Monday, May 16, 2011

{review} how luxury lost its luster

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster

Or, 'lustre', if you spell like a colonial.

You'll never think the same about designer fakes again after you read this book. Thomas lays bare the hidden cost of your cheap designer knock-off, and it is a cost to be measured in the blood of young impoverished sweat-shopped workers who slave in horrendous conditions. To buy a fake is to take a step into a river of blood, corruption and crime.

That all sounds horribly off-putting, but amazingly Thomas has also produced a very readable and accessible - and even sometimes funny - account of the decline of tailored, handmade, bespoke luxury and rise of the "democratization" of luxury:
The idea, luxury executives explained, was to "democratize" luxury, to make luxury "accessible". It all sounded so noble. Heck, it sounded almost communist. But it wasn't. It was as capitalist as could be: the goal, plain and simple, was to make as much money as heavenly possible."
The cover, an image by Tom Sachs entitled 'Prada Value Meal' (1998) is perfect:

While Thomas's tone is sometimes irritatingly perky ("Heck!"), her book contains a serious amount of detail in the form of statistics and reports of her on-the-ground research. Her interviews with fashion designer royalty ("Tom Ford explained to me…"), the ruthless money-men and -women, the wearers of couture, old style glamour queens (Joan Crawford had her hip flasks styled to match her clothes and changed ten times a day), modern celebrities paid to advertise fashion labels and the stylists who hook the big fish (her description of Rachel Zoe in the Jimmy Choo Oscar Suite, who "wailed as she cradled a pair of purple satin pumps" is pure acid), and the wildly eccentric fashion addicts add to the readability of a book that is, fundamentally, a quite depressing exploration of the desire to possess luxury at any cost.

My favourite fashionista?
…a Martin Margiela manic who is so fastidious about his collection that he never cooks at home because he doesn't want the clothes to retain the odors. The only thing in his refrigerator is eyedrops. "When he gets thirsty… he goes to a convenience shop and drinks there then goes back home. He does not want to put any kind of trash in the room."
This gentleman is from Japan and it is the Japanese demand for Western luxury goods which is, in part, responsible for the world-wide spread of this democratized luxury. In the late 1980s the 'Parasite Single' (sc. women) phenomenon - estimated to number 13 million Japanese women (thirteen MILLION!) who enjoyed travel (principally to Hawaii) and had plenty of yen to throw about - awakened the luxury labels' interest. In the 1990s, Hawaii's Chanel store, Thomas tells us, was the number one Chanel shop in the entire world. All on the back of the yen.

Another fascinating chapter focuses on the perfume market: affordable luxury for the woman who cannot afford a Hermès Kelly or Birkin bag but can afford a bottle of Hermès scent. The perfume industry is totally cut-throat about achieving its 15 billion dollars of sales a year. What tactics do the luxury brands espouse to maintain their high profiles (and profit-margins) against a tide of popular, but ultimately forgettable, celeb scents? Thomas also deals with the rise of the designer 'It' bag, which eases her into the most disturbing section of her book about the manufacture of handbags, both the fakes and the real things themselves:
Yes, luxury handbags are made in China. Top brands. Brands that you carry. Brands that deny outright that their bags are made in China make their bags in China, not in Italy, not in France, not in the United Kingdom.
It is, of course, all about the bottom line. You can short-change the customer on fabric (e.g., linings) and you can raise your prices, but the easiest way to improve the bottom line is to save on labour. Look at your labels: were they "Designed in Italy" and "Assembled in China"? Was the bag made in China and the handle added in Italy (and, so, "Made in Italy")? 

This leads Thomas on to the really horrible revelations about the market in counterfeit luxury goods (notably hand-bags). Don't buy a fake. DON'T. Fakes fund organized crime. Fakes reek of human misery. The big-time counterfeiters also deal in "narcotics, weapons, child prostitution, human trafficking, and terrorism." It is estimated that at any one time up to 90% of Vuitton and Dior goods on eBay are fake. Hermès is particularly vigilant in pursuit of knock-offs and trademark protection (the house is currently suing these people for their screen-printed calico Birkin bags). But everyone has a taste for what passes for luxury now, and the luxury companies (notably the monstrously large LVMH which has swallowed almost all of the once independent luxury brands) are fuelling the fires with their badly made and not particularly good value 'fast fashion' lines (Stella McCartney for Target, etc.).

Of course, let's get real: I have about as much chance of possessing a Birkin as I do of growing wings and flying. The message of this book will remain highly theoretical to me and I do not think that I will ever need to deal with a hands-on ethical dilemma in a luxury goods' shop. But the general questions - Do we need all this stuff? Why do we crave the label? - provide much food for thought. This book is fascinating and horrifying and very, very salutary and I shall never look at an 'It' bag again without a small quiver of revulsion.

Rating: 7/10

If you liked this… buy vintage! Tho' I wouldn't mind a nice hip flask collection to match my clothes. If you like fashion observation, I thoroughly recommend getting hold of the dvd of The September Issue.

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