterize the hyperconsumptive society. One: the rise of a much more experiential-emotional consumption over respectful consumption. Two: the erosion of old class boundaries and the development of a volatile, fragmented, deregulated consumer. Three: the advent of a "world consumption" in which even the non-economic (family, religion, politics, unions, school, procreation, ethics) is invested by the mentality of "Homo consumericus". That being said, the reign of hyperconsumptive society is far from meaning the total elimination of values and feelings. The taste of sociability, volunteering, moral indignation, the valourization of love, all this is perpetuated, even strengthened. As far as threats to the hyperconsumptive society, it is not a complete nihilism, or the devaluation of all the ideals, it is especially the retreat of the lightness of existing, the fragility of the personalities, the psychopathologies, the spiral of the pain to live. We consume more, but the joy of living does not seem to be at the object of this consumption.
*"Bobo" is a French portmanteau of "bourgeois-bohemian", used to describe the sons and daughters of yuppies, who control immense social and economic power, yet claim themselves to be down to earth and on a level with everyone else.
[ ] denotes additions made after the fact in order to contextualize certain references.
The original interview was conducted for Le Point, in French. Available here.