Now more than ever, luxury is open to interpretation, and author Jill Spalding’s new book affirms that it remains a global pursuit.
A former longtime Condé Nast employee, Spalding gives all things luxe the gimlet eye in the just-released “Luxury: A History,” where she posits that “luxury is riding high and lying low.”
The tome contains many fantastical photos, including those of the chandelier-laden Falaknuma Palace; the Maharaja Gwalior’s banquet table with a train track that transported cigars and port to guests, and Dakis Joannou’s “Guilty” yacht emblazoned with Jeff Koons art and other over-the-top indulgences.
Tracking the evolution of luxury from the perfumes of Arabia and the gardens of Babylon to other periods, Spalding illustrates how the impulse to embellish and outdo has directed the pastimes, politics, beliefs and aesthetic of the world’s major civilizations.
The Parameter Press-published book is the culmination of a project that started 40 years ago as a trilogy and wound up being a highly researched book. In a recent interview with WWD, Spalding spoke of luxury’s past and current state. Dating back more than 5,000 years, there is proof that Neanderthals dyed fibers and painted shells — even going so far as to walk 300 miles once a year to gather an ochre that contained a special yellow to dye the fibers of their skirts, she said.
“I think luxury is genetic — the desire for something beautiful, something crafted, something bigger and something better. As the world got more complicated and there were power divisions, then there was status,” Spalding said, adding that this is evidenced by leaders’ huge palaces and vast commissions. “But it’s essentially the same instinct from the smallest desire for something pretty or beautifully made to these vast power moves. It’s really the same genetic instinct.”
Releasing a book about luxury during a pandemic concerned Spalding. But after checking in with brands including Guo Pei, Cartier, Tiffany & Co., Van Cleefs & Arpels, Hermès, Christian Louboutin, Chanel, Prada and Delveaux, she learned there is still great demand amidst the pandemic. Events have come back, along with cocktails and high heels (“unfortunately”).
Intimate Pleasures, Haute Habitats, Verdant Vanities, Trophy Art and other chapters highlight extravagance and its historical significance. Diamonds, for example, may be synonymous with extraordinary luxury today — especially due to branding — but in the ancient world, pearls held the title for being “the teardrops of the gods, the fine dew.”
As the stepdaughter of a renowned concert pianist Nathan Milstein, Spalding spent part of her summers traveling abroad with her parents. Summer tours included stays at The Ritz in London, as well as the one in Paris, the Gritti Palace in Venice and the Excelsior in Rome. When her father performed at Princess Grace of Monaco’s annual benefit in Monte Carlo, the family stayed at a nearby villa in Roquebrun that belonged to Winston Churchill’s mistress. “I was eight years old and I was seated next to Winston Churchill at dinner. They gave me his cigar to smoke and I remember thinking, ‘This is the most disgusting thing.’ It was a wet, ghastly, awful cigar. But I thought I’d better do it so I can tell my grandchildren one day,” she said.
Greta Garbo was another frequent guest there, Spalding said. “It was pre-celebrity. People were famous. There were no celebrities and there were no middlemen. I think what’s come between us and luxury is the middleman, the PR, the manager, the stylist.…There were none of those people. They bought their dresses. They wore their gowns. They went to the ball and private parties. There was no paparazzi.”
She continued, “The minute a middle person is involved, it’s about promotion. The minute it’s about promotion, it’s about branding.”
Having worked for 32 years as a features editor and later as a West Coast editor for various Vogue editions, she interviewed people like Nancy Reagan and frequently wrote about topics like travel and Los Angeles restaurants. “I was always privileged to experience fine and effortful things,” Spalding said.
During her run at British Vogue, her desk was back-to-back with the fashion team and the famed Grace Coddington. “She was adorable. She’d wear hot pants. One day she came in and she cut off her jeans. That became HotPants — a little higher than one would have normally done in those days,” Spalding recalled.
Optimistic that craftsmanship is passed from one generation to the next and will endure, Spalding said, “Desire could keep it going.” Praising the workmanship of Guo Pei, she noted that one of the designer’s creation can require up to 30,000 hours of workmanship. “Will that persist? As long as there is couturier who wants to do that, there will be the money around to support that.”
Spalding’s favorite luxe personal possessions include a custom Balenciaga cocktail dress that belonged to her mother and required 200 yards of silk for the skirt. As for unmatchable career moments, Spalding had to be slipped in by close friends to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro in the early ’80s. “That was terrifying. I thought I’d never see my kids again. I surrendered my passport when I entered the country. He kept me waiting for days,” she said. “He was incredibly seductive. But because I’d been primed by three journalists before me, had been utterly and physically seduced by him, I was on my guard. I can tell you.”
She was surprised by how young people on a crowded beach swarmed Castro’s Jeep to touch his arm, an appearance that Spalding said was staged by his aides. The fact that women in Cuba were treated like men at that time in terms of pay and job opportunities impressed her, as well as the belief that there is no such thing as a child born out of wedlock.
Despite being a little precious and very guarded, Spalding liked interviewing Nancy Reagan due to “her exquisite devotion to Ronald.” Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson and the musician Tom Waits were memorable, too. Arriving a little wilted at Waits’ Los Angles home on a blazing hot day, he told Spalding, “’Oh gal, you’re soaked. Go get yourself a cold drink in the fridge.’ Inside the fridge were stacks of dirty dishes, pans and pots — filthy. Tom said, ‘Ohhhh, I hate doing dishes so I put them in the fridge all week long. On Sunday, I fill up my bathtub and throw them all in and that’s how I get ‘me all clean,’” Spalding said. “Things like that we’re such fun.”