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.