June 27, 2012
Book excerpt: Meta-luxury: Brands and the Culture of Excellence
Although what we define as meta-luxury acquires a special relevance as a result of the global crisis of 2008–9, it is by no means a new phenomenon. Rather, it is the rediscovery of a paradigm and a set of principles deeply entrenched in European culture. For this reason, defining it in a precise way and fully appreciating its meaning requires a somewhat sinuous, but also fascinating, journey across centuries and cultures.
The works of St Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) are usually identified as being the most significant milestones of Scholasticism, the intellectual force that throughout the Middle Ages blended the rediscovery of classic philosophers with Christian theology. The influence of St Thomas on the development of philosophy and the Catholic religion in the subsequent centuries is immense – such that the school of thought stemming from his thinking has come to deserve a specific designation, and is known and studied as Thomism. In today’s impoverished language St Thomas would probably be described as an innovator. In truth, his role can be described only as revolutionary. His theology combined two apparently conflicting elements – faith and reason – and recognised their convergence as being instrumental to an understanding of the ultimate truth about God.
By far his most extensively studied book, the Summa Theologiae, includes what are known as the ‘five ways’ of St Thomas – five demonstrations of God’s existence, each articulated as a different argument on the same logical skeleton.
Of these, the ‘fifth way’ is known as being the demonstration ex fine (from the purpose, or end), or the teleological demonstration. In St Thomas’s words:
The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God. i
It is difficult not to be captivated and distracted by the pristine incisiveness and concise elegance of what is just a very small fragment of the opus. There is, however, a specific aspect that should not be overlooked, and it is neither the conclusion nor the reasoning, but the very assumption. The entire demonstration revolves around one beautifully compelling observation: knowledge and intelligence are the differentiating attributes of all that moves towards an objective. There can be no purpose without knowledge (the Latin cognitio) and intelligence (the Latin intelligentia), St Thomas notes.
This is a uniquely powerful statement in its simplicity. It is profoundly individual and yet absolute. It connects intellect and intention. It sets human qualities within the universal flow of things. It adds depth to ideas such as sense, determination and mission.
It is interesting to draw a parallel with another phenomenon taking place in approximately the same period – the rise of Gothic architecture. Originating from France and Germany, and subsequently absorbed in Italy, this style is seen by many historians and critics ii as the architectural expression of Scholastic philosophy: just as the latter pursued a self-sufficient, consequential logical structure, Gothic architecture displayed a coherent combination and progression of individual elements.
Gothic architecture is based on the concept of verticality, and juxtaposes a strong rooting in the ground with a dynamic thrust towards the heights, achieved through elements such as pointed arches and ribbed columns. What arresting masterpieces of art, engineering and craftsmanship such as the cathedrals of Chartres, Reims or Cologne express is a constant, rhythmic ascension towards divinity, generated by elements which tend to disappear in the vastness above – an unmistakable sense of reaching higher, which permeates each and every element of these complex buildings. In celebrating a universal direction, Gothic architecture is the tangible manifestation of St Thomas’s ‘fifth way’.
The higher sense of purpose encapsulated in the great Gothic cathedrals is so much more than a purely architectural matter – it is profoundly human. Their conception was a challenge to physical laws and to the conventions of space; their construction, a colossal endeavour spanning decades and entire generations. Again, knowledge and intelligence put to the service of a greater end.
This same notion of endless pursuit appears in a very distant context, stemming from a radically different background – the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is extremely dangerous to simplify the traits of a movement spanning many fields of human thought and expression – from music to literature, from philosophy to the figurative arts – and diverse cultures. However, one of the consistent themes which distinguish Romanticism is the relentless, unending quest for the infinite and the unexplored. It is a quest that is deeply individual, and has to do with intellectual and emotional qualities.
Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses is recognised as being one of the most representative works of Romanticism. In this dramatic monologue, an aging but still restless Ulysses, surrounded by his loyal companions, prepares to set sail for his last journey. The final verse of this work is in itself a manifesto:
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.iii
Once again, there is here a sense of restless pursuit, which, however, in the Romantic vision takes on a specific connotation. It coincides with a desperate attempt to escape from the limitations of human nature and an unquenchable desire to connect with the absolute and the timeless.
Knowledge, Purpose and Timelessness:
There are a variety of other philosophical, religious or artistic references where the sense of purpose is the central, if not the defining, element. Overall, what we see across different cultures, centuries and disciplines is a consistent sequence. Knowledge, in its widest possible sense, is essential to purpose. Purpose is, in turn, the path towards timelessness.
Knowledge. Purpose. Timelessness. A stirring chain – in which each of the three elements has to do at once with individual longing and universal aspirations.
As human beings, we live in the flow of the one force that is both irreversible and unstoppable: time. Everything we perceive, as well as all that we do, is subject to the transformation and decay that time implies. And yet, we sometimes use the term ‘timeless’. Interestingly, whatever we may be referring to, the term is invariably used to describe an achievement.
Achievement is, in fact, the one notion that encompasses the sequence of knowledge, purpose and timelessness.
An achievement stems from knowledge, in the widest possible sense. Be it a leap forward in a field of science or technology, or a masterpiece in art, or even a groundbreaking sports attainment, an achievement is necessarily the result of some kind of experience, consciousness and savoir-faire.
And, although serendipity does certainly play a role in human advancement, an achievement is also by definition the fulfillment of a sought-after purpose – the end of a process of striving towards a clear goal.
Finally, an achievement can have the power to withstand the flow of time, and transcend the limitations of a lifetime, passing on from one generation to the next. Be they world-changing innovations or influential works of the intellect, it is past achievements that define cultures and history. An achievement stems from the pursuit of timelessness.
In these pages, we suggest that there is no better way to outline the concept of meta-luxury than, simply, through the notion of ‘unique achievement’. In short, meta-luxury is an enterprise paradigm based on knowledge, purpose and the pursuit of timelessness, ultimately embodied in a unique achievement.
This definition is an effective way to break away from the overused concept of luxury. There are many brands that define themselves as belonging to the world of ‘luxury’. Yet, how many of them can credibly claim to represent a unique achievement? How many of them are based on distinctive knowledge of some kind? How many pursue a purpose which stretches beyond mere commercial performance? Ultimately, how many have reached or effectively strive to reach the stature of timelessness?
Only some of the so-called luxury brands do, and that is precisely where we draw the line between ‘luxury’ and meta-luxury – the former often being a stale convention, the latter being always an authentic conviction.
‘Luxury’ is often a self-proclaimed status; meta-luxury is always a restless pursuit. ‘Luxury’ is often about showing; meta-luxury is always about knowing. ‘Luxury’ is often about stretch and surface; meta-luxury is always about focus and depth. ‘Luxury’ is sometimes about ostentation; meta-luxury always about discovery. ‘Luxury’ is often merely about affording; meta-luxury is always first and foremost about understanding.
Because meta-luxury is a philosophy and approach, it cannot be defined through specific product categories. It is true, though, that certain categories may have reached a point where the complexity of the knowledge inherent in them, the meaning of their endeavour and the near-perfection of their results provide them with an affinity to meta-luxury.
For instance, it is difficult not to see the paradigm of meta-luxury manifest itself in some of the world’s most respected winemakers, where the wealth and depth of diverse competences, often passed on from one generation to the next for centuries, blend with an intrinsic conviction about wine being the celebration of the fullness of life in the creation of rare masterpieces, some vintages remaining as benchmarks. Knowledge, purpose and timelessness.
In a completely different context, some automotive icons are born of the combination of unprecedented technology, taste-defining design and advanced engineering (knowledge). They challenge notions of safety, physical laws and the parameters of man–machine interaction (purpose). They become standards, often representing an era (timelessness).
The diversity and breadth of what underlies such absolute and universal concepts as knowledge, purpose and timelessness do not impose a constraint on the concretisation of meta-luxury.
From Culture to Business ...
Today, a cotton T-shirt sporting the logo of a well known, expensive brand will be categorised as a ‘luxury’ product. But so will a unique, handcrafted watch embodying centuries and generations of unrivalled skill and innovation in time measurement. We would all agree that there is a distortion in this – the two are completely incomparable entities.
But why, exactly?
Beyond all obvious and superficial considerations – price, availability and so forth – what fundamentally sets the two objects apart is the concept of unique achievement; and, within it, the notions of knowledge, purpose and timelessness. These notions apply to the latter product, and clearly not to the former.
The deeply philosophical roots of meta-luxury should not mislead. Stemming from a distinct cultural approach, meta-luxury is in fact a specific business model, with a number of traits and implications. Distinguishing meta-luxury from the traditional notion of ‘luxury’ is not just a theoretical exercise in business language. It is much more consequential and tangible.
At the heart of all differences is a simple but fundamental one. Contrary to classical market doctrine, in meta-luxury business results are not a target; they are a means. They are merely a way to fund the ongoing pursuit of unique achievement.
This may read as a dangerous statement. Does it mean that meta-luxury is hostile, or indifferent, to the notion of profit? Are we trying to split the world into ruthless return-seekers and disinterested craftsmen? Absolutely not. The right term to describe meta-luxury would, in fact, be one that is now abundantly used in other contexts – sustainability. In meta-luxury, business results are meant to sustain – and never to drive – the enterprise’s mission and ethos. Economic success is therefore a requisite and a consequence, but not the primary objective.
While this is indeed in contradiction to the notion that the maximisation of shareholder value is an enterprise’s goal, it is not in contradiction to its being a result. Escaping the obsession with quarterly financial reports and short-term targets, meta-luxury generates shareholder value by focusing on the uncompromising, ongoing quest for unique achievement.
It is through the long-term preservation of ever-improving skills and nurtured talent, of a clear mission and undying values and of an unblemished reputation for pursuing timeless results that meta-luxury enterprises deliver value.
As we shall see, meta-luxury is a paradigm that generates value at a pace and with a gradient of risk that differs from those of typical financial markets.
… and from Business to Branding
There is one entity in which an enterprise’s skills, mission and reputation are preserved and through which they generate value: its brand.
Meta-luxury brands embody an organisation’s – or individual’s – knowledge and talent. They express its, or her/his, purpose and mission. Ultimately, they reflect its ambition for a place in history. It is by standing for knowledge, purpose and pursued timelessness that meta-luxury brands reduce or eliminate substitutability. They drive demand and secure it for the future by representing unique achievement.
Brand management is often about leveraging and flexing a brand in order to benefit from emerging business opportunities. That can lead to complete re-engineering of the brand’s meaning and equity, and even to the transformation of its scope.
This is not true of meta-luxury brands. Because of their deep and absolute significance – again, knowledge, purpose and timelessness – meta-luxury brands simply cannot be reshaped on the basis of short term profit targets or opportunities. They would be diluting their entire raison-d’ être.
This does not mean that meta-luxury brands can or should stand still: they are living assets. Simply, their evolution and their optimal management are inside–out, rather than outside–in, processes. While generally we can speak about a brand’s proposition or positioning, for meta-luxury brands it is more appropriate to talk, first and foremost, about a brand’s DNA. That unique and immutable character shapes and orientates the brand’s growth in time, ensuring that it allows for relevance as well as loyalty to its original significance. In other words, meta-luxury brands are based on a set of eternal chromosomes, which combine and manifest themselves in different ways, at different times.
This gives rise to a fundamental distinction. While normally – and even in so-called luxury – it is the business that drives the brand, in meta-luxury it is the brand that drives the business.
It is for this reason that drawing a clear line between traditional luxury and meta-luxury provides an indispensable strategic brand management platform.
Understanding the difference between the two models is essential to the determination of the nature and degree of change that can help a brand compete in the future. It is key to identifying attractive combinations of return and risk, thus securing the business’s sustainability. It is, ultimately, about seamlessly connecting culture and long-term business performance.
i Summa Theologiae, St Thomas Aquinas, ‘Quinta via sumitur ex gubernatione rerum. Videmus enim quod aliqua quae cognitione carent, scilicet corpora naturalia, operantur propter finem, quod apparet ex hoc quod semper aut frequentius eodem modo operantur, ut consequantur id quod est optimum; unde patet quod non a casu, sed ex intentione perveniunt ad finem. Ea autem quae non habent cognitionem, non tendunt in finem nisi directa ab aliquo cognoscente et intelligente, sicut sagitta a sagittante. Ergo est aliquid intelligens, a quo omnes res naturales ordinantur ad finem, et hoc dicimus Deum.’
ii Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, Erwin Panofsky (1951), Archabbey Press.
iii Ulysses, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1833).
Salvatore Accardo is universally regarded as the greatest Italian violinist of modern times. Since his début recital in 1954, aged 13, he has performed across the world with the greatest conductors and orchestras, himself frequently taking the role of conductor. His extensive recordings for the world’s most respected labels include works by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Paganini, Schubert and Tchaikovsky. Astor Piazzolla, a close friend of Accardo, dedicated a number of pieces to him. Italy’s highest honour, the Cavaliere di Gran Croce, was bestowed upon Accardo by the President of the Italian Republic in 1982. In 1996 the Beijing Conservatoire named him ‘Most Honourable Professor’. In 1999 he was granted the order of ‘Commandeur dans l’ordre du mérit culturel’, the highest title of the principality of Monaco, and in 2002 he received the prestigious ‘Una Vita per la Musica’ Award. The Art of Salvatore Accardo: a Life for the Violin, a boxed anthology, was recently released by Universal. Accardo is also the founder of the internationally acclaimed Orchestra da Camera Italiana, which brings together the best pupils and alumni of the Stauffer Academy in Cremona. Salvatore Accardo plays the 1727 Hartex-Francescatti Stradivarius, as well as a 1733 Guarneri del Gesù and a 1620 Giovanni Paolo Maggini.
‘Well, maybe that is what real luxury is after all.’ Salvatore Accardo smiles as one of his daughters toddles toward him. ‘Looking at children’s eyes and feeling the love. That is just beyond comparison.’
The winter afternoon we spend in Milan talking to one of the greatest violinists of all time quickly turns into a mesmerising flow of reflections and anecdotes on the past, the future and the eternity of music.
‘To a musician, a first form of real luxury is playing a great instrument,’ the Maestro begins. Playing, not necessarily owning. ‘You see, we are never really the owners of these instruments. We are merely stewards, whose duty is to preserve them for those who will come after us.’ He pauses. ‘Yet, some musicians fail to understand this. They treat these masterpieces as if they were their property. They’ll do anything to them – change the bridge over and over, open and close them at will. It’s like repeated surgery on a human being.’
Ownership inevitably takes us to the question of value. ‘When I was young, even though it required huge sacrifices, purchasing an excellent instrument was still possible. Today, that is no longer the case.’ Prices have soared beyond reason, he explains. Pumped by people who ‘started buying anything, at any price,’ prices have become a question of market (‘ugly word,’ he jokes), driven by offer and demand.i
A spontaneous question is whether, beyond the auction craze, the instruments of the likes of Stradivari or Guarneri really do have something more. ‘No, they don’t have something more,’ Maestro Accardo chuckles. ‘They have a lot more. Two things, essentially: the quality of the sound, and its power. Antonio Stradivari’s violins were already the most expensive during his lifetime, between the 17th and 18th centuries. He made instruments for the royal families, and there are amazingly beautiful examples at the Palacio Real in Madrid. He lived a very long life, especially by the standards of that time, and 18 Meta-luxury produced over two thousand instruments, the last of which dates from the year of his death. All that, by the way, made him extremely wealthy. A popular expression in Cremona at that time was “you’re as rich as Stradivari”.’
Is time the secret of these instruments, we wonder. ‘Time does a lot, but that isn’t the explanation. There are some very good makers around today. Their instruments play well, and will get even better in time. But I don’t believe they’ll ever reach the excellence of Stradivari and, to a certain extent, Guarneri. Even Amati and Guadagnini, who were superb masters, never reached those peaks. Let’s face it,’ he smiles, ‘those two [Stradivari and Guarneri] were simply better than the others. Even with today’s sophisticated examination techniques, all we have discovered are a few hints about the use of certain varnishing ingredients,’ Accardo explains. ‘On the whole, the mystery remains. There’s a story – a legend, perhaps – about Stradivari keeping his violins in his bedroom for one month before varnishing them. Could it be that he radiated a special energy? Perhaps there is a kind of magic in this story after all,’ he adds, pensively.
What could arguably be called the greatest brand ever – Stradivari – is now history. The logical question is whether Antonio Stradivari developed a school. ‘Well, Antonio did have pupils, including two of his sons. Also, remember,’ he explains, ‘that it all goes back to Andrea Amati, maker of the first example of a violin as we now know it. Antonio Stradivari and Andrea Guarneri were apprentices of his nephew, Nicola Amati. These were the roots of the great school of Cremona, which includes the likes of Guadagnini, Ruggeri and many other masters.’
Calling these instruments works of art is amply justified. However, he notes, ‘they are not paintings. You can’t have them just sit there. An instrument is a living entity. It gets better in time if it gets played, and deteriorates if it is played badly or not played at all. Wood is a living material,’ he explains passionately. ‘Even the varnish is. Scrape it away for whatever reason, and it will quickly expand to cover the clearing. Like a living organism, it will regenerate,’ he concludes. ‘Sound is about vibrations. Keep the wood still, and it will gradually atrophy. Throughout 1982, the year marking Niccolò Paganini’s 200th birthday, I played around 80 concerts on his violin. The sound regained its full excellence and power only towards the final performances. That instrument is seldom played,’ he observes, ‘a crying shame.’
The importance of wood stretches beyond the instrument itself. Great architects, the Maestro notes, know that concert halls can only be made of wood. ‘I produce sound through a wooden instrument,’ he reasons. ‘Only through more wood can it be amplified and still be my own sound. Where other materials interfere too much, I no longer hear my sound. That’s why playing in halls like the Musikverein in Vienna, the Bibbiena Theatre in Mantova or even the Disney Hall in Los Angeles is indeed a form of luxury. A great instrument, a fantastic hall. Come on, what else can you want?’ he laughs.
‘You know, as string players, we have a very sensual relationship with the instrument. Think of a pianist. Several mechanical elements stand between his or her fingers and the string. A violinist, instead, has an immediate contact, and that makes a colossal difference. When playing Paganini’s violin, I place my chin and my fingers where he used to. An emotion that defies description. It is a kind of symbiotic relationship, in which one gives life to the other.
‘Let me tell you this story,’ he continues. ‘It happened to me when I bought a 1727 Stradivari from Zino Francescatti, one of the greatest violinists who ever lived. He had played it for over 40 years. He insisted that before buying it I should play it for a month or so. I performed my very first concert at Carnegie Hall with that violin. A man from the audience came to me after the concert and said, “I’m sure your favourite violinist is Francescatti.” “I love Francescatti, but he’s not the only one,” I answered. “Why do you say so?” “Because you sound exactly like him.” I was amazed – and he was, too, when I told him that this was, in fact, Francescatti’s violin. I was playing, but his sound was what was coming out. Today, many years on, that man wouldn’t make the same remark. A violin that is played for so many years by a violinist inevitably absorbs his or her sound.’
The subject of sound leads us to discuss ‘another form of luxury that as a musician I have the privilege to enjoy – the opportunity to work on the masterpieces of the great composers. For instance, delving deep into the works of Beethoven. Mind you, it is not just about the beauty of the score itself, but about the fact of bringing it to life again. That is truly a miracle,’ he muses. ‘Hundreds of different musicians read the same score. The notes are identical. And still, the interpretations will be disparate. And there’s something else,’ he goes on. ‘You can play a great concerto or sonata hundreds of times, and every single time you’ll discover something new about it. The moment this stops being true, you should get worried – you are the one who’s got nothing left to add. This influences the relationship between the musician and the audience. If your playing expresses nothing, nothing is what you’ll get from the audience, and vice-versa. The circle is broken.’
Luxury is never about ostentation, Accardo suggests, and that applies perfectly to music. ‘Some musicians seem to throw their talent in your face. I’ll never forget the words of one of the greatest musicians of all time, David Oistrakh.ii “We don’t go onstage to show how good we are, but to share how lucky we are,” he once told me. Our emotion in conveying the miracle of music should be so intense that it should keep you focused on doing just that. It should prevent you from showing off or doing anything else. Yet, nowadays, everything seems to be transformed into entertainment. Music is a lot more than that. I have had the opportunity to meet, and play with, some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. Oistrakh himself. Stern, Casals, Rostropovich, Celibidache. Their common trait was their humility in front of music – the belief that they were the servants of music, not the other way around. Having listened and spoken to them, having spent time and played with them – well, I assume that has been indeed an extraordinarily rare form of luxury.’ He pauses, and then adds, ‘And I would have given anything to live in another century and meet Brahms, Beethoven or Mozart. Can you imagine? Doesn’t that really resize the notion of luxury? Overall,’ he concludes, ‘I suppose luxury isn’t what most people believe it is. Luxury is something deep. If you agree that one of Mozart’s scores is luxury, then I guess you must also accept that most other things aren’t.’
Looking forward, the Maestro reveals that one of his dreams is ‘to see young people – not musicians – who really choose what music they should listen to. You may not like Beethoven’s music. I can accept that. But you must have listened to it first and developed a point of view. Isn’t choice a form of luxury, too? I’m afraid many young people don’t have this.’ In more general terms, he observes, ‘luxury is created by those people who allow us to know, and force us to think and choose. People who create culture are producing luxury. In the extreme, those individuals that risk their own life to expose unfairness, corruption and criminality. In the end, nothing is more dangerous to cruel people than knowledge and words – and, sometimes, music.’
Salvatore Accardo pauses for a moment. ‘You know, after all, music has the power to encapsulate a fragment of existence.’
i In June 2011, shortly after this interview, the ‘Lady Blunt’ Stradivari violin fetched €11 million at a charity auction whose proceeds were destined for the relief effort following Japan’s 11 March earthquake.
ii David Fyodorovich Oistrakh (1908–74), born in Odessa, is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential virtuosi of the 20th century. Aram Khachaturian and Dmitri Shostakovich dedicated their violin concertos to him.