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How Luxury Survived the Pandemic

Original article from by By Rhonda K. Garelick, Illustration by Sami Halim

What becomes of luxury in a global pandemic? Is the pursuit of luxury incompatible with our drastically changed lives under covid? Luxury can be so external, and life lately feels so internal. A big part of luxury is theater: the couture gown that dazzles the crowd, the splendid car gliding past onlookers, the Instagrammed vacation. The admiration, desire or even envy of others creates part of luxury’s allure.

Luxury, that is, can be a group sport, involving participation of an audience that recognizes and assesses distinctions of quality or exclusivity. The playing field for this sport is rarely level, since distinctions among things lead to distinctions — and divisions — among people, enforcing hierarchies of wealth or privilege, taste or knowledge. Luxury is a social communication circuit, a language with meanings agreed upon and upheld by a collective. This is how luxury signals work.

The pandemic scrambled these signals. It isolated us physically, reducing opportunities for “performing” our luxuries. Travel was shut down or severely curtailed, as were many parties, openings, galas and all other occasions for gathering and display. Without social interaction, is luxury doomed?

Not at all, it turns out. In fact, luxury sales overall have risen during the pandemic, as the wealthiest have grown wealthier, and even the less-than-billionaire class, having been stuck at home, has accumulated more cash to spend and more time to spend it.

In the process, the quest for luxury has simply expanded — encompassing not only a surging market in some traditional luxury items but also more inward-focused versions of luxury, plus novel digital methods of projecting luxury theater that are pandemic-safe. Far from disappearing, luxury has proved more central to our culture than ever. Like a river diverted by rocks, it has simply sought other paths.

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