Hallmarks of Luxury: What Makes It Tick & What Doesn’t

If we rounded up every style icon to date and asked them to define luxury, we’d have:

  1. Catchphrases for days
  2. Very varied opinions

That’s partly because luxury is such a multifaceted and complex subject. It’s an idiosyncratic topic that will mean different things to different people. For example, one customer group may think footwear retailing at $3,000 is the epitome of shoe art; only to be worn for pictures, while another group of people wouldn’t bat an eyelid walking around in them on a daily basis. Then there’s the fact that luxury is also context dependent. According to the Director of the Luxury & Fashion Knowledge Centre at Bocconi University, Stefania Saviolo, age groups and geographical regions affect how we perceive luxury. To throw another spanner into the works, the last couple of years has seen the evolution of the different categories of luxury. Saviolo uses leather as an example, which has been associated with top luxury brands of today, such as Hermes, Gucci and Bottega Veneta. Though, luxury aficionados of the past would have scoffed at the thought of leather goods being given a seat at the table.

EYES ON ME – The Serpenti Collection by BULGARI [Image: Courtesy of Bulgari]

While we can’t come to a distinctive definition of what luxury is, there are a set of rules that dictate what luxury is or isn’t. For a brand to receive luxury status, they have to comply with this ‘code of luxury’ to some degree. Just how luxurious your brand will be deemed will depend on how far you adhere to these set dimensions. Interestingly, the characteristics we’re about to delve into do not work independent of each other. Aiming for superior standards in one dimension starts a chain reaction in all the others; elevating the entire brand. So, what are these principles that shape luxury as we know it? Let’s start with the major characteristics:

Louis Vuitton Holiday Bags 2012 [Image: Courtesy of Louis Vuitton]

#1. Rarity – Ever bought a top from a shop and then spotted five other people wearing it shortly thereafter? It’s like a dropkick to the gut, which makes you see your new purchase in a new, unfavourable light. Yet, if you found out that they only made that one shirt, you’d hold it in the highest regard. Why is that? Luxury has mastered the economical principle that when demand exceeds the supply, the product immediately becomes even more coveted by customers. It’s the reason people, in the thick of an era of instant-gratification, are willing to wait years to get their hands on a specific product. Consequently, it’s not uncommon for a brand to artificially make limited quantities of a product. But they don’t stop there. They take these limited editions and add individualization touches such as handmade manufacturing irregularities or the addition of specific serial number to provide each with a unique element. Nevertheless, because they are working with quality materials, natural limitations will prevent these brands from mass-producing a product.

Clive Christian No. 1 Imperial Majesty Perfume worlds most expensive perfume [Image: Courtesy of Clive Christian]

#2. Price – This is the easiest measure of luxury because these products can come with some life-changing price tags that are not for the faint of wallets. People are drawn to the fact that the product they’re buying belongs to the most expensive club of the category they’re shopping in. Even so, it’s not enough to just add zeros to your pricing. Your product has to be established with a reputation of superior performance and exceptional quality that eclipses lower-priced alternatives.

The Wittelsbach-Graff diamond valued at $80 million


#3. Quality – Not only are luxury items so thoroughly crafted that they work meticulously after years of use, but some of them also increase in value over time. But what criteria is used to identify quality? Let’s begin with the abstract product characteristics, where the product should provide benefits such as functionality, safety, long-term durability, value, usability and performance.

Gucci Dionysus Handle Bag [Image: Courtesy of Gucci]

Then there are the manufacturing features that considers the technical and stylistic competence of the manufacturer’s expertise. Similarly, it also studies the manufacturing complexity that requires considerably more effort than an automated factory chain.  One business model luxury thrives off is the made-by-hand craftsmanship. The market looks at the manufacturing process to see the level of expertise, the type of materials utilised and the time it took to produce the product. These are the kind of products that could dish out a 10 year warranty because they’re so confident that the product won’t fail. The last tier that formulates how quality is perceived can be referred to as concrete product characteristics. Dr Klaus Heine  narrows down these product attributes to:

  • Material & Components: While it goes without saying that whatever is used must be of the highest value, there’s the inter-categorical comparison between categories to consider. For example, silver is perfectly acceptable for luxury cutlery but not for luxury watches which require at least platinum or gold to be considered luxurious.
  • Construction and Function principle: How durable and comfortable is the product? Moreover, how much thought did they put into the overall design that was innovative and functional, as well as, elevated the visual appearance of the design?
  • Workmanship:  There’s no room for flaws or mistakes. Luxury brands have to set stringent quality controls in place to ensure that imperfections such as scratches don’t appear anywhere on the finished product. Louis Vuitton, for example, claims their suitcases or handbags go through more than 1,000 stages to ensure perfection. The only time you’d see an imperfection is when it was planned for the ‘handmade’ effect for rarity purposes.
  • Features:  Understanding the lifestyle of your target consumer and incorporating the necessary features into your products to support their lifestyle. Whatever they do incorporate shouldn’t interfere with the main functionality of the product.
  • Product size: Like the material used, the size of the product will depend on the category it falls into.
  • Service:  How the brand interacts with the consumer should give them a higher emotional reason to splurge on luxuries. This includes how staff interact with customers in the store, after sales services, product modifications or personalization, and reimbursements.


It doesn’t have to be loud  because it knows that quiet luxury speak volumes.


#4. Aesthetics – It should be a product that effortlessly oozes elegance and beauty at all times. It keeps an air of mystery around it such as the actual volume of high sales it has made or the in the case of Hermes, when the stores will receive new stock. It doesn’t have to be loud – no need for large logos – because it knows that quiet luxury speak volumes. Some brands will even hide the logo and let the design speak for itself. When it comes down to it, it should be a sensory treat that obviously stands out from the mass market offerings.


Apollo and Artemis diamond earrings that sold for more than 57.4million [Image: Courtesy of Forbes]

#5. Extraordinariness – Most luxury brands are at the forefront of stylistic trends which the mass market will then try to gobble up and mass-produce. To be able to lead, the brand has to have a style and mind of its own. This manifests in their products through their different design or construction principles and what innovative, functional attributes they have to offer. Even a healthy dose of eccentricity is welcomed here in order to create something special that captivates the audience’s imagination.


Guerlain KissKiss Gold and Diamonds lipstick jewel decorated cover entered the market at $62,000 [Image: Courtesy of Guerlain]

#6. Symbolism – Whereas functionality is present in their design, their main focus is on making a connection with the customer. And to do that, they have to look at the values and lifestyle of the upper class and combine that with their brand personality. This identity will not only capture their distinction, but fluently highlight their disposition, outlook and aura. According to Dr Heine, the ‘five major dimensions of the luxury brand personality include modernity, prestige, sensuality, understatement and eccentricity’. Because these products are constantly tapping into people’s desires to belong to a superior class, they’ll often be associated with a celebrities or the world’s most discerning clientele, a famous country of origin or exclusive events. Even a brands rich history and pedigree can reinforce their stance and mystique as a power house.

[Image: Courtesy of Chanel]

*Timeless – We’re going to throw in a sub-characteristic here because while luxury sets the trends it doesn’t fade away like one. They have what it takes to exist for years, through economic depressions and booms. They also have the ability to create iconic products that continue to thrive till today. For example, Chanel’s N°5 perfume launched in 1921 and is still pretty much in demand.

Spring/Summer 1995 haute couture romantic evening gown in silver grey silk by Valentino Garavani [Image: Courtesy of Valentino]

Granted, luxury brands are impacted by consumer expectations and subjectivity. Not to mention, brands do use effective luxury marketing techniques to influence consumer perceptions. That being said, these hallmarks of luxury provide the context that gives luxury brands the substance they need to command reverence, attention and the free-reign to charge eyebrow-raising prices.


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