After the 2008 financial crisis, uncertainty bloomed surrounding the exposed corruption. Hedonism was out and social conscientiousness made its way into luxury. Opulent materials, precious gems, and sumptuous settings faded in favour of artisanal production, off-the-beaten-path provenance stories, and natural dyes derived from the wisdom of the Old World.
Louis Vuitton’s campaigns from right before and after the financial crisis exemplify this transformation. In 2007, Scarlett Johansson was shown embodying the lavish splendour of classic Hollywood in a pristine studio setting; four years later, Angelina Jolie, Hollywood superstar and UN Goodwill Ambassador was pictured seemingly make-up free and barefoot on a wooden boat in Cambodia. In other words, the ‘aspirational’ took a turn. Outwardly glamorous images were out; introspective, quiet moments were in.
Mega brands were not the only ones who adapted to this new form of invisible wealth. By 2011, a new generation of Instagram brands, like Maiyet and Studio 189, began to pop up, taking advantage of the scepticism around corporate businesses. They hailed the eradication of the middleman by making production conspicuous through intimate imagery and brick-and-mortar unnecessary by providing direct webshops. They emphasised the limited scale of production, conscientiously sourced materials, and respect for craftsmanship – values still very much inherent to luxury. Symbolic values that previously manifested in opulence or avant-garde design were seen as self-absorbed rather than prosocial. Brands that neglected the latter in favour of the former failed to capture the zeitgeist; Gianfranco Ferré, Christian Lacroix, and Yohji Yamamoto, to name a few, filed for bankruptcy.
Corporate scepticism was not new to the market in any case. Fair trade, for instance, goes back to the early nineties, emphasising the ‘development’ of vulnerable producers.1 While it certainly paved the way for a new type of consumption, fair trade was still commonly associated with making sacrifices in looks and quality in favour of contributions to a more equitable world.
In the internalised state of luxury, where consumers, to signal virtue, opted for conspicuous production over conspicuous fashion, ‘ethical fashion’ provided an outlet to combine political activism with self-expression and indulgence.
One type of ethical fashion is entrenched in European heritage crafts: local production. While seemingly austere, this category builds on the royal heritage, merging regal topoi with socialist values. Brunello Cucinelli, for instance, is an example of a brand that emphasises humanism and dignity of the age-old Italian prestige value and the preservation of a bucolic lifestyle. In addition to protecting sartorial traditions, the brand prides itself on pioneering a new kind of capitalism, one that rests on guardianships and ethics, which is manifested in sacred lunch breaks, educational programs, and strict work-life balance.
The second set focuses on reviving America’s manufacturing heritage, highlighting core societal values such as social mobility and meritocracy, seemingly in danger due to growing criticism against nepotism and striking growth in inequality. Shinola, for instance, was founded in 2011 with the mission to celebrate Detroit’s revival and hardworking American values.
And finally, what I refer to as Humanistic Luxury, one that combines Western aesthetics with the topical social needs of the Global South. These brands are almost exclusively headquartered, designed, and operated in North America and Western Europe, but employ workers in ‘developing countries.’ Humanistic Luxury is almost exclusively designed in the West, and produced in the Global South. Brands that popped up in the years close after the financial crisis, such as DÔEN, Anaak, or Seek Collective, blend the Western-centric concept of quiet luxury and artisan empowerment in the Global South. Repairing previously overlooked injustices along the supply chain and purchasing agency as a change-maker seemed to be the ethos that provided permission to consume in the wake of the 2008 crisis and offered consumers a new badge of honour.
Daughters of India, for instance, is a quietly sumptuous Australian brand whose mission is to preserve hand-block printing and support vulnerable Indian communities. While significantly lower-priced than wholesale competitors, the storytelling of Daughters of India is luxurious, promising prosocial benefits: ‘Since our establishment, we’ve shared a dream with our makers for empowering all women to feel honoured with deep reverence for their being.’2 Their communication depicts romanticised images of faraway lands and their struggling artisan communities that serve to accentuate the brand’s promise of transformation. This transformation, as it turns out, is aligned with the one we long for in the West, rooted in slow life: ‘We release one product at a time when it is complete. This ensures the artisans are free to manage their own hours without production deadlines, providing flexibility to enjoy life at a slower pace.’3 Each purchase transforms artisans, as it improves their work and life standards. It transforms consumers themselves too, who through their consumption become activists championing a more equitable social fabric.
What we need to recognise is that Humanistic Luxury rests on two mutually exclusive ideas. While humanism promises societal uplift and harmony, luxury disrupts this promise. Humanism is a progressive secular life stance rooted in Western thought that directs the individual’s thoughts and actions towards the greater welfare of humanity and emphasises reason and ethical principles (‘… enjoy life at a slower pace’). Luxury, on the other hand, is always anchored in social distinction. It works through the accumulation of rare prestige goods (‘we release one product at a time when it is complete’) and services that carry social meaning, to associate with some but mostly creating distance from others, ultimately differentiating oneself in social status.
To understand this desire to publicly engage in activism, we need to revisit the very idea of status.
Status: The Key to Activist Consumption
A concept often misunderstood as an indicator of wealth, social status signifies prestige and honour ascribed to particular positions and occupations in society, or, as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu put it, reveals who has ‘symbolic power’ within the social fabric.4 Objects communicate symbolic power at their disposal, which is why brands craft rich narratives and carefully choose which partners to collaborate with.
Status also determines who is more worthy and better than others, and as a consequence, deserves access to resources. Hence, it can only have an effect if individuals share the same set of cultural beliefs and recognise and accept them as a natural prerequisite of social life. According to Bourdieu, these beliefs are naturalised via social reproduction, the processes through which social inequalities and structures are perpetuated and passed on from one generation to the next.5 This is what Bourdieu referred to as ‘habitus’: a set of dispositions, attitudes, and behaviours that individuals acquire through socialisation and experience within a specific social context which includes class.6 Rather than a result of individual merit and effort, status is understood to be rooted in habitus.
Objects reflect habitus through their usage and social context attached to them and carry meaning within and across groups. From ceremonial ornaments to yachts, luxury goods lean into inequality because they reflect knowledge, taste, and access. We continuously apply these symbols to signal memberships to status groups.
Humanistic Luxury, under the guise of prosocial change, differentiates between the giver and the receiver, the educated and the undereducated, the socially sensitive and the unresponsive, and the worldly and the unsophisticated. There are barriers to moral consumption of internalised luxury, as luxury brands today insinuate additional accomplishments and validation for social sensibility. Brand narratives double down on intellectual capital, creating relevance for consumers with trained and educated eyes, for whom cultural preservation and societal uplift act as currency. Additionally, taking advantage of the link between inside knowledge with unattainability, these newcomers turned their low-profile obscurity into their advantage.
The White Saviour: Humanistic Luxury’s Favourite Customer
In Humanistic Luxury, it is essential to investigate the concept of generosity, as it provides access to middle-class consumers to enhance social status through its public display. Generosity can reinforce a positive social reputation, as it helps consumers eschew looking selfish or greedy. And the more charitable an individual is, the more their reference group will be aware of their competence and worth.
Humanistic Luxury brands justify their higher luxury margins by the value they bring to artisan communities by engaging them in an ‘ethical production’ and the value consumers create for the broader society. While these brands charge an accelerated fee for their goods compared to their traditional counterparts, this elevated price manifests under the guise of ‘improvement,’ rather than social division.
But to what extent does this improvement pertain? Humanistic Luxury reaches out to the distant working class and publicly manifests generosity overseas, not domestically, because remaining local to uplift lower classes goes against the nature of status; it muddies the social distinction. The conundrum of Humanistic Luxury is that its consumers seek to practise altruism but preserving their social status requires distancing. To mitigate this gap, Humanistic Luxury employs dislocation, ascribing prestige to one type of working class and overlooking another. Workers from distant lands are pictured as active and engaged. Local working class, on the other hand, is portrayed as vulgar, work-shy, and lacking intelligence; ‘disgust hinges on proximity … when legal barriers between classes get broken down, as in democracy, social hierarchy must be maintained in other ways … [working class people] must be “pushed away” – expelled from a normative and normalised middle-classness.’7 As a result, middle-class compassion shifts from the local ‘undeserving’ working class to a distant ‘deserving’ working class.
Hence, Humanistic Luxury fashion offers a solution to consumers so they are able to express benevolence while maintaining that divide in status. In other words, the category essentially allows consumers to distance themselves from the local lower class through taste and exhibit generosity towards the distant others with whom they are not in status competition. This practice allows them to legitimise their status without explicitly being complicit in the growing societal inequality.
Humanistic Luxury is a category that caters to Western, middle-class, white consumers who wish to elevate people of colour and struggling nations without necessarily understanding what they are in need of. Narratives are based on Western beliefs of Humanism, beliefs on what is needed for a better life, portrayed through storytelling and idealised visuals. Thus, Humanistic Luxury will not only enforce social fragmentation locally — marking who is a sophisticated ‘change-maker’ — but also carry a troubling resemblance to colonialism, globally. This is the context in which Western consumers of Humanistic Luxury seek a meaningful economic exchange. While we seek to uplift distant communities, our motivations remain muddled since social status, luxury, and colonialism are inherently intertwined.
Dr. Sara Emilia Bernat is a sociologist and brand strategist. She specialises in consumer motivations behind sustainable luxury and fashion.
A. Nicholls and C. Opal, Fair trade: Market-driven ethical consumption, Sage, 2005; L.T. Raynolds, D. Murray & J. Wilkinson, Fair trade: The challenges of transforming globalization, Routledge, 2007; A. Tallontire, Partnerships in fair trade: Reflections from a case study of Café Direct, Springer, 2000. ↩
“Empowering Women,” Daughter of India website, https://uk.daughtersofindia.net/pages/empowering-women?shpxid=45d81b12-da3c-461c-919a-07aadc711044, accessed 16th August 2023. ↩
P. Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Harvard University Press, 1984. ↩
S. Lawler, ‘Disgusted Subjects: The Making of Middle-Class Identities’, UK: The Sociological Review, 2005, p. 440 ↩