Labels & Logos - When the masses can afford a brand it loses its luxury appeal

If everyone has one, do you still want one?
The elites don't, which may mean the end of conspicuous consumption

Nathalie Atkinson
Thursday, August 23, 2007

Fashionable types have been waiting for this book all summer -- and it's not even a bitchy roman a clef.
Dana Thomas's Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster (Penguin) is instead a social history of the luxury industry that reads like a riveting roll call of Double Cs, double Fs and signature buckles (Gucci, Ferragamo).
In her exhaustively researched book, Newsweek's Paris-based fashion and culture correspondent examines the rise and fall of old-world craftsmanship, then dissects the class, culture and other clashes at issue behind today's US$157-billion luxury good market. She glimpses the workrooms of luxury brands around the world -- both the pedigreed ateliers of France and the less-so factories in remote China, juxtaposing the story of luxury barons Bernard Arnault with stylist-come-lately Rachel Zoe and the snobbish pronouncements of Fred Hayman (he of Giorgio Beverly Hills fame). She looks at luxury behemoths like Gucci Group, Richemont and LVMH, whose portfolio includes more than 50 brands, such as Pucci, Dior, Donna Karan and the money-making jewel, Louis Vuitton.
Thomas also lays bare the infamous loophole of final assembly, a technicality that allows designers to sew the coveted "made in Italy" label on garments assembled there from materials fabricated elsewhere. There's even an interview and some dirt on the enigmatic Miuccia Prada, the poli-sci PhD and communist who became the soul and patron fashion saint of her family's luggage brand in a volte-face as striking as Naomi Klein suddenly becoming the spokesmodel for Wal-Mart.
This new Theory of the Leisure Class for the 'naughts: Authentic artisans become branding megaliths targeting the aspirational middle class looking for instant McStatus tied up in a famous robin's egg blue box.
So where does luxury go from here? Thomas ties the massification in with the rise of licensing and ancillary products -- the purses and perfume that drive the bottom line. Labels and logos have gone from the inside to the exterior, a vulgar display of arriviste insecurity. This conspicuousness is slowly spooking original luxury consumers who worry not about the source -- which may still be artisanal--but the audience.
Last year in Britain, rumours swirled that Burberry would pull back on use of its signature nova check because of the increasing adoption of the look by British soccer hooligans. It's a classic case of the Chavs and the Chav-nots. The easy access to the trappings of luxury -- the branded and licensed purses and perfumes and plaids -- and the creation of a masstige category (prestige appeal at slightly mass-market prices), such as Simply Vera by Vera Wang at Kohl's or Erin Featherston's upcoming Target collection, devalue the core luxury values.
These days, the truly rich are all about stealth wealth, a direction Barb Atkin, the savvy vice-president of fashion direction at Holt Renfrew, enthused about at a fashion luncheon earlier this week. Atkin cited little-known Brunello Cucinelli, a very expensive but much sought after understated luxury brand on the rise. Cucinelli is subtle, not showy. His labels are on the inside, not out, and the true luxury comes from the exquisite material and fabrication. It's elitist, which is of course the whole point of luxury. Nowadays, those who have it don't flaunt it. The new luxury model is embodied by L.A. socialite Susan Casden, who gets to personally approve the special order of the lesser-known Hermes bag named after her.
This backlash against conspicuous consumption is how Thomas wraps up her book. As shoemaker Christian Louboutin tells the author, "Luxury is not consumerism." You see, the rich really are different from you and me. And the moment Vogue, originally a proudly exclusionary society journal for the 400 pedigreed East Coast families, starts running Wal-Mart ads, it is time for the elites to look elsewhere.
Of course, that's if they believe that goods -- and not, say, free time, close friends and good health --are the trappings of true luxury.
© National Post 2007


  1. Fascinating article, Patricia. I enjoyed it.

  2. This is going to be great but unfortunately I don't it will change a thing. How I hope I am wrong.
    Spot on ending!

  3. I am so looking forward to reading this book. The subject fascinates me. Thanks for posting this article!

  4. Hi Anne
    I agree with you, it is fascinating. I saw the headlines in the newspaper and had to read the article and post it. It is quite relevant to the times we are living in.

  5. Hi H of B
    I don't think it will change the way luxury brands are marketing their brands and who is buying them, but I do think we are seeing a new "luxury" emerging and hopefully it is summed up in the last paragraph - a better quality of life with more of an emphasis on what really matters.

  6. Hi Brillaint Asylum
    I think the book will be a good read.

  7. very interesting post / book and quite relevant to our time. great post patricia!


  8. Anonymous24/8/07

    LV and Hermes bags still cost thousands of dollars, way too much for even the upper middle class consumer. The problem is that people can pay $30 on the street for knock offs, making these designs and logos ubiquitous. That's what's driving the "elites" to look elsewhere.

  9. A fascinating article and yet it’s all very sad in a strange way. I certainly want to read the book. It's like my Gucci post. I hate to see beautifully crafted products become "tacky airport" brands.

  10. Hi Anonymous
    Thanks for your comment and I think that you have hit on a big part of it.

  11. Hi All the Best
    What you say that "It is sad in a strange way" hits a cord with me also. We are in a time of a mass proliferation of knock-offs. But I think there is still a lot of value in beautifully crafted products. And knowing that you own an original is satisfaction in itself. Thanks for your comment.

  12. I agree with anonymous' comments - living in Hong Kong I see a hundred Gucci and LV bags on the streets everyday, and you just know they mostly aren't the real thing. I have never been one to go for items with big splashy logos on them (HATE those sunglasses with massive logos in diamantes)- but it makes me want one even less when half the population has one. I wish they'd get an imagination!

  13. I can't wait to read this book! As someone who lives in the city of labels, I know that I now look for clothing and acessories that I won't see coming and going on every street corner.

    I'm so over Christian Louboutin now. When you see everyone wearing the same thing, it makes it less special. I also hate being a lemming and so now, I am switching to smaller brands like Loeffler Randall...that is until everyone jumps on their bandwagon. Sigh.

  14. Hi Suzy
    I think that there are a lot of people like yourself that can spot a copy a mile away.

  15. Hi Habitually Chic
    I think that is what makes life so interesting, we are always looking for the next best thing and then the next. And that is a good thing. Keeps us growing and expanding!

  16. It's societal for sure, but the thing that's missing is the personal. Buy what YOU like, what makes your soul sing. The fact that you see it slung on the arm of some trashy socialite is irrelevant. There is a certain brand of Edwardian jewelry that is lovely - but I'm mystified that no fewer than 20 of my friends have her pieces around their necks. That creates an incredible "ick" factor for me.

  17. While I do hold quality and craftmanship in the highest regard, life is so much more interesting when it is full of unique, meaningful discoveries whether they are of a "luxury" quality or not. I think that is the more important idea to emphasize. If the "masses" find "status" in following the rich then let them. Is imitation not the highest form of flattery?

    Having said that, I do find my desire for certain brands waning when they are no longer my special find or if they are not made with the same level of quality.

    Your posts are always so stimulating, Patricia. Love them as always!


Patricia Gray | Interior Design Blog™

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