Not so very long ago, luxury was about things. Luxury had its signifiers in the material world,  badged and marked with unimpeachably luxurious names that had the power of instant recognition. They haven’t gone away; the material hallmarks of luxury, the rare and unusual, remain important to consumers the world over. Something else has changed; today, the appetite for luxury is about relationships as much as it is about things.

An exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is opening its doors on to the world of luxury, asking the question, What is Luxury? We know each age defines it differently, seizes upon the signifiers that most closely reach the parts ordinariness can’t, moves on to others when times and mores change. In the early 21st century, where life is lived fast and never rests, luxury resides in the things money can’t buy: freedom, time, and relationships.

All of which has prompted a change in the way purveyors of luxury – in whatever capacity – and the consumers of it interact. The shift is towards experiential luxury and the creation of  memories, towards anticipated needs and desires, towards lasting engagement. It’s the kind of luxury that rests on the ability of people working in the sector to engage, perceive and empathise.

These are the ambassadors of luxury, the quiet, observant, thoughtful professionals who make understanding their territory and the people who inhabit it their abiding passion. Their skills are many. Ambassadors don’t parrot a message; they communicate with care and with meaning. They don’t see a guest or customer; they see an individual with a set of preferences and desires unique to them. And ambassadors don’t sell; they build relationships.

The soft power of diplomacy has been honed through the centuries and has always been, at its core, about people. Ambassadors have been engaging with the hopes and ambitions, emotions and desires, of the people they meet in every corner of the world. It isn’t an easy task; people rarely communicate their needs and feelings clearly and unambiguously, and trust is never granted lightly.

As for diplomats, so with the ambassadors of luxury. Their constituency is the affluent, the articulate, and the empowered, people whose expectations are high and whose loyalty comes at a premium and is never given lightly. For the wealthy consumers who inhabit the luxury world, spending on high-value travel experiences, hotel suites, and bespoke goods is only part of the story; what the luxury consumer values just as highly is the experience. In other words, consuming luxury is emotional as much as experiential.

The implications of this shift has profound implications for luxury brands and the people who represent them. A broad set of skills is called for that few possess without considerable experience or training. Luxury ambassadors need to understand what motivates the luxury consumer, know the world he inhabits, perceive what quickens his pulse, and discover what piques his curiosity. Above all, luxury ambassadors do not sell: they find out who is in front of them first and take their time. There are no hard sells in luxury; only soft skills and soft messages that are the key to building brand loyalty.

Just as the luxury consumer is a rare individual, so are the professionals who create their world. Ambassadors are not born; they are made through training, through immersion in the landscape and people, and learning the language, both verbal and non-verbal. As representatives of their country – or in this case, the luxury brand – they have the power to influence perceptions and build towards a future in which engagement lasts, trust endures, and loyalty secured. Its no small achievement – and there aren’t any shortcuts.

To find out more about the attributes of a luxury ambassador and how these positively reinforce brand experiences , visit


The V&A What is Luxury exhibition opened this week and runs until 27 September 2015.