Liberace. Photo by © Bettmann/CORBIS


It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that luxury is a concept that means drastically different things to different people. Our lavish desires and aspirations are as individual as we are.Why is it that some people's version of luxury can be embarrassing to others and vice versa, or that something that offers one person that wonderful luxe feeling might have the complete opposite effect on another? This fascinates me to no end.

LOOK AT ME

To some, as we all know, luxury is about excess -- more and bigger is better. Money-is-no-object attention-seekers love a show and have always been a part of the luxury landscape. From the extreme 18th century rococo style of architecture and decoration and the Donald Trump-ish concept of showy mansions with gold-leaf furniture to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous-style $1,000 lobster omelets (topped with 10 ounces of caviar) and Jacob the Jeweler's diamond-encrusted bling -- excessive displays of luxury have always been considered controversial if not a bit vulgar and déclassé. Extreme money will always come with excess and political incorrectness, but if you have a sense of humor and enjoy absurdity it can also be quite a lot of campy fun.

Also in the "look at me" category, we have those who define their status to the world by showing off in-your-face symbols or logos that represent high price tags. This kind of statement can come from someone traveling with a full set of logoed LouisVuitton trunks or a lady whose high heels reveal bright red soles -- Christian Louboutin's trademarked signature -- when she crosses her legs. Speaking of status colors, just carrying shopping bags down the street in a very particular robin's-egg blue (Tiffany) or a specific bright orange (Hermès) can evoke wealth and status in an instant.

DON'T LOOK AT ME

To other wealthy people, luxury is quiet. They might be rich but they don't want any attention for it. Some call it "old money"; others call it "class" or "smart." To these folks, luxury means surrounding themselves with extraordinary craft and heritage, excellent quality and great uncomplicated design. It means a life filled with amenities that are not necessarily commodities: pristine nature, fresh air, organic food, philanthropy, sustainability and even ethical living. These people are usually more into culture than pop culture and know how to luxuriate in simplicity. They prefer camping in a majestic untouched wilderness over a fancy Four Seasons Resort, enjoying a shower in the woods over a decadent bubble bath in a huge marble tub under an enormous crystal chandelier, or a simple farm-to-table dinner at Chez Panisse over a rich and elaborate meal at Le Cirque. They'd choose an electric Tesla over a Rolls-Royce any day, and they'd never be caught dead showing off a logo anywhere.  The quiet rich are simply more serious and less sparkly and fun. No glitzy Versace or Gucci for these folks! They'd rather kick around in their old Hermès cashmere sweaters.

CLASS WARS

Class is a touchy subject that is often closely associated with the word luxury. There are some with money who enjoy "slumming." They might hang out in unsavory parts of town because they think it's cool and edgy, sending the message, "I'm rich but get a thrill out of pretending I'm not," which is fairly perverse. But the flipside to slumming is even more interesting. Take for example the enormous popularity of McMansions of all sizes, shapes and colors popping up everywhere from Kansas to Staten Island. And then there's the proliferation of those insane 25-foot stretch Hummer limos, which perfectly illustrates a twisted "queen for a day" mentality that is a hard-on for the new rich, the almost rich and the dying-to-feel rich.
        
Even more shocking are the people who devalue luxury in order to communicate the extent of their wealth. For example, "I'm so rich I can pour $600 bottles of Cristal champagne into my swimming pool at a party," or "I had a graffiti artist paint cartoons all over my $22,000 Hermès Birkin bag." Many luxury brands even jumped on the latter idea, and the results were a huge hit. When Stephen Sprouse's graffiti collection premiered for Louis Vuitton in 2000, the Day-Glo-tagged bags flew off the shelves. Now luxury companies like Vuitton and Goyard offer customized painting of their traditional logoed bags for big bucks.

The most brilliant and complex story in the luxury class wars began with those who politicized luxury in the hip-hop community in the late '70s. With the advent of hip-hop, homeboys and girls in the South Bronx appropriated luxury brands as street style with creativity like I've never seen before. Conveying the unspoken message, "I might not be rich but, fuck you, I can put a gigantic Gucci logo on my sweatshirt or wear Mercedes Benz hood ornaments as medallions around my neck," the kids uptown turned out amazing looks. Legendary Harlem tailor and designer Dapper Dan stoked the fire, setting up shop to create one-of-a-kind suits, coats and sneakers using fabric from and applying the designer logos of Vuitton, Gucci, Burberry, MCM and others for his amazing pimped-out custom clothing. This super intelligent political statement always blew my mind. I think it deserves its own Met Costume Institute show someday.

IT'S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT MONEY

My own personal favorite luxuries have not always been materialistic. Maybe because I've never been rich and I don't really covet much more "stuff" at my stage of life. I realized a great personal luxury this past summer in Northern California, when I rented a humble little cottage on a cliff overlooking Muir Beach for a few days of meditative alone-time. I slept deeply with the sliding glass doors wide open to the breeze, listening to the waves crashing all night and awakening to the sight of dolphins frolicking in the Pacific right below my bed. Nothing could have been more luxurious than that. Extravagance to me personally boils down to three things: I covet time to spend with myself and my many great friends; space to live in, sleep soundly in, have dinner parties in and putter around my garden in; and beauty, whether it is art, music, culture, people or nature.

In the end, this ephemeral concept called luxury can be a funny business. Expressed through old money, new money, no money or a shitload of money, the vastly different things that make one feel luxurious also act as windows onto an array of complicated human qualities, whether vanity or humility, aspiration or affirmation, conformity or rebellion (or even subversion). That's what makes luxury so vital. It is what rewards us individually for who we are.
 

A boy on the street in NYC, 1988. Photo by Henny Garfunkel.

CLASS WARS


Class is a touchy subject that is often closely associated with the word luxury. There are some with money who enjoy "slumming." They might hang out in unsavory parts of town because they think it's cool and edgy, sending the message, "I'm rich but get a thrill out of pretending I'm not," which is fairly perverse. But the flipside to slumming is even more interesting. Take for example the enormous popularity of McMansions of all sizes, shapes and colors popping up everywhere from Kansas to Staten Island. And then there's the proliferation of those insane 25-foot stretch Hummer limos, which perfectly illustrates a twisted "queen for a day" mentality that is a hard-on for the new rich, the almost rich and the dying-to-feel rich.

Even more shocking are the people who devalue luxury in order to communicate the extent of their wealth. For example, "I'm so rich I can pour $600 bottles of Cristal champagne into my swimming pool at a party," or "I had a graffiti artist paint cartoons all over my $22,000 Hermès Birkin bag." Many luxury brands even jumped on the latter idea, and the results were a huge hit. When Stephen Sprouse's graffiti collection premiered for Louis Vuitton in 2000, the Day-Glo-tagged bags flew off the shelves. Now luxury companies like Vuitton and Goyard offer customized painting of their traditional logoed bags for big bucks.

The most brilliant and complex story in the luxury class wars began with those who politicized luxury in the hip-hop community in the late '70s. With the advent of hip-hop, homeboys and girls in the South Bronx appropriated luxury brands as street style with creativity like I've never seen before. Conveying the unspoken message, "I might not be rich but, fuck you, I can put a gigantic Gucci logo on my sweatshirt or wear Mercedes Benz hood ornaments as medallions around my neck," the kids uptown turned out amazing looks. Legendary Harlem tailor and designer Dapper Dan stoked the fire, setting up shop to create one-of-a-kind suits, coats and sneakers using fabric from and applying the designer logos of Vuitton, Gucci, Burberry, MCM and others for his amazing pimped-out custom clothing. This super intelligent political statement always blew my mind. I think it deserves its own Met Costume Institute show someday.

IT'S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT MONEY


My own personal favorite luxuries have not always been materialistic. Maybe because I've never been rich and I don't really covet much more "stuff" at my stage of life. I realized a great personal luxury this past summer in Northern California, when I rented a humble little cottage on a cliff overlooking Muir Beach for a few days of meditative alone-time. I slept deeply with the sliding glass doors wide open to the breeze, listening to the waves crashing all night and awakening to the sight of dolphins frolicking in the Pacific right below my bed. Nothing could have been more luxurious than that. Extravagance to me personally boils down to three things: I covet time to spend with myself and my many great friends; space to live in, sleep soundly in, have dinner parties in and putter around my garden in; and beauty, whether it is art, music, culture, people or nature.

In the end, this ephemeral concept called luxury can be a funny business. Expressed through old money, new money, no money or a shitload of money, the vastly different things that make one feel luxurious also act as windows onto an array of complicated human qualities, whether vanity or humility, aspiration or affirmation, conformity or rebellion (or even subversion). That's what makes luxury so vital. It is what rewards us individually for who we are.