The Philosophical Nature of Luxury : Interview with Antonio Paraiso

The Philosophical Nature of Luxury : Interview with Antonio Paraiso


Antonio Paraiso

Luxury Brand Marketing Expert

"The Philosophical Nature of Luxury"

Why luxury is the opposite of vulgarity

How did you get your start working in the field of luxury and what drew you to it?

Well, thank you for inviting me to have this conversation. From the time I was a child, I have always been fascinated by beauty, excellence and perfection. I am obsessed with detail. In the 80’s I read ‘A Passion for Excellence’ by Tom Peters and Nancy Austin, and this book had a big impact on my way of doing things ever since.

For a period of about two decades, I have worked as International Sales Director in the textile and fashion industry. And when I decided to start my own business as marketing consultant, it was only natural the decision to focus and specialize in the business of excellence. So in preparation, I went on to study Luxury Brand Management in a very good Financial Times ranked business school.

I started writing articles about trends in the luxury market and collaborating with Porsche, L’Oréal, Armani, Loewe, Procter & Gamble, a few luxury hotels and resorts, among many others.

Tell us about your company and its mission/vision? What prompted you to create a company of this kind? What sets yours apart from others of its kind

I feel that my mission is to inspire and empower the teams I work with so that not only do they improve sales but also put beauty, detail and excellence in everything they do.

I believe that my personality, my creativity, my passion for detail and excellence, the way I train and inspire people to excel, along with my 19-year experience in international sales is what makes my work different from everybody else’s.

What do you enjoy most about the work you do?

I engage in consulting, executive training and I speak in brand events and business conferences. On average, I deliver three talks every month and this really is what I mostly enjoy about my work.

I love going on stage, tell stories and inspire the audience on how to achieve better results in their businesses.

The definition of luxury has evolved vastly over many years, and especially in the recent past. Generally speaking, it has lost its luster and is too accessible. What do you think of the changes and responses to change? What changes that have come about do you see as good? How do you serve a more refined and sophisticated client who wants true luxury vs the mass approach to luxury?

Luxury brands used to be independent, small family businesses, managed by their founders, who were the heart and soul of the brand and would craft objects of exquisite quality and with seductive symbology for refined elites.

However, some 35 to 40 years ago the market evolved into the creation of luxury groups and at that time significant social changes also started taking shape which led to the emergence of more powerful middle classes, around the world.

With many of those independent small family business brands now under ownership of financial groups, they have been taking advantage of that social phenomenon, pushing sales to make their shareholders happy, and hence making luxury more accessible to new money in the US, China, India, Latin America and Europe.

It is inevitable that luxury will always change with time and eventually adapt to the evolution of societies.

However, I do not like the democratization of luxury but I understand it from the strict financial perspective of those managing luxury conglomerates. They see brands as financial assets.

And I see this as a great opportunity for those independent brands to differentiate and target the wealthy, sophisticated connoisseurs.

One of the recent changes that I see as good, is the big effort that most luxury brands, across all industries, are developing to reduce their environmental footprint and make their businesses less harmful for the planet. I have recently been invited by a research center of the Singapore Management University to do a short research about sustainability in luxury brands and I have written an article based on my findings. I came across many inspiring examples of high-end brands in fashion, cosmetics and hospitality. This is a good change indeed.

In my opinion, if you wish to serve a more refined client you have to deliver true luxury. And that means the intangible attributes of your brand and offering will have to be a lot stronger than the tangible ones. Your brand will need a sophisticated External Relations professional to communicate in private, in a one-to-one interaction with your client. And your offering will be customized and yet it will have a drop of mystery, innovation and surprise. It will be very much inspired by culture and have plenty of seductive symbology, a connection to art and a meaningful purpose. That's how you produce refinement.

What are your personal philosophies about luxury as a mindset and approach to living? How do you think people could get more out of luxury beyond acquisition?

I often say that luxury is a state of mind and a way of life - for those people who have the wealth, education and culture to permanently buy and enjoy luxury, their parents and grandparents raised them in that lifestyle, taught them how to appreciate beauty and feel art, I believe that for those people owning and enjoying luxury is just their natural way of life and it is like a state of mind for them.

People with culture and education will always get more out of luxury beyond acquisition. A true luxury object or moment contains a lot of intangibility in it, be it captivating stories, culture and art details, inspiring purpose or sensuality and you need education, culture and refined taste to understand, feel and enjoy it in full. Taste is the ability to appreciate beauty and therefore it demands culture. As a concept, it is highly elitist but mandatory in luxury consumption.

Swiss luxury watch brand Vacheron Constantin a while back launched a beautiful collection of timepieces fully inspired in tribal masks of primitive art. Each watch has a mask from a given tribe in the world and tells a story about a tribe, its culture, art and history. You can only access and enjoy this luxury in full if you have the education, culture and taste to understand and appreciate it.

Where do you see the luxury business heading overall?

The luxury business used to be very fragmented and made of myriad family brands, but in the past few decades it has seen strong consolidation led by a small number of conglomerates which have been buying brands and introducing more professional management to add value, explore new markets and increase sales.

We have seen such moves in fashion, cosmetics, automobiles, jewelry, watches, hotels and basically across all product categories.

The recent purchase of the Belmond group by LVMH to have a strong foot in hospitality and that of Tiffany & Co., the purchase of Versace by Michael Kors, now Capri Holdings, and several similar moves apparently lead us to believe that the luxury business will be heading towards the reorganization of brands within big, powerful houses.

This seems to be a clear business trend that makes sense and will continue in future in order to foster growth, mainly in emerging markets.

I also see the luxury business, across all product categories, heading towards an irreversible path to increasingly invest in sustainability and environment-friendly action.

The recent Fashion Pact signed by 32 corporations representing 150 brands, most of them from the luxury industry, is just one of the many strong signs that sustainability and planet protection is a core concern in luxury.

What do you wish was known about luxury that thus far is not being talked about?

This fabulous quote by the French iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel just came to my mind:

Some people think that luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. Luxury is the opposite of vulgarity.

I guess today most consumers do not know and do not talk about that luxury really is the opposite of vulgarity. It is about education, culture, knowledge, art, sophistication, elegance, class, good manners, behavior, emotional value, creativity, appreciation of beauty, heritage, timelessness, paradoxes, purpose and meaning.

Don Enrique LOEWE, the fourth generation of the family who founded the LOEWE brand in 1846 was one of my Masters when I studied Luxury Brand Management. A true gentleman! One day we had this marvelous after class conversation where Mr. Loewe explained to me how important it is for a luxury brand to build authenticity and meaning. A brand that is not authentic and coherent in its beliefs, and as a consequence does not weave its own meaning and purpose, will not have the legitimacy to be a true luxury brand. It was a moment of enlightenment to me. A rare privilege.

In your view, what has been some of the biggest changes in the way UHNW clients fulfill their luxury lifestyle needs today? How has this affected how you guide your clients?

Although one can sense that inconspicuous consumption is not the norm anymore, I would say that the biggest change in the past decade was the digital economy fully entering the luxury business.

UHNW clients, just like anybody else, are nowadays using their phones to interact with brands, search for information, make decisions and buy goods and services to fulfil their lifestyle needs.

According to Bain & Co. near half of all purchases of personal luxury goods will soon be digitally enabled and almost all purchases will be somehow influenced by online interactions.

Digital is indeed where all companies in the luxury sector are investing to meet the challenge of bringing emotion, elegance and charm to the digital interaction with consumers and fans.

Where meaning is concerned in luxury, how can luxury brands and consumers of luxury connect to ‘meaning’ in these evolutionary times for its definition and how luxury is conveyed and consumed?

Meaning is absolutely key in luxury. Meaning is ultimately what people buy and consume in luxury. Meaning helps build the dream. French contemporary philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky is a respected, prolific thinker about the conceptual and sociological approach to luxury. Lipovetsky was one of my Masters in school and I remember our conversations about meaning in luxury. He believes that luxury has an anthropological nature and is an absolute necessity for humans to affirm their superiority to other animals, otherwise our destiny would be reduced to survival and conservation. He would ask in class: Can humanity exist without dreams?

One of the famous quotes by 18th century French philosopher Voltaire was “The superfluous, a very necessary thing”. And Shakespeare once said that “removing what is superfluous to a man will annihilate his humanity”.

So, luxury brands all carefully weave meaning related to their beliefs and purpose. Take, for instance, Montblanc, a beautiful brand of writing instruments and other accessories. At Montblanc, everyone believes in education and culture to empower children and make the world a better place. And the act of writing is very much related to education and culture. So, the brand partners with UNICEF to invest in the education of over five million vulnerable children around the world. Montblanc also create limited editions of pens inspired in the life and work of prominent names in literature, science, history and arts. Beautiful objects that delight collectors and connoisseurs.

Brands and consumers of luxury connect to meaning when they share the same beliefs.

How do you see the market evolving? What will be the implications for brands and how will it change how luxury is articulated?

I believe that a deeper separation between different luxuries will develop in this new decade.

On the one hand, affordable luxury and premium, which used to be characterized by different codes, will be increasingly alike and accessible. It might be difficult to tell the difference between them. They will eventually merge.

The word ‘luxury’ contains a lot more intrinsic value than the word ‘premium’. So, the former will be used to refer to the latter, to its more affordable offering where tangible attributes are king.

On the other hand, true luxury for the wealthy elites, where intangibility will predominate over the tangible attributes. Scarcity, exclusivity and customized refinement in service will be a must.

This separation already exists; however, it is not so strong. I think it will be much more evident in future.

According to a study by Bain & Co. the luxury market is expected to grow about 5% per year, in the next 5 years, very much fueled by younger generations, especially in Asia, buying fashion, cosmetics and accessories. E-commerce will increase in premium and affordable luxury goods.

A recent survey jointly led by Boston Consulting Group and Vestiaire Collective, released this October 2019, confirms that the pre-loved / pre-owned luxury goods market is exploding – both because of the emergence of more powerful middle classes wanting to access luxury and also for sustainability reasons - with global sales predicted to grow at an average 12% year-on-year, and its turnover forecasted to increase from USD 25 Billion in 2018 to USD 36 Billion in 2021. I see it as a significant sign that confirms the democratization of luxury.

On the other hand, the Global Wealth Report from Credit Suisse just published in October 2019, confirms that the number of millionaires in the world grew to nearly 47 Million over the past year, and they now own close to half of the world’s wealth.

From the social perspective, we might of course argue whether this is correct, desirable and even ethical, but from the strict business point of view this is a very good opportunity for some brands ‘to up their game’ and develop very sophisticated objects and experiences for this niche market of 47 Million people and their families.

Since luxury today has become too much about acquisition and creates shifts in context, how can luxury brands go about recapturing or returning to meaning / true essence or (re)create it in their DNA?

Luxury has been evolving overtime. In the Renaissance period, it was very much about ostentation and extravagance. Then in France, under the command of the Sun King Louis XIV and Colbert, his Minister of State, luxury brings craftsmanship, scarce and rare raw materials in customized products. Later, in the Century of Lights, it embraces increasing intangibility with elements of art, refinement, elegance, taste and culture.

From the 19th century onward, luxury takes on greater simplicity and influence from the arts. Intangible attributes such as stimulation of the senses, exclusivity, scarcity, sophistication, seduction and charm are cultivated. Authenticity, simplicity as well as pleasure in the elements of art and culture are then the ultimate refinement in luxury.

The late 20th century saw social changes and the emergence of more powerful middle classes, almost anywhere in the world and luxury becomes too much about acquisition as a status marker. The process of democratization of luxury becomes stronger. Tangible attributes are over evaluated whereas most of the intangibility in a luxury object or brand is less valued. In order to avoid the risk of banalization, luxury brands should go back to developing more intangibility: purpose, paradoxes, a little mystery, seductive symbology, scarcity, cultural patronage, sophistication, embracing big and timeless causes and nurturing the personal relationship with clients in order to strengthen meaning and relevance.

True luxury brands know how to do it. The question is whether all high-end brands actually wish to follow that path. Just like I said to you earlier, I believe that luxury will evolve into a deeper separation between 2 groups: on the one hand, brands wanting to engage with those who value attractive tangible attributes and on the other hand, luxury brands wishing to weave long lasting, meaningful relationships based on seductive and timeless intangibility.

Vuitton has built a Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Bentley weaved privileged relationship with the British Royal Family and produce customized automobiles for the Royals, Vacheron Constantin just signed an artistic partnership with the Louvre Museum in Paris for the development of joint creative projects, Bvlgari is sponsoring the restoration work of ancient marble statues of the Torlonia Foundation set up by Prince Alessandro Torlonia, Hermès refuse to do marketing work and instead they invest in craftsmanship, scarcity and privileged, one-to-one communication with loyal customers and target audience, Montblanc launch every year limited pen editions inspired in the life and work of prominent personalities in history, arts and science. These are just a few examples of what some true luxury brands are doing to permanently weave meaning in their DNA and stay relevant in the luxury context.

Exclusivity in luxury has always been inherent. In your opinion, why does it matter? Since luxury is more accessible today, does this increase the value of exclusivity now and into the future?

Luxury is about exclusivity, indeed. Exclusive products and moments make people feel special and unique. It pampers your ego and fosters happiness. When you buy luxury, you are actually buying moments of happiness.

Exclusivity is one of the most important attributes in luxury and it is probably due to the phenomenon of the Sumptuary Laws, which have been in force between 200 B.C. and 475 A.D., and were designed to protect the hierarchical interests of the upper classes by greatly restricting the consumption behaviours of the lower classes, on religious and moral grounds.

However, the true goal of such laws was to prevent these lower classes from imitating the consumption patterns of the powerful people. Exclusivity and scarcity add value to any object, service or brand whilst abundance decreases value.

Luxury is indeed more accessible today and hence it does increase the value of exclusivity.

Take for example, Hermès, probably the most exclusive luxury brand. Many of their products are deliberately ultra-exclusive, they are not advertised, are only made to order and you might have to wait from 6 months to 6 years to own them. Service is exquisite and personal interaction with clients is full of seduction and sophistication. For example, the Birkin bag has proved to be a much better long-term investment that stock or gold. conducted a study in 2016 and compared the prices of gold during 35 years, the prices of Standard & Poor 500 stock and the prices of a Birkin bag over the same period of time. S&P 500 stock has shown an average annual return of 11,6%, whilst gold recorded an average annual return of 1,9% and the Birkin bag has never registered downwards fluctuation and offered an annual average increase in value of 14,2%.

This is the real value of exclusivity.

What do you see as the true meaning of luxury both from the brand perspective and the customer perspective?

The Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum is hosting the “10.000 Years of Luxury” exhibition through February 2020, with the aim to bring light, reflection and debate on the meaning of luxury.

“No concrete definition for luxury is offered by this show and that is very deliberate. Instead, our intention is to make visitors continually explore and reassess accepted wisdom around what luxury represents by showing them varying interpretations across the ages. It is about helping them develop their own ideas”, Mr. Olivier Gabet, the museum’s director and exhibition’s curator, said in a recent interview to the New York Times.

There are indeed many definitions and interpretations for luxury. But I believe you need to fully understand the luxury codes in order to shape an interesting opinion of your own.

In my opinion, from the brand perspective, true luxury is about culture to seduce and add value, it is about innovation to surprise the customer, it is about developing paradoxes to foster fascination and tease the customer’s brain, it is about embossing mystery in products and in the customer relationship to wow the consumer and sparkle power of attraction. It is about turning a brand into an entity of cult.

My own definition of luxury - from de brand’s perspective – is that it is a subtle combination of perfect tangibility with seductive intangibility.

Consumers of true luxury are cultivated, well-educated individuals who normally show and appreciate good manners and natural elegant behavior.

So, from the customer’s perspective, as I said earlier, true luxury is a state of mind and a way of life.

Many think of luxury as being one dimensional eg personal.  We see luxury as multi-dimensional and multifaceted, like a 3D shape. What facets do you see in the definition of luxury?

Luxury has a fascinating appeal and it draws you in. It draws your attention, curiosity and the desire to belong because it is multidimensional and multifaceted indeed. It draws you in by its prominence, aesthetics, design, beauty, extreme quality, craftsmanship, space and perfection, but most of all because of its intangible nature. It has purpose, mystery, elegance, innovation, creativity, history, tradition, heritage, scarcity, exclusivity, desire, sophistication, extravagance, excess, excellence, culture, manners, timelessness, paradoxes, emotion, surprise, sensuality, customization, experience, social status and pleasure for all the senses, making it desired by many, yet accessible to few.

It targets and resonates with different consumer profiles and audiences. It is bought for personal pleasure, for social competition and for any mix of both.

And these many facets make it so fascinating, intriguing and attractive.

Luxury should be about how it’s experienced, it’s about feeling, an emotional connection and evocation. How can Luxury be more charming and resonate in an emotional level?

Charm, emotion, feeling, experience, are all conveyed by intangible attributes and by human interaction, blended with a drop of seduction.  Charm in human interaction is of the essence. And charm is normally conveyed by the elegance, eloquence, sobriety, genuine kindness, conviction, authenticity, instinct, savor-faire, opinion, integrity, impeccable appearance and effortless passion of those who work for such brands and deal with customers. It provides the true luxury of making the customers feel unique, special and happy.

In my opinion, desirability is developed with creativity, design and strong brand equity.

Creativity to foster innovation and create ‘wow moments’ for the consumer. Design to build an aesthetical universe for the brand, which will lead to beauty. Beauty is magnetic. Strong brand equity is developed with brand legacy, with exclusivity to connect with the ego and build the dream, with seductive symbology that touches brand lovers with culture and icons that will build emotional connection with the audience. And brand equity is also developed with consistent communication in charming events that will deliver memorable experiences and seduce the consumer.

And this is how you turn consumers into a parish of devotees!

About Antonio Paraiso

Mr. Paraiso is a Luxury, Marketing and Innovation Speaker and Consultant. He is an excellent, engaging and informative public speaker, executive trainer and consultant. His experience and expertise is in luxury marketing and sales, international business, services marketing and innovation. He has a true love of servicing and delighting customers, is a relationship builder and is a non-mainstream thinker, balanced with common sense. He attended schools in London, Porto and Madrid. Mr. Paraiso has a strong background as Sales Director in the international market over a 19 year period before starting his freelance business. Fluent in 5 languages he is a world traveler, developing business relationships in more than 45 countries, across the 5 continents. His speaking engagements have taken him to Asia, Europe, Middle East and Latin America in conferences for Procter & Gamble, Deloitte, L'Oreal, Porsche, Armani, Sheraton, BNP Paribas, LOEWE, Philips, Pandora and many other leading brands. He is also a collaborator with the World Business Forum and writes articles for magazines and blogs.

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Originally published on EAT LOVE SAVOR Luxury, January 16, 2020

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