Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster

How do you know when a trend becomes a paradigm shift? Some change is easy to identify (most notably computing) but most change is incremental and hard to detect. I don’t think I’m alone among contractors and manufacturers in that my assessments of change are either hedged by fizzled trends or my preconceptions (usually the availability heuristic) or what I want to see to come about. I’ve been wondering about the explosion in handbag lines. After reading this book (this is a review), I think handbag designing is akin to tee shirt producing. I intend no disrespect to my many hand bag designers; I realize producing a bag is a much trickier prospect than slapping some dye on a tee but I suspect that much of the desire to produce them comes from the same roots. Product developers see the price points of expensive bags (or tees), calculate backwards and figure they can make some profitably too. But are hand bags what really drives someone, is this their passion? Would said designers still produce bags even if handbags weren’t so hot? How can one honestly know the truth of this, even if only admitting it to themselves? Another thing I figured out after reading this, was why so many DEs want to open their own brick and mortar stores (beyond the obvious). As it happens, this book explains why manufacturers becoming retailers is part and parcel of the same trend.

It is under this penumbra that I’ve been reading Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster. I’ve been reading it too slowly, or trying to read slowly, not wanting to come to the inevitable end of the nearly 400 page count. This book circuitously documents a paradigm shift in manufacturer behavior (not just luxury manufacturers) and the equivocal consumer response. It’s the dramatic story of how couture labels have augmented their offerings to capitalize on the acquisitive nature of consumers to possess exclusivity mostly via handbags and perfumes. My review is staid and boring, the book is not. It’s filled with riveting stories of the changes in luxury production over the past ten years. This is a must read, engrossing. You will enjoy it.

The author posits that the very nature of haute couture has changed, becoming diluted. The tenuous thread through it all is marketing, the means of feeding the prurient acquisitive frenzy of consumers. With so many couture labels now producing in China, will the issue of provenance rear? Is luxury compatible with mass outsourced production? I think people will continue to want to consume, to be a part of what they (currently) perceive as cool regardless of whoever is hurt in the process. I can only think that true luxury buyers of exclusivity, will continue to migrate toward unknown niche brands, and discard them just as quickly should these brands take the same path as their forebears (that’s a hint for you). I almost wonder if one could -once attaining luxury status- retain it by deliberately keeping a low profile, eschewing marketing altogether.

Among many topics, Dana Thomas explains why the phenomenal increase of luxury brands makes piracy inevitable:

What I realized from my tour is that people don’t believe there is a difference between real and fake anymore. Bernard Arnault’s marking plan had worked: consumers don’t buy luxury branded items for what they are, but for what they represent. And good fakes -the kind that can pass for real- now represent socially the same thing as real.

I think that’s true. How many young people increasingly commit atrocious acts, thinking they can hit restart like a button in a video game? Everything is a do-over, there are no consequences for individual actions. As luxury liquifies, settling into consumer culture like some discombobulated ooze, it settles, filling in gaps and finally solidifies into a kind of gooey mass. The lines between what is real and not-real blur, surrounded by the morass.

I didn’t intend to descend into that. This is a great book. If you like stories, they’re in there. Why Balenciaga -feeling the pending changes, abruptly shuttered his atelier. Chanel, first a great courtesan, then a haute designer. Hermes, probably one of the only remaining true couture product lines (and why) was first a saddle maker. I could not have been less interested in how perfumes are made -and how they are diluted to meet consumption demands (entry level aspirational luxury consumers) but now I am. Who are the greatest consumers of luxury brands (*the Japanese)? It’s all in there. If you hope to make your way amid the continuing clamor of the marketplace, you can derive analysis from the text with the caveat that some numbers are tortured to suit the context.

If you have doubts as to trending over the next ten years, this book is a must read. I don’t believe that one must adopt these practices to become successful. But then again, it depends on your goals and your definition of success. I must admit that I remain in the camp of those who believe it’s a mistake to become a publicly traded company. I don’t think fashion companies are best served by going public and striving to meet the demands of shareholders to increase dividends each quarter. There is a natural elasticity to fashion, a dance in responding to the whimsical consumer, some give and take. One retreats one season after a lackluster launch, redefining to bounce back the next. It doesn’t feel natural to buoy a product line with the augmentation of marketing to drive demand if one’s motivation is to feed on the consumer tendency to purchase icons, labels, trademarks, representations of images to which they’d align themselves. To meet shareholder expectations, you’ll eventually cut corners. In the end I guess it all depends on what you’re selling. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with marketing but I feel it is imperative to have a product line with sufficient value to stand on its own merits. To do this, you’ll have to prove yourself over and over again. You never rest, you’re only as good as your last collection. This isn’t for everyone but some people thrive on the challenge. Therein lie the greatest of designers.

* In comments, someone had mentioned she was surprised that the clothes she saw the Japanese wearing, fit so poorly. Completely opposite what she’d imagined owing to the avant garde design reputation of Japan. Maybe non-Japanese designers will start making clothes to fit them? There is no other demography that consumes luxury like the Japanese.

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  1. diane carter says:

    …the loss of luxury, the fake as real- if i am standing alone and dressed in a piece that is pleasing to the touch, form-fitting, color-complementing, an i not happy with the result, do i need other’s approval to validate this? what more criteria do i need? my experience or the reflection or others?

  2. Lisa Bloodgood in Portland says:

    My comment goes with both this post and yesterday’s.

    I have been trying to find tops and bottoms in interesting prints or woven designs because I have a lot of one-colored clothing. In summer I almost exclusively wear t shirts because I don’t have to iron them. So I like to have some with something interesting on them. This is because I can hit a sale or the thrift store faster than I can sew.

    However, thinking you’re a fashion designer because you produce t shirts is such B.S.-y thinking. No, you’re not a fashion designer, you’re a t shirt producer, even if your shirts are cool.

    Making handbags isn’t as easy, nope.

    I hate, hate, HATE seeing people wearing clothing that doesn’t fit correctly. I realize some can’t help it, but can’t they get it altered?

    My goals for ’08 are to design and sew more stuff, for both myself and family and for selling, so to be more productive.

    I took 3 terms of paper pattern making and 2 of computer pattern making. I am way better with paper only because the program we had wasn’t that intuitive to me. But I’d like to know pattern making better because almost all the clothes I see are too simple. I know that it takes more effort, time, and money to make clothing that’s more complicated. But everything seems so diluted and boring. We definitely need some younger people to become excellent pattern makers and people with other related skills. I sometimes see clothing–current or historical–that I don’t know how to pattern.

  3. M Bunny says:

    Regarding fit… it seems to me that, in general, Japanese folks tend to have more ease in their garments than westerners typically do. So this might be part of the perception of “ill-fitting” garments.

  4. Becky O. says:

    What a good review. It roused me back after a much needed Holiday break.
    I have been thinking about the slow transition to luxury and by-passing market for a year now. Low profile, fabulous quality, beautiful design… it much more appealing to me and my business sense…. An independent design house. That’s the precedence, right? Still wondering. Still designing. And redesigning : )

    As to the handbag trend –
    The good ones are not easy, but they are easy to add to an outfit. There are always the “I can do that” businesses that aren’t around for very long.
    They don’t need to be sized and fit for a range of body types and they are held by some to a different criteria than jacket, top or skirt- i.e. function and style to carry your items not just to adorn or shield you from the weather.

    T-shirts are easy, in the way that you are not designing and sewing them. It is a great way to display your artwork or attitude. Isn’t that what t-shirts are about anyway? comfort, ease and attitude : )

    I am a huge proponent of really knowing your craft and getting good a few others that fall out of your range of comfort. I am so looking forward to hearing about your CAD experiences.

    I’ll be checking out the book too.

  5. I have read this book and love it but it does read true. The “luxury” brands are now marketing to the middle class such as myself and indeed one of my LV bags says “made in the USA” stamped on it.

    Coach long ago I noticed switched to making in china and I stop buying from them expect for the super limited edition which seems less likely to be chosen by those buying counterfeit items.

    It is surprising having gone to FIDM how many girls thought they were getting the real thing buying down Santee Alley

  6. Phyllis says:

    Okay, I work in IP as a paralegal and I have a slight problem with this statement because it’s not accurate (and the author doesn’t appear to be an attorney anyway):

    “You can try to invalidate the patent, which will lead to a costly trial (in terms of both time and money).”

    The process of challenging a patent does not automatically start in Federal court (which has exclusive jurisdiction over IP because it’s an issue of federal law) rather it begins within the administrative law process managed by the US Patent and Trademark Office. In other words, you would file an action with the PTO as the first step in challenging a patent. It’s only after you exhaust the entire administrative law appeals process within the PTO that a case would move to Federal court. The reason a government agency like the PTO has this power is to keep as much of stuff as possible *out* of the trial court because US courts are already seriously backlogged.

    I just wanted to clear that up.

  7. I am intrigued by the comments on handbag design.

    I used to travel a lot for business and I was always looking for a shoulder bag that wouldn’t swallow my passport or ticket in its black lining or play hide and seek with thirty different zippered pockets. I also needed a lightweight and attractive computer bag.

    I would kill time in boring meetings by sketching out my vision of a perfect bag.

    Having been laid off (unrelated to my inattention at meetings) I decided it was time to give this a try. I have designed a computer bag, purse and tote bag. The bags open wide and the bright linings make it easy to see the contents inside. And since my fellow aging baby boomers are my target market, I’ve included a pocket for reading glasses.

    Yes, the designing is hard. I make a series of prototypes before I have a sample made. I need to make sure that the bag actually works the way I envisioned it would. Are the pockets arranged logically? Is it comfortable to wear? Is it sized correctly?

    My bags are definitely not the most beautiful or sexy or knockoffs of designer bags. The beauty is inside.

  8. Susanna says:

    I’ll pile on to agree on Kathleen’s comment about “going public”. All businesses need capital – no question about it. When you go public, what do you get?
    Capital for investment of course, but more importantly: liquidity (a readily traded stock with a quoted price), visibility (company/brand), and value from market movements and positive feelings from investors about the company’s prospects.
    But at what price? Liquidity is fleeting (can you say – subprime?), visibility is a double-edged sword (what have you done for me lately?), and when the market goes down, who cares that you beat your earnings forecasts – the stock will go down anyway. And Kathleen has correctly pointed out the loss of control over creative process that happens to meet market whims – isn’t that why you got into DE in the first place, to avoid that?
    The truth is that capital is invested to create revenues – period, whether public or private sourced. There is plenty of private capital to support your business and finance it with somewhat more patience than the public markets – just be prepared that private investors will want their piece of the pie too.
    Bottom line for DE’s – 1) Focus on creating a steady and growing revenue stream from sales of your creative and quality designs. 2) Get your investment capital from the least invasive and most patient sources that you can muster. 3) then if and when you want to get out – sell your biz for as big a multiple of sales revenues as you can get someone to pay – do your homework on what it’s worth.
    Sounds easy – it’s not. But if you keep these three things in mind, you’ll be ahead of the pack.

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