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Affording luxury is a luxury

The market for high-end consumer products in Brazil has not stopped growing

Oscar Wilde once wisely said “Give me that which is superfluous and I will give up that which is essential”. Queen Marie Antoinette (on this page and the next pages as played by film actress Kirsten Dunst, in the film Marie Antoinette, directed by Sofia Coppola) wanted both and was beheaded. This was perhaps the first example that one must keep one’s head on one’s neck to use luxury and politics happily. Coming from the Austrian Court, where ceremonial excesses had been replaced by a more simple style of government, the 16-year old adolescent had a hard time when faced with the pomp and circumstance of Versailles. “She knows nothing about etiquette, shows no awareness of her position and is not playing her role”, her brother Emperor Joseph II said. The young woman finally realized it all, but she exaggerated the dose: she wallowed in luxury to gain elbow room, without realizing that whatever was acceptable for the “royal mistress” was intolerable in a queen. The court and the ordinary people began to hate the way she flaunted her jewelry, shoes, dresses and perfumes. By using luxury to gain power, she lost everything and left us a valuable lesson: sometimes, against Freudian reasoning, a dress can be much more than just a dress.

“By means of luxury, the core paradigm of consumption, the wealthier classes generate value systems, sociability structures, forms of symbolic production and a true cultural arrangement which is ultimately conveyed to and re-focused on the other social classes by means of models, consumer ideals to be heterogeneously reproduced among the latter,” says anthropologist Valéria Brandini, whose post-doctorate thesis, under professor Guillermo Ruben, from the State University of Campinas, discusses the ethnography of luxury. The thesis is funded by FAPESP. According to the anthropologist, social groups and movements do not remain indifferent, and take  a stand  one way or another, because of the relation with the hegemonic group of luxury goods consumers. All one needs is to remember that the same group of furious women who went to pick up Marie Antoinette and the king to take them back to Paris to be beheaded, later on ransacked the royal closets and stole the dresses, the jewelry and the shoes that had provoked the royal demise.

“Luxury is a cultural phenomenon that is found in virtually all of the ancient civilizations and primitive people. It is born as a search for consumption which is devoid of any reasoning, that is, there is no concern about what will happen afterwards. Ever since the dawn of time, luxury has been the dividing line separating social classes and promoting the hierarchical structure that defines social roles”, Valéria points out. According to the researcher, the relationship between luxury and society can be a way of better understanding the existing class relationships, especially in Brazil. “The consumption of luxury is converted into an important category to reflect not only on the cosmology of the wealthy classes, but also on the co-relations and conflicts between several social classes and how these classes feel about the disparity of the unequal income distribution in Brazil, and differ from each other in terms of values, behavior and perspectives”, she points out. She adds that, in the manner of the concept developed by Lévi-Strauss, the food in certain native Indian civilizations is not only something good to eat, but is also something to think about; in relation to consumption we not only enjoy the functionality of the objects, but we also reflect on its meaning, absorbing the essence of the values that the consumption object provides us with. “Our consumption habits define us.”

This concept is expressed in the first research study on the luxury market conducted in Brazil. The research study was conducted in 2006 and 2007 by MCF Consultoria consulting firm and by the Instituto Gfk Indicator research institute. The study reveals the growth of the Brazilian luxury goods market, whose sales correspond to US$ 3.9 billions (1% of the global market’s sales), a significant growth of 17%, if compared to the approximately 3.7% growth of Brazil’s GDP. Brazil still accounts for 70% of the luxury goods consumption in Latin America and can “boast” because it houses one of the biggest luxury goods emporiums in the world: the 20 thousand square-meter Daslu, whose premises include 87 bathrooms, 72 cash registers, 22 elevators and 63 international brands. “It is a point that capitalism has symbols, in  the same manner that the native Indians of the Amazon Region, the natives from Polynesia and the Africans in Africa have symbols and mythologies. Consumer goods are the most visible part of contemporary culture”, says anthropologist Roberto DaMatta. “The consumer society made a sacrament out of the profane, that is, it lifted and enhanced the material world, leading it to the condition of deserving respect and devotion, much like ancient religious values  deserved in the past”, agrees André Cauduro D’Angelo, who wrote the research study Precisar, não precisa (published by Lazuli Editora) for the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

The researcher, who conducted a number of interviews for the paper on luxury, addressed the “moral” issue of consumption. “The respondents resorted to a liberal logic to justify the consumption of luxury items from a moral perspective. In their opinion, luxury is the result of individual effort, and as such, it is legitimate self-gratification. It seems almost natural that in the world of luxury the understanding of society is stimulated in order to mitigate or weaken any moral reflection.” A good example is found in the conversations that D’Angelo had with the “aventaizinhas” the uniformed staff who work at Daslu, who are the total opposite of the “dasluzetes”, “the socialite sales girls who help in the socialization of the new members of the elite, a formula whereby old money welcomes new money, by teaching the nouveau riche what to buy, how to dress and which brands to idolize.” The “aventaizinhas” who are forbidden to sit on the chairs spread around the emporium and are not allowed to talk to the shoppers, show a very positive attitude to this world of luxury that excludes them. “In a society in which the best way of climbing up the social ladder is by lodging under the wings of a wealthy person, the two parties make an agreement that is in effect in the world of luxury: the elite extend its hands to the plebeians, who, in exchange, do not question, challenge or criticize.” This legitimizes the consumption of luxury goods. People compare their reality to the reality of those immediately above them, and mirror themselves in them. Instead of being condemned, the consumption of luxury is admired and imitated, and that which might have generated a moral discussion becomes a mere issue of financial possibility.

The issue is historical, albeit recent. For many centuries, luxury was viewed by man with different eyes to those of modern times. Pre-historical luxury, for example, was not focused on the ownership of objects. It was focused on exchange, in which the prestigious objects were reserved for an exchange in the religious and magical sense, where something was given and received in the same measure. The objects were symbols and not “things.” Kula was one of the first manifestations of this kind. Kula was a ritual of the Melanesians; it was an inter-tribal exchange of beads and seashell bracelets, the value of which resides in the continuity of the transmission. With the rise of the State, luxury became consolidated as a social institution, and began to coincide with the reasoning behind accumulation, centralization and hierarchy. Plato, Aristotle and Socrates did not approve of the desire for excess, of everything that went beyond the basic needs established by nature. Unbelievable as it may sound, the Romans also disapproved of unbridled consumption, which was seen as a threat to order: Cicero and Seneca condemned luxury as a character-corrupting vice. “Sanctuary laws” were created in 200 B.C. to avoid “evil”; these laws put constraints on the consumption of luxury and remained in effect until 1200. “The wealth and social climbing of the bourgeoisie led luxury to emancipate itself from the sacred and from the hierarchical order, becoming a sphere open to the consolidation of social mobility”, Valeria points out.

The same economic reasoning which at the end of the XVII century legitimized  man  as a consumer released the luxury genie from his bottle. “The instrumental justification for luxury occurred at a time when the bourgeoisie was beginning to flaunt products previously restricted to the nobility. Consumption began to serve social emulation”, explains D’Angelo. The spirit of individual freedom in the XVIII century fueled human desire even more, as it was considered an expression of this freedom. “The argument was that private vices, such as luxury, resulted in public benefits.” In the opinion of Dutch political economist Bernard de Mandeville, the growth of the industry and the economy depended directly on those human vices. In spite of Rousseau’s criticisms of consumption, Hume and Adam Smith saw only benefits in this new economic modality. “The bourgeoisie were avid consumers of luxury as a way of achieving the social recognition that they lacked. The desire to belong led to the surfacing, in France, of the industry of imitation: products similar to luxury goods, mass produced from cheaper materials to meet the demands of those who wanted to feel a notch above the one they held in society”, says the researcher. The following century witnessed the same.

American philosopher Thorstein Veblen, author of  The theory of the idle classes created the concept of  “conspicuous consumption” to define everything that was consumed for an individual to show off, to impress the others, part of the status and social prestige game. In the course of this trajectory, Valéria points out, luxury mirrored itself aesthetically in eroticism and in fashion, which turned the human body into a supporter of luxury. “The constant changes in fashion are linked to the logic of overt squandering and of the symbolic battles that go together with the ethos of luxury”, she adds. According to Valéria, fashion is created in the midst of the bourgeoisie’s battle for a place in the sun in society and, by entering into an alliance with luxury, both are transformed into tools or weapons which, from then onwards, have gone hand in hand until current times. “In the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, the forms of exposure in public life revealed the individual’s social position; clothes were the reference of a person’s social status; from the 19th century onwards, people began to believe that their clothes, their gestures, their tastes revealed their personality and not their social origin”, explains the researcher. In her opinion, “fashion has always been communication.” She adds that fashion led to the first major figure of totally modern, superficial and free luxury, which is mobile and free from the forces of the past and of the invisible.

Although Brazil’s first product ever was a luxury item – namely, the brazil wood, used for the dying of fine textiles and for the manufacturing of paints, it was not until 1808, when the royal family arrived in Brazil and opened up the country to foreign trade that we integrated ourselves, by means of direct imports (especially from France) into global elegant consumption. After decades of royal rule, Rua do Ouvidor , a street in Rio de Janeiro, gave way, in the 1920´s, to the domination of department stores, such as São Paulo’s Mappin Store. In a single space, these department stores concentrated all the luxury articles that in the past had been sold in separate stores located on the referred street in Rio de Janeiro. This generated a silent revolution, as pointed out by historian Maria Claudia Bonadio in her thesis written at Unicamp (with funding from FAPESP), and which was recently launched as a book, Moda e sociabilidade (published by Editora Senac). In these new, British-style stores, the women of São Paulo’s elite had access to public space, which was almost unheard of in those days, by “going shopping.” They began not only to enjoy this space but also to experiment new forms of sociability based on the consumption of luxury fashion, an apparently harmless act that was fundamental for the battle of Brazilian feminists. Little by little, Brazilians began to create their place in the consumption of  luxury items, such as Rua Augusta street, and, years later, Rua Oscar Freire, a neighboring street.

Designer labels
Of course nothing can be compared to the rise in the nineties of the famed Daslu, a result of the Collor Administration’s decision to open up the Brazilian economy to imports. D’Angelo points out that “Daslu met the desires of the elite for imported products in their own country, without having to get on a plane and go to Europe.” This was the result of a change in national consumer habits which indicated the strong existence of upper-middle class consumers among the clientele of the designer labels. “That sales boom not only reflected the repressed demand of the elite, but also the creation of new consumer desires among the more affluent sectors of Brazil´s middle class”, adds the researcher. This also resulted in important data on the relationships between the different social classes. “Polarization in relation to luxury consumption is not necessarily between the low and high classes, but rather between the middle and the upper classes. Like the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy at the beginning of capitalism, the consumption of luxury represents the relationship between these two classes – the middle and the upper – whereby the middle class wants to consume the distinguishing signs of the upper class”, says Valéria. In other words, the designer labels are, viewed as totem poles in complex societies, which individuals want them to represent, as their social significance  gives them characteristics that they desire, says the author.

“The conglomerates democratized luxury around the world. Logos became a global mania which fueled the counterfeiting industry. Luxury logos became symbols read as a universal language from Cairo to Moscow, by all social categories”, adds Valéria. According to Valéria, this movement shattered luxury into various luxuries, for different audiences, where real luxury, that is, the luxury of exception, co-exists with accessible and intermediate luxury. “The icon of true luxury can be acquired by the lower classes in the form of a Gucci perfume, a Ferrari key chain, which, fragmenting the luxury of exception, satisfies the economically lower classes which consume isolated products as an imitation, as a caricature of the world of meanings that categorize the habits of the powerful classes. But this does not provide the poorer classes with access to the sense of unified taste, to the life style of the very rich other than through the transformation of luxury into kitsch.” The movements succeed each other, from bottom to top, and vice versa. “Fashion collections are beginning to evoke a traditional, popular and singular Brazilian trait. Brazilian and popular cultures have begun to attract the interest of the creative elites and of luxury item consumers. Luxury lovers in Brazil are becoming aware of the luxury of the common folk,” says anthropologist Débora Krischke Leitão, in Antropologia e consumo (Editora Age). This becomes clear in the fashion shows that resort to Tati Quebra-Barraco for the sound track, dresses made of cotton print, handbags with prints of Corcovado, street market shopping bags, Bahia-style white cotton skirts.

“The ‘harmony’ between street and high fashion is proposed by fashion producers and accepted by their consumers, who grace the society pages dressed in handcrafted, typical Brazilian fashion. But this appropriation is of an exotic register, it is interesting because it is different. These are aspects of a tradition which have been withdrawn from their context and straight-jacketed. The people who go to the catwalk are invented and  are objects of adaptation, they are people of a commercial appeal, shaped according to the tastes of the social class that consumes luxury items”, she adds. In contrast, we have to contend with counterfeit goods, the perfect imitation of luxury items. Counterfeit goods are consumed by various social classes, because – in Brazil, at least – they are not only an imitation from top to bottom that fulfill the imitation needs of the lower classes. “These products are not consumed just because they are well-made, but because the differences among social classes in Brazil are so strongly established that very often the distinction is made by how the person is dressed and groomed”, Débora points out. This is why it is possible for the upper middle classes (and even “celebrities” ) to use, for example, a fake Louis Vuitton handbag, because it will be mistaken for the legitimate article. “The differentiation is so strongly incorporated in the subjects that it is possible for many people to wear the fake item and this item be mistaken for the real thing. The same product, worn by an ordinary person, does not mislead anybody in the social scene, simply because of the person who is wearing it.” It is an immediate reaction. When a luxury item becomes “banal”, because of its democratization, the elites disregard it, which is what happened in Brazil in regard to Louis Vuitton, then viewed as being “kitsch” and despised by the wealthy.

However, this did not affect the consumption of imitations by the lower classes, which might indicate that luxury is not always a form of imitating the upper classes, but that it can be used in an adapted form. “The consumption of luxury items is adapted to the taste of ordinary people and, instead of interpreting the item as a deformed version of the style of the original handbag, we felt it would be more appropriate to view it as having been transformed or modified, in a process that, from top to bottom seems to be a distortion or a misunderstanding, and from bottom to top seems an adaptation to specific needs.” This also holds true for the elites’ current “real” consumption of luxury items. “Luxury is no longer a mere indicator of social positions in the collective mind to satisfy the individual, his emotional needs and personal fantasies. The luxury of a quantitative nature (scarcity generating value) is offset by the new luxury, which is qualitative, and linked to identity, comfort, convenience, sophistication, freedom. Anything that is new, different, bold, converts itself into luxury,” says Valéria. Thus, luxury seems to be losing the obviousness of the sophisticated material and seems to be gaining sense-related support and cultural capital: pleasure is now the height of desired luxury. Hence the reason why Daslu offers its clients access to a spa and Louis Vuitton, in Paris, has facilities for “quick naps”. Luxury is now associated with well-being, a privilege for the very few.

The researcher says that the body is the major support of this new luxury, by means of fashion and designer labels. “Contemporary fashion has gone beyond clothes, trend or style. It has become the object of expressive action, of the message, and not only a reference of status, but rather a form of communication.” The individual, she adds,  becomes autonomous amongst the masses and at the same time incorporates the masses through his own representation , but the dramatization is proposed by his way of dressing, of creating a style, of communicating social values or subjective aspects that he desires to express to others. “Style is the tool that builds his personality. Signals coded in clothes act as the new forms of expressing the individual’s subjectivity and identity”. D’Angelo points out that this new luxury, while denying the old luxury, is not ostensible. “It is almost invisible, because it is turned inwards, towards each person’s intimacy and, although this is rare, does not depend that much on economic power. It is elitist in another kind of way, as it preserves the  relationship of difference  (the haves and the have-nots), without, however, being as rigorous in regard to the pre-requisites that provide the individual with the access.” Thus, all of this goes back to the more personal notion of the meaning of luxury, the simplification of individual self-indulgence, treated collectively, a privilege which everybody wants access to.
So we have achieved the “sensible” luxury, as proposed by French philosopher Giles Lipovetsky, for whom “the search for private enjoyment has replaced the demand for ostentation and social recognition, substituting social theater with intimate feelings”. “In terms of the motivation of luxury, I think it is better to add than subtract. Society will always see the joining of forces between that which we want and desire and that which other people want and expect from us; in terms of luxury, our lives as consumers combine choices for ‘us’ and other choices for the ‘others’. The same thing happens in fashion: fashion helps a consumer join a tribe, reinforcing his belonging, but it also solidifies the individual?s own understanding of the young, wealthier consumers in other countries”, explains Valéria.

Furthermore, the researcher feels that in a globalized world, life styles are fluid; therefore, the same consumer can be part of different, and sometimes “antagonistic” groups, depending on the work, leisure or education of his daily life. “A female executive can buy a Mont Blanc pen and a Louis Vuitton brief case, wear a Doc Dog dress, Guerreiro silver chains and boots bought at the low-end Galeria Ouro Fine.” Unlike the “unfortunate” Marie-Antoinette, nowadays it is possible to resort to luxury for the power and for the pleasure, without any fear of being beheaded. Just be careful that your credit card doesn’t end up at the guillotine.