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To See the Future of Luxury, We Look to Ford’s Past

Ford Motor Company’s in-house Futurist shares her thoughts on the evolution of luxury, and where we’re headed next

According to certain academics, we are in the midst of what’s known as the “Post-Fordist” era. Sheryl Connelly might not have gotten the memo. As Ford Motor Company’s in-house Futurist, it’s her job to think in terms of decades, not fiscal quarters. As we move away from industrialized mass production (otherwise known as “Fordist” modes), Connelly’s thought leadership is making sure that Ford maintains its relevance. Her annual trend report has become a must-read, not only for auto industry insiders but anyone interested in placing emergent concepts into a broader social, cultural and economic framework.

On one early spring afternoon, we sat down with her to discuss the mercurial concept of luxury. The decade that she’s spent researching the topic has lead her to look at it from a “generational cohort” perspective—luxury is social, it is a language that we use to communicate our beliefs and values to others.

Connelly begins her timeline of the recent history of luxury in 1987. It was the year Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street hit theatres, featuring character Gordon Gekko’s proclamation that “Greed is good.” Connelly points out that the director has gone on record that the statement was intended to be hyperbolic satire. But much like another misappropriated mid-80s anthem, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” it was instead taken literally and became a rallying cry.

Not by coincidence, 1987 also marked the baby boomer generation’s entrance into their peak earning years. A product of the new American middle class, baby boomers were largely “company men” who pursued institutional employment, working thirty years at the same company and were rewarded with “golden handcuff” pension programs. “They gave great sacrifice in service of their employers and in return got the promise of financial security for the rest of their life,” says Connelly. “They had to spend so much time away from their family and over-compensated by showering them with material possessions like expensive homes, luxury cars, and opulent jewelry. These became the signals of success.”

The baby boomers had attached fulfillment to material wealth, doing well meant having nice things. And because they were such substantial segment of the population, their influence spread. “They lived large. The people who didn’t have the resources still wanted a piece of the boomer pie. This is where we start to see a very subtle but important shift to the ‘affluent attitude,’ where people started to say, ‘Don’t dress for the job you have, dress for the job you want,’” says Connelly.

The boomers’ conspicuity created a situation in which people saw that they could not only profess their current status, but also “use material possessions to speak to their aspirations.” Marketers identified this as a potential gold mine, and brands such as Tiffany & Co. and Polo began to offer products that were at a lower price point (and quality) than their premium goods.

The symbols, or logos, of prosperity became more important than the actuality. “If saw you a gentlemen wearing a Rolex, you used to be able to pinpoint what their profession was, what zip code they lived in, where they went to school, what their field of study was,” says Connelly. “But now under the era of ‘affluent attitude,’ you would see someone wearing a Rolex who also shopped at Kmart and drove a used car.” Perception was the only thing that mattered.

Having watched their parents spare no expense chasing the brass ring, the children of boomers, Generation X, grew to resent this hollow materialism. Enter the slacker.

As the offspring of privilege vacated their relationship to luxury goods, trading in their Lacoste for thrift store flannel, those who previously could not access luxury (i.e. urban minorities) filled the void, appropriating the language of wealth and opulence. The term “bling, bling” enters the vernacular.

This era marked, depending on your viewpoint, the democratization or devaluation of luxury. “Tiffany sold to any Joe off the street, BMW and Lexus brought their vehicles down to the mid-price level and Vera Wang, who made her name making couture gowns, partnered with Kohl’s with a $100 or less ready-to-wear collection,” Connelly recounts.

Here the road forks. One on side, seeing that the previous sets of signifiers are more or less defunct, the ultra-rich upped the ante, employing “gross displays of wealth.” Flat screens in every room, Jacuzzi’s up the wazoo, a million-dollar diamond encrusted cell phone. MTV’s Cribs.

In another path that Connelly finds more intriguing, luxury comes to be defined not by material but exclusivity. In the mid-2000s access was everything—using your connections to get into the right hotel, a reservation at the hottest restaurant or behind the velvet rope. The landscape took on the appearance of an MC Escher drawing, each VIP room containing its own VIP room. An endless labyrinth of social gates. Celebrity and the red carpet became the primary language of luxury. It was not what you owned but who you knew that defined who you were.

“At that moment, the definition of luxury was simply anything that could evoke a sense of envy or desire in someone else,” says Connelly. “It would have been interesting to see how this would have gone on, but for the global recession.”

The global recession slams on the brakes. “The world went flat. 10.4 million millionaires drops to 8.6 million millionaires worldwide,” she says. From this bottoming out springs the trajectory we’re on now.

Coming out of the recession wealth has become more subdued. Luxury has shifted emphasis from outward expression to inner fulfillment. From her research of this timeline, Connelly has arrived on the notion that ultimately “luxury is the language of wealth. The question is, what are you trying to say? This is why luxury will sometimes whisper and sometimes shout,” she says.

For this reason, luxury has reemerged as enrichment and experience. Crass materialism has largely gone out of style; “greed is good” has been replaced by “doing well by doing good.” Just consider the cache of showing up to a party in the Hamptons with the latest electric car and fair trade clothing, it will turn heads like a European sports car and couture ensemble used to.

What does any of this have to do with Ford?

The automobile was the centerpiece in this formation of modern luxury. In the past century, the history of the automobile and the history of luxury have largely been one in the same. Internally at Ford, the thinking was that, for the boomers, “the car was the most expensive suit they would ever own, the moving embodiment of their professional and financial success,” says Connelly.

While this expired maxim explains the recent surge in classic car collecting, the horizon for manufacturers of new cars is murky. Fewer people are getting their license these days, our cities are choked with traffic and ride sharing is only gaining in popularity.

“To be clear, at our core we’re manufacturers and we always plan to make cars, trucks and utility vehicles,” says Connelly. “But we also have to recognize that the car as an extension of one’s identity is not going to resonate with all consumers indefinitely.”

In that spirit, Ford’s been on the move, now referring to itself as an automotive and mobility company. True to tradition, the revamped Lincoln Continental and Lincoln Navigator that debuted earlier this year are exemplary of “quiet luxury.” Looking forward, Ford announced a pilot program, Ford CreditLink, in Austin, TX in which people can pool, or share, a car lease with up to seven people. Another program, FordPass, is a mobility ecosystem that guides users on how to get from A to B, using a variety of methods from bicycle and public transit to automobiles.

It’s no coincidence that the company just announced their most profitable quarter ever.

Connelly’s 2016 Trends report can be found at: www.fordtrends.com