Al fresco distancing and £28 hand sanitiser: the rise of Covid luxury

How high-end brands are repackaging the pandemic as an indulgent experience for consumers. 

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Four Thieves hand sanitiser, made by the botanics company Amass, costs £28 for a 16 oz bottle. Gracing the world’s country clubs, private ski resorts and upscale hotels, a single spritz promises to transport the user to “candle-lit bistros, cabin getaways, and the bustling markets of Marrakesh”.

Hand sanitiser is having an Instagram moment. While coronavirus ravages its way through the world’s most deprived communities, designer brands and wealthy influencers are translating handwashing into an experience of lush well-being.

A scroll through Instagram reveals bottles of high-end hand sanitiser resting sleekly on slabs of marble, and manicured hands lightly pressing soap dispensers. The captions (“Keep safe in style” and “Make our hand sanitiser the star of your self-care routine”) blur into one, reframing a desire to prevent illness into a luxury trend.

Pictures of solitary sinks, carved from spare granite or scalloped marble, are now ubiquitous on the Instagram feeds of companies like Amass, a retailer of “botanics for modern life”, and the upmarket skincare brand Aesop.

In one image, the “rhomboid pattern” of a basin “pays homage to the interior of a local church”, and the “sacred vessels of religious rites”. Handwashing is now a near-religious experience, a moment of Instagrammable self-discovery.

The marketing of Four Thieves is based on the plague. The hand sanitiser’s blend of herbs is the same recipe believed in medieval Europe to ward off the bubonic plague, when it was reputedly favoured by grave robbers and others caught in one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, it’s now a feature of five-star establishments, from The Ned hotel in London to Montana’s Yellowstone Club.

“Up until the pandemic, hand sanitiser was this really clinical, utilitarian thing,” says Morgan McLachlan, chief distiller at Amass. “I wanted to make a hand sanitiser that was a nicer user experience. I wanted to turn something we have to do – cleaning our hands – into something that’s a bit more pleasurable, a sensory ritual. If there’s any emotion I want to bring to the product, it’s comfort – because I think we all need that right now.”

It’s a sentiment that is hard to argue with. In the UK, coronavirus has wreaked havoc on an already precarious jobs market, destroyed many people's mental health and confined millions to their homes. If you can afford to reframe Covid-19 and its associated rituals (cleaning your hands and wearing face masks) as peaceful retreats, why not do so? Don’t we all deserve a bit of comfort?

[see also: To save British high streets, forget the lost era of retail – and listen to millennials]

And yet, selling handwashing – a practice which, for those more susceptible to the virus, could mean the difference between life and death – as an expensive personal care ritual throws into sharp relief the distinction between those who can afford to forget coronavirus, and those condemned to remember it.

For Arathy Mohanlal, a critical care nurse, handwashing during the height of Covid-19 meant soreness and skin peeling off the back of her hands. She’ll never forget the patients dying on the ICU ward where she worked, laying out their bodies, and then racing back, drenched in sweat, to care for the other patients.

“I had broken skin and pressure sores from wearing a visor, and I barely had time to drink or pee,” says Mohanlal. “We were responsible for up to four patients at a time, when ICU should be one-to-one care. Luxury brands marketing handwash and hand sanitiser makes me think that they don’t fully understand the effects of Covid-19 and how scary this virus is. It’s not a marketing opportunity.”

In the world of Covid-19, wealth doesn’t just buy material security – it buys space for luxury mental retreat.

McLachlan says: “Aroma has this incredible ability to transport us in space and time,” and she hopes her hand sanitiser’s fragrance will lift the user out of the anxiety and isolation of the pandemic. Forty three per cent of Amass’s luxury hand sanitiser sales are to high-end hotels and restaurants across the globe.

We might all be subject to some of the same physical restrictions, but for the wealthy there’s no tax on escaping to low-lit bistros and tropical beaches, in contrast with those crammed into one-bedroom flats with three children, with coronavirus spreading through their neighbourhood and sickness an everyday reality.

There’s a myth, beloved by politicians who clapped the NHS while carers tended to the sick without proper PPE, that we’re all in this together. But as non-essential retail reopens, there is a gap between the high-street stores trailing floor markers and safety tape, and luxury boutiques scrambling to give their clients an upmarket pandemic experience.

[see also: To Boris Johnson’s government, our vanishing high streets are simply a parallel universe]

What is a luxury shopping experience in the era of Covid-19? It is high-end boutiques taking government guidelines – which are supposed to be utilitarian, ubiquitous and for the safety of everyone – and repackaging them as jovial diversions.

The luxury perfume house Penhaligon's communicates Covid-19 guidelines via a mock-Edwardian public information film.

“It goes without saying that our staff are always immaculately turned out,” the film reads, in reference to the gloves and masks supposed to keep shop workers safe.

Bicester Village, a famous designer shopping outlet in the UK, does not use the term "Covid-19" in its safety guidelines. Instead, the website describes “a new way of shopping”, as though the pandemic was created to offer a novel shopping experience. Eating outside to lessen the risk of the virus becomes “al fresco dining”, and queuing is an inconvenience to be eliminated for customers’ comfort (Bicester Village has implemented a digital queuing system to allow customers to “make the most of their visit”).

When I worked as a sales assistant in luxury retail, I discovered that it was not so much about the product itself – the £40,000 handbag, or the shoes quivering with fox fur – as the human cost surrounding it.

What would a luxury purchase be without the bleeding feet and bursting bladder of the sales assistant serving you, without the “madams” and “sirs”? And disturbingly, during Covid-19, many luxury shoppers believe their wealth transcends common safety restrictions.

“A lot of customers feel like they’re entitled not to wear a mask, because they’re shopping at a designer brand,” says Anna (not her real name), a sales assistant at Ted Baker in Bicester Village.

“If I know a customer’s going to be spending a lot of money and it’s my job to give them luxury service, I don’t feel comfortable asking them to put their mask on. If you do ask, customers get really defensive, and it just makes the whole experience of serving them really difficult. So, I just leave it, even though I don’t feel safe.”

When Anna returned to work, she and her colleagues were promised proper protective gear. They were given a three-pack of disposable masks, but when those ran out, they were never re-ordered. She speaks of customers getting angry, taking their masks off at the till (“I just need some air”), and throwing tantrums about not being allowed to pay in cash: “I’ve already touched all the clothes, so what’s the difference? I’ll be emailing in about you!

[see also: “You can’t eat applause”: why the coronavirus crisis poses dilemmas for trade unions]

In a pandemic, luxury shopping isn’t a glass of champagne with your purchase – it’s a luxury hand sanitiser in an elegant bottle at the door, because, instead of death, you’re worried about the softness of your hands.

It’s being ushered into a shop which is over its customer limit, because you’re demanding to enter now – even if it’s dangerous for the sales assistants (deaths among shop workers are seventy five per cent higher than the average national rate). It’s thinking that, by spending money, you’re buying the right to put others at risk – or forget about their suffering.

Bicester Village and Ted Baker had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Emily Beater is a freelance journalist who has written for the Guardian and BBC News

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