“Luxury? Why, that’s something you don’t need but can’t live without”.
You won’t find that in any dictionary of quotations because I just made it up. But we all know this to be true, just as we all have our own little luxuries.
Whether it is the stolen five minutes between sleep and waking when everything seems possible; or the sunrise over the Indian Ocean that only you and one other person see; or the sight of a British Airways tail plane after months of trying to get out of a foreign hell hole, and then having First Class all to yourself because sensible people stopped travelling there long ago, luxury comes in many forms.
But like love, you know it when you feel it.
My luxury today is being able to able to do something I could never have dreamed of — disagreeing with the great American economist J.K. Galbraith. And being right.
“In the affluent society”, said the sage of the mid-20th. Century, “no useful distinction can be made between luxuries and necessaries”. Piffle, J.K.
I go with your countryman Tom Wolfe. In one of his London essays, the white-suited dandy from Virginia ruminates about the luxury of owning a Savile Row suit. What does it for him is the thrill of undoing and then doing up the buttons on the sleeve, or “cuff”. What style, what joy, what sophistication: unnecessary, yes, but that’s luxury.
Wolfe wonders what his father might have thought of his son, lusting for shoes made on his personal last in St. James’s and adoring suits made around the corner from where John F. Kennedy was measured for his, although that fact was not advertised to the tailors of America at the time.
But the Duke of Windsor trumped them both: he had the jackets of his suits made in London but the trousers made in New York. The “Dook”, who admired all things American, felt their “pants” fitted him better, because the waist was where the belt loops were, instead of finishing half way up his back with buttons for braces, English style.
“Very few people understand luxury”, Mark Birley said to me one morning at the Bath & Racquets Club behind Claridges, London’s one true luxury hotel. No one in Britain had more style than Mark, as his clubs continue to testify years after his death. I waited for him to go on. “The brothers, they understand luxury”.
He was referring to Mohamed Al Fayed and his brother Ali, then owners of Harrods and Turnbull & Asser, the fabled shirt maker of which Ali remains chairman. Mark said he ordered the chickens for his restaurants only from Harrods, because they came from France and tasted better.
Simple. But that’s the difference between luxury and not. And luxury can exist in something as inexpensive as a pancake.
Tucking into dessert one night at the Paris Ritz, King Edward VII was asked by the legendary Cesar Ritz if the hotel could name this new dish after the monarch. “Oh no”, said the King. “They name potatoes after me. Call this delightful dish after that beautiful girl sitting over there”.
And so Crepes Suzette was born.
Is it possible to taste this creation by Auguste Escoffier, the chef who invented Cordon Bleu, without knowing the true meaning of luxury?
No, of course not. Even Mr. Galbraith might have had difficulty finding words to disagree, as he reached for another helping.
By Michael Cole
Michael Cole was Director of Public Affairs for the Harrods Group of Companies from 1988 to 98. Through his own PR firm, he talks on the evolution of luxury brands and how to safeguard them.