Flair for the obscure is luxury’s new currency

Wander down the Takamiyacho neighborhood of Kyoto and turn left to a side street, and you will come across an unmarked boutique nested among the traditional Machiya townhouses. Venture in, and you will be surrounded by one-of-a-kind items ranging from dresses and denim to jewelry and housewares. Among them, I found a pair of jeans dyed in a mix of golden colors used for obi that I own today.

In Japan, this shop is nothing out of the ordinary. There, there’s a widespread penchant for hard-to-find offerings, and it has steered many local and emerging luxury brands. Rather than saturate the market with their product as a path to profitability, they choose to do just the opposite.

To be known by a small, elite group both builds a brand’s equity and ensures that it is lucrative in the long run: Limited-edition, waitlisted samples tap into consumers’ desires to be in the know, plus they create word-of-mouth. Similarly, appointment-only, hard-to-penetrate access results in the vibe of scarcity. What’s more, items’ desirability is based upon their stories and the hidden references they convey.

The new breed of high-end brands strangely enforces and subverts stereotypes of luxury at the same time. They are reviving the old-school luxury culture, forged in the ateliers of Balmain and Chanel, and giving it a convincingly modern spin. For instance, high-end sneaker brandBuscemi projects a kind of opulence that seems straight out of the Dolce & Gabbana circa 1994 playbook — but it delivers it in a thoroughly modern way: It enhances one’s quality of life, cultural capital and social currency through “obnoxiously high-quality” items one can wear every day.

Buscemi is also known for mastering the art of reference (its play on the Birkin bag was a standout). In that, it’s not alone: Hood by Air has propelled its brand to stardom by producing fashion that doubles as cultural commentary. It is a high-end reflection of street culture, rife with experimentation, artistic ripoffs, insider citations and creative appropriation. The brand’s believability comes from its founder, who earned legitimacy by being part of the culture he is now remixing on the new high-end, conceptual fashion plane.

Interior design brand Lusitano1143 is known for its scarcity, which makes it incredibly modern and s salso smart in terms of its ability to build brand equity. Its strategy is in stark contrast with luxury industry’s modus operandi of opening countlestores that sell nearly identical product offerings.

The modern consumer is all about having experiences and things no one else has. We gravitate to products that come with a story — that are limited-edition, one-of-a-kind and made in small batches. We want a Veblen good, and we want to be #first to discover it.

Japanese clothing brand Kapital is rife with Veblen goods, and its entire offering is an acquired taste. Its off-the-beaten-path items unmistakably convey the identity of its owner and of those who choose to buy into the brand’s point of view. It also connects with the modern luxury consumer, who is a hobbyist and an obsessive — they can recognize and feel Kapital’s gritty and low-tech aesthetic on a visceral level.

Obsession with word-of-mouth finds has become the new luxury behavior. Flair for the obscure, reflecting a taste meticulously cultivated and nurtured with a collector-like obsession, is luxury’s new currency. Today, luxury is decidedly less about having money to buy expensive things and more about having the taste to know what to buy.

This article has originally been published in Glossy.

Strategy Executive. Author of “The Business of Aspiration.” Doctor of Sociology. Forbes’ one of The World’s Most Influential CMOs.

Strategy Executive. Author of “The Business of Aspiration.” Doctor of Sociology. Forbes’ one of The World’s Most Influential CMOs.