Posted on February 11, 2016
Every now and then I’m moved by an author to praise his or her work. Yet, sometimes a subject, its research, its prose simply bedazzles and in the case of fashion expert Dana Thomas’s book, “Deluxe How Luxury has Lost its Luster”, I’m eager to declare it a feat of business journalism.
Having read this book, I defy anyone to enter a brand retail space such as Louis Vuitton, an emporium like Saks, a chain like Gap, or a street vendor’s lair and not rethink the motive for doing so.
For Thomas asks only two questions in her tightly packed nearly 400 pages: What is luxury? And given the morphing of its industry model, can it still be found today?
Doing so she catalogues the dawning of nearly every fashion trend from the handbag to silk, from the stiletto to fragrances. But importantly, she takes this journey much further tracing the shift of their creators from family-owned houses, through licensing, to franchising, to corporatization, to vertical integration, and finally globalization with the advent of the takeover, merger, and near bankruptcy of once exclusive brands.
Simultaneously, we view its effect on quality and its response firstly, to the Japanese consumer boom of the 1980s, to that of burgeoning China in the 1990s, and finally those of India and Russia in the ’00s.
It’s just that ending in 2006, the date of hardback publication, it leaves two significant phenomena unaccounted for: the 2008 economic collapse of the West amid a war on unrelenting Islamic extremism and the subsequent economic suicide of China as it envelopes itself in overcapacity and the thick smog of unchecked corporate greed.
In other words, what’s happened to the luxury conglomerates? And what of—as Thomas calls them—the “luxury refugees”: designers who having finally said “no” to these fashion megaliths in the mid ’00s ventured out on their own, small and client-focused?
Fashion, as we know it, began in refinement: with the lifestyles of old money, the fortunes of industrial tycoons, and the glamour of an infant silver screen. Today it’s seemingly up for grabs.
Thing is, I’m certain Western tastes will never be defined through the lifestyles of East Bloc oligarchs, dirty-money, or the progeny of a Communist Party. Just as the once unlimited cash of ’80s Japan never held sway over European couture. Though now, as then, these players are definitely stripping boutiques clean—no credit called for.
You see, contemporary fashion has always been Western: Paris, Milan, London, and New York. It’s what Japan’s yuppies craved, the image youthful Chinese now emulate. Thomas agrees: While this latest wave of nouveau riche can buy the world, what of it?
But the West remains fixated in a profit-driven stupor. What might it take to wake it? Only a renaissance borne from a nostalgic yearning for creative leadership: if not it’s the death of culture, as we’ve known it for the past 250 years—as greed drains its spark, not into a Dark Age of worthlessness, but a black hole whence it may never return. Erase Paris with a permanent marker and replace it with Guangdong.
While we wait an answer, Thomas lets us consider the impact of corporatism on creativity; globalism on risk; and whether brands or consumers ultimately hold economic sway. For as she often points out luxury is mostly about “the dream”.
It’s just that when money is cheap, that dream holds no image. When knock-offs are perceived as valuable, when haute couture is bought by the rack-load, when pride is lost to cost—there is little to aspire.
There is one caveat to all this. Once again given the book’s publication date, we only touch on what industry critics have since called the “unsustainability” of globalization.
Though Thomas was able to trace a mass luxury-manufacturing shift from France and Italy to Mauritius, Hong Kong, China and then Vietnam—cost cutting has reached rock bottom resulting in abject supply-end agony: the 2013 factory tragedy of Rana, Bangladesh, for example goes unmentioned.
This why I eagerly hope Thomas finds an opportunity to extend her study with a sequel. Till then her present work, offers significant insight for the astute business observer.
Could the luxury fashion industry have predicted its shaky position today, fifty years ago? I believe, yes. And in my opinion, there’s much worse to come.
Thomas, D. (2007). Deluxe How Luxury Lost its Luster. London, Penguin Group (softcover).
© 2016 Adam Parker.