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Why luxury knows its place

Last month Andrew Nicholson, an ex- Olympian speed skater, completed a 123-day round-the-world bike ride, breaking the existing record by two days. Bravo to him. En route he used a couch-surfing website, Warm Showers, to stay overnight at the homes of friends he’d never met before.

Warm Showers has 73,796 active members and 27,157 active hosts. And it’s free. An entire, global community of like-minded people united by their love of two wheels. All connected via our generation’s greatest invention, the internet.

Market disrupter Uber is clearly hoping that commuters will make the connection. In a pilot study in Chicago, UberPOOL will give drivers the chance to share the cost of the journey and save traffic congestion via an app, with would-be sharers entering a pickup location and destination. Traditionally car pool schemes have foundered on our reluctance to share that most personal of spaces, our cars, with strangers. But maybe an app will succeed where eco- lectures don’t.

These are just some of the ways in which the focus of our lives has shifted from ‘local’ to ‘connected’. We may pretend to mourn the loss of the friendly neighborhood where everyone knew everyone else’s business but really, just how much do you have in common with your neighbor? Whereas, as Nicholson found, if you’re a touring cyclist, your common bonds with fellow pedallers transcend national boundaries and even language. We still have a neighborhood, but now it’s located on a datacenter server owned by Facebook or Twitter.

People used to buy local. They trusted the local bakery, the local brewery and they supported local industry. But for mainstream brands today a sense of place is an irrelevance. Our iPhones may have been designed in Cupertino but they’re made in Longhua.  The French buy Honda cars built in Britain. Brits buy Mercedes-Benz SUVs built in Alabama. We invest value in the brand, not the factory location.

There’s just one sector that’s resolutely grounded in home turf. Luxury. Some outstanding sparkling white wines are made in England, Italy, North America, New Zealand, Australia and Spain. But 83,000 acres of north-east France still commands a premium. Champagne comes from Champagne, period.
London’s best bespoke suits are still made at Savile Row (hence why the Japanese for suit is Sabiro). Horologists recognize Switzerland as the center of their world. For the same reason, when BMW bought the right to make Rolls-Royce cars but not the factory, they built a brand new one in Goodwood, England.

None of this is logical. After all, there are plenty of skilled craftsmen in Munich, BMW’s home, who could put together a great luxury car. But there’s a magic in places, and the more connected we become, the more our self-indulgent, illogical sides crave the romance of heritage and location. At the extreme, you have Chinese tourists visiting Street, the small town in Somerset, UK, where Clarks shoes used to be made. And as a souvenir buying Clarks desert boots…made in China.

There’s no logic in that. But long may luxury and logic remain poles apart. 

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