Zero Creatives / Cultura RF

How did the language of luxury and premium imagery move to centre stage? And what does it mean for image buyers?

Traditionally ‘detail’ in imagery has always been associated with luxury and premium brands. Luxury and high-end brands have always sold the quality of their products by visually flattering the customer’s the eye for detail – the many shades of autumn reds.

Hermes fall/winter, 2012
Hermes fall/winter, 2012

‘Premium’ in branding, products, tourist experiences has played out as the kind of service and attention to detail that’s only available to those who understand the value of detail, who luxuriate in the richness of detail.

So the imagery of high-end fashion advertising and the visual storytelling of fashion magazines has always luxuriated in detail, visual texture, materials.

Great fashion photographers have always understood that when it comes to signalling luxury, the celebrity was always an accessory to the handbag/ suitcase/ scarf.

Styled and Photographed by Karl Lagerfeld. 2010

It’s the object that’s the obscure object of desire – think of the celebrity in fashion brands as an Instagram filter, a mood enhancer. And traditionally it’s only the wealthy who have been afforded the luxury of distraction, of yarns, of digression, that – for the rest of us it’s called not paying attention.


This imagery of detail has filtered into the mainstream, not just through the popularization of craft (a sign of luxury) but through the technology of Instagram and the kinds of imagery it has inspired people to take. Forget the Polaroid Mark II, ‘sun-kissed’, 1970s retro-dream filters, it’s the ability to take and post anything that catches your eye – whether it’s people documenting their food, journeys, or shapes or colours or objects that has just caught our eye.

This growing fascination with the visual detail of everyday life is different to the exquisite constructions of the Fashion Super-Photographer.

Charles Gullung / Cultura RM
Charles Gullung / Cultura RM

It used to be that only luxury brands would engage in the flattery of their customers with such an eye for detail. Detail for these brands is a way of drawing boundaries, marking out social and cultural territory.

But mainstream brands such as Airbnb focus their new campaign around a unique detail in each location, a telling object, a distinctive bit of visual data that signals a story and a one-off experience – the visual atoms of storytelling: a classic twin-bell alarm clock; a child’s painted hand-prints on a window; a horse figurine on a shelf; a horseshoe on a window ledge; orange-painted toenails; a rubber duck swimming alongside a swan. Mysterious but significant detail as a sign of adventure, the idea that this is more than a holiday, more than casual tourism.


Class, and Luxury, is always about tradition, pedigree, heritage (see Patek Phlippe).  One of the motifs borrowed by Airbnb from Luxury is the notion of ‘pedigree’ – each of these rented spaces are not meticulously designed anonymous hotels, they belong to an individual human being. As much as this is about visiting a place, it’s also about visiting a little bit of someone else’s life.

David Cleveland/ Cultura RF
David Cleveland/ Cultura RF

In an age when we are all used to a degree of digital customization ‘irrelevant’ detail has become an important signifier of individuality. As expert on experiential marketing Michael Ventura wrote in Forbes magazine, “Part of the allure of the luxury lifestyle lies in the elevated human-to-human experience, the special customer service and the care and careful attention to detail that luxury brands exhibit.”

If the idea of the designer as a magpie is a tired but true cliché, the unlimited photo capturing capacity of the smartphone, and the nesting space of Instagram, has given us all an eye for shiny things, for material things, for textures and detail that are the starting point for a feeling and a story.

Nature Picture Library / RM. Little owl (Athene Noctua) fledged chick returns for a moment to its nest site, evening light, Derbyshire, UK
Nature Picture Library / RM. Little owl (Athene Noctua) fledged chick returns for a moment to its nest site, evening light, Derbyshire, UK

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