Saturday, February 6, 2010

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster

It's a Lacroix, darling - Edina Monsoon

I've never really understood the appeal of labels and logos.  Part of it is that when you get right down to it, I'm frugal (unless you ask my mom who'll tell you I'm cheap, and back it up with tales of unbroken twenties and moth-filled wallets, some of which may actually be true) and can't get my mind around the idea of paying a 300% premium for the privilege of wearing someone else's name across my butt.  I'm a rarity though, as Dana Thomas tells us in Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster.  Thomas traces luxury houses from their early years of hand-crafting beautiful luggage, clothing, and accessories for the very wealthy through their expansion into new markets in the 1980s, to their status as mall stalwarts earning profits on entry level products.  Along the way, she stops for factory tours, a ride-along with a detective who specializes in busting counterfeiters, and a gossipy look into the world of celebrity stylists.  

Luxury used to belong only to the wealthy - wealthy women ordered couture dresses and custom-made handbags.   That was fine for small, family owned houses which took pride in their craftsmanship, but as the luxury companies merged into publicly-held groups, profits became more important.  To keep up with the pressure from stockholders, brands initially expanded into emerging markets (especially Japan) and lower cost items such as perfume and accessories.  The next step was to cut costs.  Thomas mentions the move towards unlined items and one (unnamed) house which shortened the sleeves of their jackets by half an inch, saving thousands of dollars (a move which particularly bothers me, a 5'8" woman with very long arms).  She also discusses outsourcing, a practice most houses try to hide, by placing the "made in China" label in an inconspicuous place or by emphasizing the European site at which the Asian-made parts were assembled.  These sections poke a hole in the "I'm paying for quality" argument I sometimes hear from women carrying designer bags - the entry level bags are at least sometimes made in sweatshops and from substandard materials, just like the counterfeit versions and the no-name bags found in discount stores.

Thomas's book is more a collection of essays on related topics than a unified work, and the chapter on the rise of the Hollywood stylist was the most fun to read.  Old Hollywood was a pretty, escapist, world where everyone wore evening dress and each studio employed stylists who not only designed gorgeous costumes but also dresses for stars to wear when they were nominally off-duty.  As the studio system fell, and a more naturalistic style of film came into vogue, movie characters wore off-the-rack clothes and stars were on their own on the red carpet.  Dressing movie characters in the sort of clothes their characters would wear in real life (no more picnicking in elaborate silk dresses) makes the movies more realistic, but also freed stars to indulge in tackiness.  Stylists stepped in, saving stars from their baser tastes and the public from seeing a repeat of Kim Basinger's self-designed, one-armed 1990 Oscar gown.  As stylists became more powerful, they began making demands on the houses, some of which were unreasonable and none of which were substantiated in the book.  I understand that Thomas's sources for this chapter probably spoke off the record to preserve their own jobs, but they ring true, perhaps because I've seen so many beautiful stars wearing the wrong dress from a hot designer.  The chartreuse dress Nicole Kidman wore to the Oscars in 1997 made her look seriously ill, and the dress as seriously ugly as Demi Moore's bicycle shorts from a few years earlier, and the only explanation I can think of for her wearing it was a backroom deal by her stylist.  

I enjoyed Deluxe, but for the most part it confirmed what I knew or suspected.  Luxury brands are no longer a sign of high quality but a public badge consumers wear to say "I've arrived" or a marketing-driven indulgence.  A complex web of advertising and product placement has convinced us that a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes or an Armani dress or a Vuitton bag are necessary indulgences, or at least of higher value than a similar item with a less prestigious name.  

Wearing a logo means you've won the economic game when Deluxe was published in 2007, but does that still apply?  As I read, I felt the ghost of the Great Recession - are consumers as willing to spend for a name without a clear increase in quality?  Is shopping still a hobby, and if not, will it become one again in the future?  How many of the women who bought a new 'it' bag every season have had economic setbacks and look at the shelf full of designer accessories with regret?  Entertaining and well-written, Deluxe, may have profiled the final days of a label obsessed society.


  1. You know I love Eddie . . .
    This sounds like a really awesome book. And I think you have a point about recession-induced changes. But, I think as the econmy turns up, you'll see this drive to show-off labels start to heat up again.

  2. I agree - luxury will come back. What I wonder is if the entry-level luxury will remain such a big part of it, or whether you'll see women buying the next level piece once every few years instead of the entry level piece once a year, or if they'll gravitate towards the more classic styles which don't expire in 3 months.