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What Does Luxury Mean Today? It Depends Whom You’re Asking

Luxury is no longer defined by price points, according to execs from Vênsette, Kate Spade & Company and SoulCycle.
SoulCycle in West Hollywood, California. Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

SoulCycle in West Hollywood, California. Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

For the past nine years, New York University's Luxury and Retail Club have brought together students, faculty, luxury executives and local business owners to discuss the ever-changing luxury landscape. Eve Mongiardo, chief operating officer and partner at Irving Place Capital, argued that luxury is no longer about exclusivity and high price points. "Some argue that Starbucks is a luxury company," said Mongiardo. "In many ways it is because it's a daily indulgence that many of us can't live without." Luxury can mean different things to different people — it just depends on whom you're asking.

According to speaker Mary Beech, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Kate Spade & Company, luxury is engagement. Through brand storytelling and a customer-centric approach, Kate Spade New York has become one of the leading "accessible luxury" brands across multiple categories, from $8 paper clips to $8,000 couches. "If [brand storytelling] is only in campaigns and only in social media, then we're not living up to what we promised as a brand," said Beech. At Kate Spade's specialty stores, customers are engaged with the brand's "madcap heroine" mindset through hidden messages and quirky quotes, which can be found on apparel displays, fitting room mirrors and along the walls. An installed selfie station with custom backgrounds further engages shoppers both in-store and online.

For Lauren Remington Platt, the future of luxury is providing services that save customers' time. "I'm finding myself as a consumer spending more time and money on services than I am on things," said Platt. "Time is the most valuable thing women have and I think it's a luxury to be able to create a company to give women more time." Platt is the founder and CEO of Vênsette, an on-demand beauty app offering hair and makeup services to clients in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and the Hamptons. It was an idea that was conceived back in 2010, when Platt was working at a hedge fund. Inspired by the launch of Uber (in 2009) and her own needs, Platt founded Vênsette in 2011 and the company has expanded to servicing wedding parties and VIP clients with exclusive custom offerings.

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Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler, co-founders of SoulCycle, also support people's time with a tech-enabled service. Since SoulCycle opened its first New York City location in 2006, wellness has certainly become thought of as a luxury, partly because of the proliferation of boutique fitness studios that have followed in SoulCycle's wake. Trying to convince gym-goers to ditch their membership's free spinning classes for SoulCycle was a hurdle for Rice and Cutler because the only way to attract new clientele was to get them to experience a class for themselves. Now, with over 50 studio locations, it's important for Rice and Culture to maintain SoulCycle's culture consistency nationwide. "You should walk in and immediately feel transformed and elevated," said Cutler. "There's a lot of emotional unconscious cues to create a different atmosphere both physical and in the class. People are paying for an experience, otherwise you could spend your money on cocktails. Why would you spend your money on SoulCycle?"

As Mongiardo said, "In today's competitive landscape, you have to stand for something — it could be a certain look, aesthetic, functionality. Everything the company does has to be rooted in what's best for the brand." Luxury can take on many different forms, which is in and of itself a luxury. Its success, however, depends on how you deliver it.