A new exhibition opens this week
On October 30, the Louvre Abu Dhabi opens its latest exhibition – 10,000 Years of Luxury. It brings together 350 objects, from different time periods and around the world, to explore our notions of luxury and the role it plays in society. Expect to see everything from fashion to jewellery, art to design, with a few surprises also.
To find out more, MOJEH Men spoke with the exhibition’s curator, Olivier Gabet, who is the director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Here he explains why we recognise certain items as luxurious, and how men’s luxury in particular has developed over time.
What makes luxury a fascinating subject for an exhibition?
The word ‘luxury’ is everywhere. It’s in magazines, shop windows, hotels, in conversations… What I wanted to do was to look at the history behind it, using 350 different items, that according to me write a universal history of luxury that is relevant to today. You can definitely see the notion of luxury evolving and changing from one century to another, and between different countries and civilisations.
So the meaning changes according to time and location?
Absolutely. The idea of luxury is very different today than it was even 30 years ago. It’s a complex notion. Luxury can be what is unnecessary or necessary; complicated or simple; old or new; a material object or an experience, subject to time and space.
Where have you sourced the items on display?
The items are from Europe, the Islamic world, China, Africa, Japan and South America. We enlisted the help of a number of different museums, including the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, where I work, and also the original Louvre. So that has given us ancient silver and jewels, and then we have also worked with the heritage departments of various luxury brands, such as Dior, Chanel, Givenchy, Cartier and many more. Most people would associate these names with luxury.
What happened in the days before luxury brands?
Well, in the Middle Ages, paper was considered a luxury… and even flowers, fabulous tulips that only grew in certain parts of Europe, before they became commonplace. I think ideas like this will surprise people. Quite often, luxury has had a connection with nature, such as the ivory of elephants. This used to be considered a material with magical properties, and artists would carve it into something even more elaborate. But today, we wouldn’t do that. Ivory is forbidden. It’s just one example of how things have changed.
So what are the earliest known examples of luxury?
The story is very long. We start the exhibition with one of the oldest pearls found in the Middle East, and we have some wonderful, exquisite tableware from the Roman period. From the beginning, luxury has been the preserve of kings and the very wealthy, but over time there has been a shift, and now luxury is the goal of so many people. Everyone wants some luxury in their life. It might be a particular brand or haute couture, so bags, scarves, perfume… it’s accessible to us.
Are there specific traits that have never left our definition of luxury?
Yes, two or three things. Luxury is often about material, beautiful and rare, and with incredible craftsmanship. But luxury can also be simplicity, or a poor material elevated through design and the time spent making it. Luxury can be extravaganza too, such as an incredible piece of haute couture or art – like we have an amazing piece from Chanel, involving many hours of work, never intended to be sold, but made just to show what the fashion house was capable of. Luxury can have links to heritage – often an object is kept because it is thought of as luxurious, and passed down through generations.
Any luxury items that might appear strange or unusual?
We have an interior designed by Jean-Michel Frank, who was born in Paris, and is known for his work in the 1920s and 1930s. He created these incredible pieces of décor using straw, exactly what you would find in a field, and weave it tightly, delicately, intricately, making doors and other decorative elements. Something so common and simple, yet very popular with the rich. Even today, his doors come up at auctions, and they fetch incredible sums. A writer at the time called it, “The strange luxury of nothing.”
Does luxury for men have its own unique history?
Not really. For a long time, like women, men with wealth and power would wear jewellery and elaborate clothing, with silk and velvet, and embroidery, even back in Roman times. I think there was a change around the 18thcentury with regards fashion, so luxury became more associated with women for a time. But in the last three or four decades, we’ve seen luxury objects for men making a comeback, whether it’s clothing, watches, cars and accessories, or even experiences, such as hotels and travel.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi are marketed as luxury destinations…
That’s true. I think Islamic civilisation in general has a huge connection with the idea of luxury. Historically-speaking, some of the best craftsmen worldwide were based here, working with a range of incredible materials. In the exhibition, we have a wonderful carpet, glasswork, tableware, needlework… there is definitely a foundation of appreciating luxury objects in the Middle East.
What is the future of luxury?
I think that luxury experiences are playing a greater role, and not necessarily expensive, but our lives are so busy, time itself is becoming a prized luxury. And within that, I think we have a growing sense of responsibility towards the environment and the world around us. So an object would need to fulfil the criteria of craftsmanship and so on, but be ethical, without a carbon footprint and not endangering wildlife. There will be a fascination towards luxury, but also respect.
10,000 Years of Luxury at the Louvre Abu Dhabi runs from October 30-February 18, 2020. Entry is free with a general admission ticket.