The Value of Nothing

Why luxury today is less about opulence than it is about privilege

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At first glance, it would seem that luxury is synonymous with cost. What is luxurious is what is expensive. The question then becomes, what makes something so dear? The obvious answer is that cost is whatever the seller can get for their goods. These days, that means that the ephemeral value of a brand image or object scarcity is the best indicator of what is luxurious. Anything with a Louis Vuitton or Fendi label is by definition luxurious, as is a bottle of an obscure American bourbon called Pappy van Winkle. Some brands try to combine both of those qualities, for instance by, in Vuitton’s case, destroying anything that is not sold rather than marking it down. That has let younger brands enter into the luxury market by creating limited edition for drops whose price skyrockets as soon as the supplies are gone.

Effort, scarcity and space

Brand value is immense and ephemeral, but behind those brands there always lies the notion that there is something unique about the object. That special quality is a combination of craft, material, and design. Fine leather and furs are the foundation of most established fashion labels, as is the craftsmanship in assembling those pieces in the most durable and ingenious manner possible. Design then elevates all that work even higher by creating startling images, forms, or, in the case of architecture, spaces. Sometimes, these elements work together, and sometimes against each other. A Louis Vuitton bag or building by John Pawson are meant to last forever, but the true luxury user wants a newer design as soon as possible.

Behind that sense of luxury, in turn, lies the idea of work. Something is luxurious because a great deal of time and skill went into its making, whether by the craftsperson, the designer, or even the advertising staff. Luxurious things embody a great deal of sunk labor. In valuing them we are meant to esteem others’ work and revel in our ability to buy all that effort in an instant with the flash of a credit card. This also means that luxury goods are a little bit like the burial mounds of ancient civilizations in which you placed gold or other loot: you sink a huge amount of human effort into the ground, showing your ability to command such resources by erecting a mound above all that treasure. In our more fluid society, you carry the monuments to yourself with you or drive them. Visible waste is a great luxury.

Photo Ethan Hoover, Unsplash
Photo Ethan Hoover, Unsplash

Paradoxically, that means that an even greater luxury—certainly if you look at how much things cost—is nothing: the emptiness of space and time you can afford either now or in the afterlife. Being able to take the time to do nothing, to go on a vacation, or to retire, is an infinitely more expensive acquisition than any fancy bag. Equally expensive is space. We pay for our dwellings and workspaces by the square meter. The more empty space you have around you, the more luxurious these environments are. We might not use all those extra rooms or expanses, but to have them means commanding them, owning them, and exhibiting them. At one extreme, being able to have your own private island at a resort in the Indian Ocean is worth thousands of dollars or euros a night. At the other extreme, we might pay even more thousands for a few extra centimeters on the flight we take over there.

The other cost of luxury

These days, however, all that space and all those cowhides come with another cost altogether: that of environmental waste. Luxury goods, expensive homes, and the planes, Lambos, and yachts we use to move them or us are a tremendous waste of natural resources. The other side of an indulgence of luxury has always been guilt. That used to be a moral issue, as we felt guilty about the very act of waste, as if it was somehow a sin against the natural order of things. Now the location of that sin is more precise: we are wasting resources we cannot replenish and ruining what is left for others and our children. Then, instead of buying indulgences, we acquire carbon offsets or engage in activism to assuage our consciousness. We might even stop wearing leather or opt for the new electronic Jaguar, but always we have a nagging sense, as we lie in our loft with its expansive view of the skyline (space we own virtually), coddled in our handstitched fake furs, that our life is one of waste.

The ultimate luxury, therefore, might be not to care. To be so rich and so without any sense of consciousness that you do not care what something cost, how many hours somebody spent making it, who or what was killed in the process, and how people drown in the next hurricane because of our actions, would be luxury without end.

Photo Francisco Moreno, Unsplash
Photo Francisco Moreno, Unsplash

The antidote to this would be to cherish what we already have. Already in such luxury goods as fine paintings and wines, age matters. In architecture, old buildings often have more patina and aura than something newly constructed. Vintage cars can sell for much more than any brand-new Maybach. Someday, I hope soon, the piece you buy on a resale site, the land you share with a farmer growing crops, or the time to walk rather than drive or be driven to work, will be much more luxurious than anything produced in the here and now.

Main image: Taking a walk in the forest. Photo Kim Dad Jeung, Unsplash

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