The elites don't, which may mean the end of conspicuous consumption
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