Why spiritual luxury is the future expression of the concept

Rolls-Royce Boat Tail
Rolls-Royce Boat Tail © Rolls-Royce

Recently I joined a group discussion on the future of luxury. This is a theme that keeps coming up in meetings and with the clients I work with outside my role as a journalist. And I can see why. We are pretty much at the crossroads of change, with the pandemic acting a little like a punctuation point in history, allowing some of us time to reflect and rethink what had become normal and accepted simply because in the rush of life, few questioned its authenticity. Why, for instance, has luxury been caged and confined within a tightrope of clichés? Surely, it can be brave and bold enough to break free of the narrow confines of price, value and status.

I’m not so much interested in the physical luxury of stuff, but more so in unwrapping the spiritual concept of luxury, the poetic element, all those other parts that may not directly be linked with the concept but will come to define it ever more as we navigate the future. I’m talking about time, knowledge, intellect, ideas, art, craft, skills, history, love, passion, stories, poetry and a whole world of more elusive elements that make luxury special – not exclusive or expensive, but extraordinary.

Then, of course, luxury is rooted in context. During the deepest darkest pandemic hours, amid lockdown with no vaccination in sight, luxury became the sound of birds singing, trees blossoming, neighbours clapping in unison in support of health workers. Luxury was discovering that unnoticed path in the local park, a coffee lovingly prepared by the local barista, happening upon a new piece of music or a podcast to open up a world. With lockdown lifted, the height of luxury has become sharing a meal with family and close friends, hugging them, seeing live art, planning trips to other lands.

This got me thinking about the Rolls-Royce Boat Tail. The hand-built, one-of-a-kind motor car is a new private commission estimated to have cost over £20 million. On the one hand, it epitomises old-school luxury, the kind money can buy, the luxury of status that is exclusive and rare. But what makes the Boat Tail special isn’t the price tag – that’s just a number. Rather, it is the unique knowledge and artistry and imagination that went into creating it. And the Boat Tail’s perceived value is tied intimately with Rolls-Royce’s evocative narrative and its rich history. This is where luxury becomes storytelling. And this is where it gets exciting.

Layers of experience passed on from generations of winemakers, the uniqueness of the terroir, what happened in the year of harvest – this represents the height of luxury. Or it could be more ephemeral – that visceral feeling, that sense of wonder when you experience a new wine, or taste a unique dish, have an unforgettable chance encounter. Luxury is about the unexpected pleasures. Thomas Girst, head of global cultural engagement at BMW Group, told me he sees it as ‘the time for meaningful experiences, exchanges and actions that have the power to shape and define who we are’. And I couldn’t agree more.

© Do Make by James Otter is published by Do Books. Photographs by Mat Arney
‘Do Make’, James Otter © Mat Arney

What this means in terms of branding and design is to involve as many specialities and characters as possible in creative processes. It means mixing up sciences and arts and engineering and academia, proactively seeking different voices – be it gender, class, race, nationality, age. This is already happening to some degree across many businesses and educational establishments. And it can only prove to be a positive thing. It will help paint a more colourful, a more textured and richer world of luxury.

Viewing luxury as something far beyond the physical object opens a vast ocean of possibilities. We have the tools to make new forms of luxury a reality by harnessing the positive power of technology. And I’d like to hope the pandemic has opened our eyes to values that are fair that can be found in luxury. To my mind, the future of luxury will be more and more about shared beliefs – artistic, environmental, societal. It will involve intuitive and tailored experiences gathered around principles of imagination, expression and freedom. And it need not be reserved for a select few. What Covid and the climate crisis have plainly shown is the ephemerality of our human existence. Spiritual luxury, by definition, is democratic. It is inclusive and inviting and free and poetic and full of wonder.

Rolls-Royce Ghost is a peek into the new face of luxury

2020 Rolls-Royce Ghost © Leigh Banks

The new Rolls Royce Ghost is reflective of a visual language for a (hopefully) more subtle and discreet post-pandemic luxury landscape. Seen – and to be driven later this month – this is an accomplished product that wears its wealth lightly. And I’m sincerely hoping the design team will entice their wealthy and influential customers to invest in more sustainable fabrics inside and to use this as a vehicle for exploring materials beyond the traditional leather and wood. 

The pandemic has given us the opportunity to rethink our world, help imagine an altogether better one, a more sustainable one … and this extends very much to how we view the design of more exclusive items. They can lead the way.

See the Rolls-Royce Ghost on the road and take a look at the design story


Classical futurist: the new McLaren Speedtail

The Speedtail is the latest car by McLaren Automotive. A nod to the iconic F1, this three-seater hyper gran turismo is a genuinely accomplished product, returning to the marque a sense of grace and beauty and allure of the automobiles of the past as it takes on the future

Take a closer look

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Frank Stephenson on the McLaren P1

McLaren Automotive is an exciting company. Here we have a firm created with the sole purpose of making high-performance road cars utilising the Formula One technology of mother company McLaren. Everything it does, every move it makes is meticulously calculated for this goal. In this day and age where profit seems to rule decisions, this degree of integrity is endearing.

The P1 is the latest car to join this small elite family. Frank Stephenson calls it the ‘granddaddy’ of McLaren Automotive. ‘This is the godfather of the brand,’ beams the car designer as he excitedly ushers me towards his latest creation. It is late September and we are at the Paris Motor Show where the company’s second road car, the P1, is about to be unveiled.

This is first time the company is exhibiting at a major European car show and boss Ron Dennis has personally seen to it that the pavilion is flawless. The pristine white exhibition stand is indeed the ideal setting to showcase the bold design and bright orange pallet of this limited-edition hyper car.

The P1 is the successor to the F1 and McLaren Automotive’s pinnacle car. It will sit above the 12C and 12C Spider – the firm’s two other road cars – in terms of both price and performance. It is being hailed as the ultimate road car. ‘Basically it is a racing car with number plates on it,’ Frank quips. Visibly delighted with his first proper project with McLaren, he continues: ‘It was a fabulous experience as these kind of projects seldom come up.’

The P1 doesn’t shy away from visual drama but it gets away with not being brash for its relative small size. It is a low car – the back end comes up to Frank’s kneecap. The biggest challenge was to keep the performance dynamics of the car so that the car isn’t designed in the way you would normally design a car.

Frank explains the process: ‘We took the performance part and almost lay a cloth over it and let it sink. This is a shrink-wrapped design language where you suck the air out of it and it starts to glue to the bulging structure underneath. It is like an athlete where you can see the muscles underneath,’ he says.

A major advantage is the F1 technology the cars get directly from McLaren race cars. ‘All the F1 technology that we put into the road cars are ours. No one else can really say that,’ says Frank.

The P1 will be on the road next year priced around £700,000, and it will look pretty much like the car in Paris. Less than 500 will be built to ensure the car remains limited edition and therefore extra special. Plus McLaren P1 customers will have the opportunity to add their own individual touch.

I ask Frank if he’s had some bizarre orders so far: ‘People have some odd requests like red carbon-fibre, different colour combinations. You try to discourage them but that doesn’t always work.’ He admits that at this extreme end of the market there isn’t much you can do to make the car drive any better. ‘You’re paying so much money, what you’re getting is the best of the best.’

So what’s next on his drawing board, I ask: ‘We’re working on P13, our entry-level sports car to rival the 911,’ he says of Porsche’s popular car, before quickly adding: ‘but we’re building only around 1500 cars so it is much more exclusive.’

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read my full report from the Paris Motor Show 2012. Also read our previous interviews with Frank Stephenson.

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Ultimate luxury: Bentley Continental GT

Many of us form an intimate relation with our cars, especially if it’s something we’ve saved up for. You want to know about its origin – how it was made, who was involved. Marques like Rolls Royce and Bentley survive on creating a narrative to include the making of the cars, the story of the suppliers, the ecological thinking, that together allude to the ultimate level of craftsmanship.

It is within this world where cars like the Bentley Continental GT are born. This two-door grand touring coupe is Bentley’s saviour product. Before this, the British firm – owned by BMW – was running the risk of becoming associated with rather safe and slightly dull cars made for less youthful wealthy customers.

The decision to introduce sexier models like the GT in 2003 and later the convertible GTC was a wise one as it helped introduce the brand to a younger clientele and one that includes buyers in newer markets like China and Russia. It also opened Bentley to female customers.

The second-generation GT was first shown to us in 2010 at the Paris Motor Show. The brand new model features new body panels and glass. It continues the signature styling cues of the 1950s R-Type Continental, with sharper feature lines, some refined body surfacing, a shallower glasshouse to give a sportier impression, and even more attention to detail to make this car noticeably more hand-made than the previous model.

Head of exterior design Raul Pires compares it to a sharply tailored Saville Row suit that is clearly not machine made. ‘You can see this in the front-end where you don’t see any shut-lines. It is almost like working with one sheet of metal, sculpting it,’ he explains. This has also been achieved with intense attention to detail such as door handles that are discreetly mounted on the side character line blending into the pinch and distinctive headlamps, the outer lenses are daylight running lamps.

So what is it like to drive this car? A few weeks ago Bentley was kind enough to lend us the 2011 GT. Dressed in Sequin Blue, this is a slick looking car noticeably leaner and more toned than its predecessor.

It is in the interior, though, that the Conti excels. Our test car sported soft cream leather seats that were so snug, hugging us in place. The use of thinner seats has added 46mm to the rear legroom. ‘Inside we wanted to show that the car is almost handmade,’ says Pires.

The instrument panel is stylish – almost retro in how it borrows from yacht design of the 30s and 40s. You can almost imagine Cary Grant behind the wheels. The media interface features a wider digital screen with touch sensitive controls that almost give a little bouncy feedback. The steering wheel is covered in soft leather; the dials are shiny chrome and the dash a single slab of wood.

The smell is of timeless luxury, of leather and wood. There is some really theatrical ambiance lighting that makes warm days seem cool, and cold nights feel warm. Everything in the cabin has been designed to please the senses. Head of design Dirk van Braeckel once told me with the GT he ‘wanted to seduce visually with the first glance.’

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Bentley is unveiling the powerful V8-powered version of the new Continental GT at the Detroit Motor Show at the start of 2012.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | www.d-talks.com | Bookshop www.d-talks.com/bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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