My awareness of fashion’s dark side is relatively new. For a very long time I had no idea there was a slow fashion movement – I didn’t realize we were in a position to need one. I never looked at country of origin or fiber content, and I never thought about what happened after I disposed of my old clothes. Now, I can’t even walk into stores I once visited frequently, simply because I can’t find enough information about where their product comes from. Shopping has become quite the challenge (not that it wasn’t challenging before) and sometimes I wish I didn’t know so much about the industry’s ills. Just kidding. But I can trace this journey back to one book, which is helpful when I need something to blame for this pesky thing called awareness.
In 2007, Dana Thomas published Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster. I didn’t come across this book until 7 years later when I started thinking about my senior thesis. The title drew me in: I was researching the expansion of luxury fashion and how luxury brands had established their global empires. The idea that luxury had “lost its luster” was not on my radar at all. Before she even gets into Chapter 1, Thomas lays down the cold, hard truth about luxury fashion:
The luxury industry has changed the way people dress. It has realigned our economic class system. It has changed the way we interact. It has become part of our social fabric. To achieve this, it has sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history, and hoodwinked its consumers. In order to make luxury “accessible,” tycoons have stripped away all that has made it special.
As I turned the pages I learned about a new side of luxury fashion: how it achieved explosive growth and why it seemed like everyone I knew had a bag from a “luxury” brand – even my peers (aka broke college students).
Think about it: if I live on a limited budget, I can’t buy into the luxury lifestyle too easily. Wearing Chanel suits to work just isn’t advisable – or even possible. But what about that wallet, key chain, scarf, or perhaps the handbag? I can justify those purchases as a one-time splurge, a little gift for myself – whatever it takes to get over the sticker shock. With accessories, that hurdle is much lower than it is with ready-to-wear or couture. By increasing the penetration of a luxury brand’s accessory business, more people are able to buy in – and they do so en masse.
This creates a problem when we dissect the meaning of luxury – or at least what its meaning once was. Luxury used to refer to exclusivity: one of a kind, made to measure goods of the highest quality money could buy. By definition, luxury was not meant to be had by anyone and everyone. While this might come across as elitist, it is exactly what the word exclusivity referred to: the fact that you could be the only person in the world who owned a certain item. Naturally you’d have to pay an arm and a leg for that privilege, but your purchase would distinguish you from the crowd. And the quality? Impeccable. As in, you’d be wearing that item for the rest of your life. #30wears
Compare that image of luxury to what we have today, and it is obvious that we are talking about two very different things. Walking down the streets of New York I am bombarded with logos from top brands. Everyone is wearing someone. Is this special? Because it certainly isn’t exclusive.
There was a time when finding luxury logos on the street was like a treasure hunt: their rarity is what set their owners apart. Nowadays, all these logos symbolize is that you’re just like everybody else. The journey from special to average didn’t take long at all, once luxury brands discovered how profitable the mass market could be.
So what’s the solution here? Do we need to hike up prices to make luxury special again? No! That’s the wrong way to think about this. If price is being manipulated in order to suggest worth, we have a problem. Instead, start from the beginning: the product. Create a beautiful, one of a kind, quality product and price it accordingly – taking into account the time, effort, and resources required for its production.
Be prepared to find luxury off the beaten path: one of a kind isn’t going to come from the brands with the largest marketing budgets. This new kind of luxury will come from artisans – both at home and abroad – whose creations are inspired by their culture or their individual experiences. It will convey a unique perspective and a design aesthetic that hasn’t been reproduced and knocked off time and again. Above all, this new luxury will give you the freedom to stray from the group – and even create your own.
I highly encourage you to read Deluxe. Then decide: how do you define luxury?