Time is the ultimate luxury — especially when you’re writing about the subject. Just ask Jill Spalding. “I’ve been a bit of a laggard,” says the seasoned journalist and author, drolly referring to spending the past 30 years on her latest book. “But very often luxury takes a lifetime to achieve.”
She should know. The result of her protracted deadline, Luxury: A History, published on November 2 (Parameter Press, $90), is a sweeping look at the centuries-long global pursuit of the maddeningly rare and ineffably sublime. At 432 pages and more than 300 images, Spalding makes a convincing case for our quest for luxury being not only a cultivated embodiment of our aspirations, but also something innate. “You see it in some species of animals,” she explains, with the gentle conviction of a fine-jewelry saleswoman. “They gather fabulous glittery things and build structures that are far too complex to be simply functional. And their plumage!”
A former Vogue editor, Spalding knows from ornamentation, and her encyclopedic survey of the superfluous includes a celebration of turbaned voluptuaries and glittering characters from the past. Her Auntie Mame levels of enthusiasm for the “tralala” (fancy trappings) of Emperor Qianlong, Cleopatra, and assorted maharajas, whom she refers to with the familiarity of old friends, is infectious. Not that it’s entirely an obituary to dead decadents. Spalding also records the efforts of latter-day sybarites, including the retired couturier Valentino, whose three-day retirement party of sorts in 2007, she exclaimed, was époustouflant, using the French for breathtaking.
Just don’t get her started on the jargon- speaking barbarians at the gate. “The enemy of luxury is branding,” she says, lamenting the logo-fication of heritage brands and today’s manufactured VIP “experiences” — before pausing (“Oh shush, Alexa!”) to scold the smart speaker reminding her to exercise. “The middlemen have made it all rather unattractive and unappealing,” she continues, returning to the subject at hand. “Branding has demeaned luxury.”
Luxury: A History is available online and in stores now.