Armed with clout and cultural confidence, a new generation of luxury consumers in Asia is compelling brands to move beyond legacy codes and respond to vibrant new ideas about how wealth and meaning are defined and expressed, say Virtue’s Huiwen Tow and Toru Jhaveri.

Inside Culture by Virtue is a mini-series that puts a spotlight on the emerging forces that are disrupting today and shaping tomorrow, championing a diverse range of case studies and opinions across Asia – the rising epicentre of global culture.

Bottega Veneta, the famously understated Italian fashion house, issued an unexpected statement earlier in 2023. The brand announced the appointment of its first and only ambassador, none other than K-pop royalty and supergroup BTS leader, RM.

Screenshot of Bottega Veneta's Instagram post featuring BTS leader, RM

It’s a telling choice that illustrates Asia’s growing dominance of the global luxury market. Luxury collections are increasingly inspired by overtly Asian influences ranging from Chinese ceramics to anime. Korean and Chinese stars have long made their presence felt at high-wattage brand events. They’re now being joined by their Indian, Thai and Filipino counterparts.

APAC consumers are already the world’s most prolific buyers of personal luxury goods, with sales in the region accounting for up to a third of LVMH’s global revenue (“Luxury goods market in the Asia Pacific region”, 2023). While more established markets such as Japan, South Korea and China continue to hold sway, the appetite for luxury is growing exponentially in Southeast Asia and India (“Unlocking hyper growth in Asia’s luxury beauty landscape”, 2023). India alone is expected to become a US$200 billion luxury market by 2030 (“Indian luxury market in 2030 and beyond”, Economic Times 2023).

Growing affluence and pop-cultural power have encouraged Asian consumers to see themselves as global tastemakers and trendsetters (“Asia on the cusp of a new era”, McKinsey Global Institute 2023). Once content to follow Western codes of luxury consumption, today, they’re assertive about self-expression and curious about how their ancient traditions map onto the present and future. Expectations of luxury brands are evolving accordingly.

We’ve identified three emerging shifts that will only gain momentum:

  • A respectful play with heritage
  • An emphasis on elevating the everyday
  • A search for luxury that’s felt rather than flaunted

Tapping into these cultural shifts will unlock opportunities for brands to reinvent and reimagine themselves as they keep pace with Asia’s dynamic luxury landscape.

From preserving heritage to playing with it

One of the truest cliches about Asian culture is its instinctive reverence for heritage. For all their diversity, Asian communities think of heritage as something to be upheld, to be shared with one another and the world in a form that evokes awe and respect. Generations of Asian luxury customers admired Western maisons for their legacies; homegrown luxury brands were also held to this standard. Whether it was the pageantry of palaces that were restored by India’s Taj hoteliers, Jim Thompson’s revitalisation of Thailand’s silk industry or even Shanghai Tang’s reinterpretation of traditional Chinese aesthetics, each brand celebrated traditional craftsmanship and an idealised national identity.

But today’s Asian consumers are culturally confident and resist defining themselves only in terms of their places of origin. The Vice Guide to Culture (2023) found that over 70% of youth believed identities will become more complex in the future, with 63% of young people in APAC prioritising self-exploration over templatised self-expression. 

This shift explains the mixed reception to Dior’s highly publicised Indian debut. There was no disputing the gorgeousness and intricacy of the clothes themselves, or the spotlighting of local artisans. But for younger viewers on the livestream, Dior was paying homage to an India they’d already seen several times over. What they were seeking was a newer, fresher narrative.

@dietsabya Instagram story featuring screenshots from DIOR India's Instagram page, with captions reading: 'The collection is same as the India inspired pre fall we had seen lol' and 'Wish they had used more of the Indian runway girlies'

@dietsabya, an Indian Instagram page that reviews collections, content and curates “insider” commentary on luxury and lifestyle brands (Cottage Emporium is a go-to, government-endorsed retailer for traditional Indian handicrafts)

Powerhouse Indian brand Sabyasachi best exemplifies a respectful play and deftness with tradition. Its journey began with a collection called Frog Princess (2004), which mixed classical Indian prints with internationally inclined cuts, fabrics and colours. Models walked down the runway nibbling on bread, completely reimagining the idea of the demure, sari-clad Indian beauty.

Since then, Sabyasachi’s footprint has gone global, encompassing a sellout capsule collection with H&M featuring tote bags and T-shirts, as well as wedding couture showcased in an opulent new flagship store in NYC’s West Village.

Sabyasachi’s first collection, Frog Princess; a signature print from the brand’s capsule collection with H&M; interiors of the NYC West Village store

From exalted privilege to everyday pleasure

Asians have typically perceived luxury as a privilege, with luxury products and services enjoying a halo of not just exclusivity but extraordinariness. Asian consumers put luxury on a pedestal, using it to mark and celebrate “peak moments” (“New codes of luxury”, Vice Media Group 2021) that were decidedly special – weddings, births, career highs. Craftsmanship and technical finesse were intrinsic to luxury and validated its elusiveness.

The state of youth APAC, Vice Media Group APAC 2023

But are rare rewards aspirational anymore? The Vice Guide to Culture (2023) declares pleasure is now a baseline, not a reward. APAC consumers are actively choosing to make pleasure an integral part of their everyday lives, fuelled by a deeply rooted belief that pleasure itself is a luxury that everyone deserves. This is particularly true for emerging luxury consumers – two-thirds of APAC youth prioritise feeling ease and joy in everyday life and 50% think of comfort as essential to luxury.

This seismic shift is compelling brands to explore elevated functionality and everyday delight. Artchives, a contemporary Indian brand steeped in nostalgia, is building its luxury credentials with beautiful products such as cocktail napkins and placemats that are designed to be used regularly.

Artchives cocktail napkins and signature sturdy tote

Other brands are sparking pleasure by looking at the world in irreverent, even provocative ways. Prada had famously curated a fortnight-long pop-up at a traditional Shanghai wet market, luring consumers with the promise of limited-edition paper bags with their grocery purchases – a tongue-in-cheek embedding of luxury in everyday life.

From tangible status statements to intangible personal enrichment

Asians are famously achievement-oriented and believe in the inherent virtuousness of hard work ( 2023, ILO Report, “Longest Working Weeks”). The continent’s many capitals – Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul, Bangkok and Singapore – bring alive a “work hard, play hard” ethos. Schooled to succeed, Asians have been lucrative textbook-conspicuous consumers (“Six reasons Chinese consumers buy luxury goods”, Design & Packaging News 2015), with statement luxury products and experiences driving the quest for accomplishment while also serving as its undeniable, desirable proof. 

The pandemic, however, has provoked questions about the deeper meaning of time, money and status, and 58% of APAC consumers now describe time as a greater luxury than money (“New codes of luxury”, Vice Media Group 2021). Success in the region is increasingly determined by internal fulfilment, not external gains. Work-life balance, contentment and financial independence have begun to matter more than conventional notions of social prestige (“State of youth”, Vice Media Group 2023). 

With personal enrichment taking precedence, the demand for luxury fragrances and premium beauty experiences is soaring (“Unlocking hyper growth in Asia’s luxury beauty landscape”, 2023). Sensorially augmented luxury products are attracting interest, in spite of the fact that they can be experienced only fleetingly, whether it’s Maison Margiela’s perfume “replicas” of jazz clubs and Sunday strolls, or Indian luxury leather goods purveyor Nappa Dori’s range of deluxe candles and diffusers. 

At the more tactile end of the spectrum, Singapore’s Skin Pple is a cutting-edge spa that offers holistic facials – skin therapies that capture the feeling of star gazing, rainbow chasing, being ensconced in a womb or “following one’s bliss”, while also targeting complex skin concerns. Having memories, emotions and nostalgia condensed into a single moment in time is in many ways the ultimate luxury, an intentional immersion in an age when our environment is a constant assault on our entire being.

Skin Pple Singapore’s Chasing Rainbows and Star Gazing facials; Nappa Dori’s DIY candle kit

The opportunity: Contemporary luxury that’s playful, pleasurable and personal

Luxury brands are already adept at weaving dreamworlds. Instead, the opportunity lies in exploring the potential for creating delight as life is being lived. 

Luxury brands should draw on their distinctive legacies to engage meaningfully with their audiences. They can influence consumers’ perspectives on their cultures by bringing crafts and craftspeople into the spotlight as equal creative partners, rather than as simply translators of the brand’s vision.

Pleasure can be sparked by deploying a mix of technology and tradition to add flourishes to rituals, places and spaces that are taken for granted, or by evoking hyper-specific moods through visual codes and scents in otherwise unremarkable interactions. Asia’s consumers are increasingly on an ongoing search for pleasure, creativity and meaning; stumbling upon it in unexpected ways is a luxury in and of itself.