A Two Part Examination of Cost and Value — Part 2: Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster

December 5, 2007 | 1 book mentioned 2 9 min read

[See part 1]

I recently got married, and at my wedding, I wore a Paul Smith suit. It was the first piece of designer clothing I’d ever purchased, and it was an eye-opening experience. As I tried on various suits from different designers, I found myself appreciating the subtle differences between them: the fine tailoring and pick stitching of the Dolce and Gabbana jacket, the severe pegged leg of the Prada suit, and the robust manliness of the Armani blazers. In the end, I chose the Paul Smith because it was right for me – sleek and fitted, with a touch of the dandy about it (me being a bit of a dandy, after all). Wearing the suit, which cost me $1200 plus tax, I could feel the difference in quality between it and other suits I’d owned. The material was much finer and smoother, and at the end of the evening, the suit looked worn, but still held its shape. It felt delicate yet sturdy, if that’s possible, and best of all, it looked really good. One person told me the suit looked like it had been made for me.

After purchasing the suit, I began to see Paul Smith everywhere. I got a Paul Smith scarf for Hanukkah. In Paris, I wondered into a department store and found a whole display of Paul Smith goods – cufflinks, money clips, even a black toothbrush with the Paul Smith signature logo on it. I didn’t buy anything at the department store; In Paris, I was more interested in the quirky boutiques of Le Marais than I was in the high end couture houses, but it did get me thinking. What was a guy famous for designing clothing doing selling toothbrushes?

coverIn her recent book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster, Dana Thomas examines, more or less, the path that led to designers producing dental care products. The luxury goods industry, a multi-billion dollar business, has been around since roughly the mid-17th century. The luxury industry as it exists today can be traced to the rise of Louis Vuitton in Paris in the 19th century. Vuitton himself was born to a family of farmers and millers in Eastern France in 1821. He walked to Paris (Why do all the legendary figures “set out on foot” to find their fortunes? Maybe this is my problem, I drive everywhere) where he became an apprentice to a trunk maker. From these humble beginnings, Vuitton became trunk-maker to the stars, so to speak, making and packing trunks for French society women. Eventually, to prevent counterfeiting, Vuitton’s son Georges created the interlocking LV monogram print, thus launching luxury branding.

The story of Louis Vuitton is strikingly similar to that of many luxury brands, including Gucci and Dior (which Vuitton owns). Most of these companies began as small, family-run workshops specializing in one product – couture gowns, shoes, perfume, or ties, to name a few. The goods these craftsmen produced were of exquisite quality and were often one-of-a-kind. Indeed, couture gowns were all made for the customer, partially based on her preferences and partially on the designer’s inspiration. As a result of the quality materials and the skilled labor required to produce them, these goods were wildly expensive. Only the very, very wealthy could afford them. Royalty were the original luxury customers, followed eventually by the tycoons of the industrial age.

This changed sometime during the 1960s:

Another former Dior assistant – and later Dior’s heir – Yves Saint Laurent, took took licensing one step further in 1966 by introducing a lower priced ready-to-wear line called Rive Gauche that targeted young people. Rive Gauche changed the fashion paradigm. Before it was simple: couturiers made exquisite clothes and sold a bit of perfume and some accessories. Now there was a new pyramid model: made-to-order couture on the top for the truly rich, ready-to-wear by the same designers for the middle class, and a broad array of fragrances and accessories for those at the bottom. With the advent of licensing names, the fragrance business began to grow, and couture diminished rapidly.

Thomas marks the end of a certain era of fashion with the closing of Cristobal Balenciaga’s house. “From then on, luxury was no longer simply about creating the finest things money could by. It was about making money, a lot of money.”

With this new goal in place, luxury companies grew into large, publicly traded corporations. Nobody bears more responsibility for this than the CEO of the world’s largest luxury conglomerate LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy), Bernard Arnault. Arnault purchased Louis Vuitton in the 1980s, when it had a reputation as a staid, bourgeois house. He hired the hip young designer Marc Jacobs to revitalize the brand, and that’s precisely what happened. With Jacobs designing and Arnault at the helm, Louis Vuitton became hip again. Meanwhile, Arnault took over all the Vuitton franchises, worldwide, thus seizing complete control over the distribution, and, consequently the representation, of the Vuitton brand. This strategy worked, making Vuitton among the most profitable brands in fashion. Arnault successfully used the same model to jump-start Dior (bringing in John Galliano to design) and Givenchy (hiring Alexander McQueen). It was a tactic that Vuitton’s competitors soon appropriated, as Gucci was quick to bring in Tom Ford to revitalizes its own flagship brand.

As luxury brands expanded into Asia (Japan buys half of all the luxury goods produced today), the brands began to become more conscious of the middle market. Handbags became the most important item in the store, not the clothes themselves. Moderately priced handbags (like the famous Prada backpack, priced to move at $450) became affordable introductions to the luxury brand, giving more and more people a chance to “own a piece of the dream.” Hence, the black toothbrush. Owning a pair of Gucci loafers or a Louis Vuitton purse or, I suppose, a Paul Smith toothbrush, means that a person aspires to live a certain kind of life, and that they have taste and a discerning eye for quality. But is the quality really there?

As brands have embraced the middle, many of them have changed the way the products that made them famous are made. Many companies have secretly begun manufacturing goods in China. Gucci and other companies have changed the way they cut leather. The quality, understandably has suffered. Thomas relates the story of two garments she bought that illustrate the plummet in quality in just ten years:

In 1992, I bought a pink sleeveless Prada cocktail dress that was made of thick iridescent cotton and silk faille, fully lined, and finished beautifully. It cost $2,000, but it is couture quality and will last forever. Ten years later, I bought a pair of thin cotton-poplin cropped trousers at Prada for $500. I put them on, and the gentle passing of my foot ripped the hem out…I mention this to a former Prada design assistant. “It’s the thread,” he told me. “It’s cheaper and breaks easily.” When I told him about my gorgeous dress from 1992 that was as solid as a Rolls, he nodded. “That was then,” he said with a sigh.

According to Thomas, only a few companies, Hermes and Chanel in particular, have maintained the rigorous standards that made their brands so famous. An Hermes bag can take days to make. Each is made by hand in the Hermes workshop in France by a leather goods worker who has gone to school and apprenticed to do exactly that. It’s no coincidence that the bags cost thousands of dollars and have multi-yearlong waiting lists. Chanel No. 5, the most famous perfume in the world, still buys its roses from a farmer in France. This type of quality, stemming from natural goods and traditional modes of craftsmanship, takes time and costs money. In the end, there is no substitute for it.

Unfortunately, for most of the luxury industry, this type of quality is now the exception rather than the rule. Thomas argues, quite convincingly, that as companies expand into brands, the brand itself becomes more important than the quality of the goods. Bags have the logo plastered all over them, but might not be made as well. A bag that was once hand-sewn in France is now glued together in China. Italian silk suits are now made in Mauritius. As a result, the quality of the product and the quality of life for the people who make the goods has decreased. No longer are luxury goods necessarily produced by skilled craftspeople, but rather by the same poor factory workers who make nearly everything. As luxury boutique shoe designer Christian Louboutin says, “You can’t ask poor people in bad conditions to make beautiful things.” Poorer still are the workers forced (often literally) to produce the $200 billion worth of counterfeit luxury goods on the market today.

Thomas crafts wonderful narratives around the origins of companies like Prada, Gucci, Hermes, and Dior. She clearly and convincingly traces the history of certain people and movements – the “it” handbag, Tom Ford’s career, the history of Prada – and shows a terrific grasp of the economic and societal factors driving the industry. At times, the book can read like product porn, as Thomas writes rhapsodically about some of these luxury goods, but who can fault her. An Hermes bag, after all, probably deserves to be compared to any fine work of art, be it a painting, a song, or a novel.

Reading these two seemingly dissimilar books in the same month [see yesterday’s Part 1: In Defense of Food] got me thinking about globalization, mass production, and their drawbacks: in some sense, the small, the artisanal may cost more, but the value, in my opinion, greatly outweighs the cost. Not only is the locally grown organic pear that you buy for a dollar at the farmers market better for you, it probably tastes better, too. Likewise, buying an Hermes bag is a statement in favor of timeless quality rather than trendy brand worship. Is it a coincidence that both the organic pear and the Hermes bag cost two to three times as much as the similar, competing products? Obviously there’s a difference in scale here. The pear is a hell of a lot easier to afford. Nevertheless, the cliche is true – you really do get what you pay for. So why aren’t more people willing to pay more for quality?

Both Michael Pollan and Thomas seem to advocate withdrawal from the larger systems, a step back in time, in a way. For Pollan, this means buying from local farms, from farmers markets, or even subscribing to a single local farm and receiving a box of produce a week from it. For Thomas, it means finding small boutiques whose primary focus remains producing superior quality products. This might be local upstarts or “fashion refugees” like Tom Ford, whose new store is a made-to-order couture shop for men, or Christian Louboutain, who left a job designing shoes at Dior to open a “purposefully small” boutique in Paris.

These smaller scale operations have a number of benefits. For one, it is more likely to produce a work of quality. The reason for this is simple, accountability. When you see your customers every day or every week, it’s hard to knowingly sell them something of inferior value. It’s also likely to improve the lives of both the producers of the goods – be they farmers, farm workers, designers, or factory workers – as well as the lives of those consuming the products. Perhaps the greatest benefit of returning to a local or small-scale economy is resurrecting the old relationships that used to exist between people. There was a time when you knew the person who made your shoes, your jacket, your bread, and your house. Now, it’s likely you’ll never see, never hear from, and never even know the person who does any of these things. The local has been obliterated by the national and the global.

Maybe David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” is right when he says that “contemporary American society – and, particularly ‘raw, unencumbered capitalism’ – devalues human beings.” There is something inherently alienating about life, especially urban life in America today. Maybe this is because we live in a world of goods rather than one of relationships. Take the example of a simple pair of shoes. Years ago, a pair of shoes would be made for you by a man who measured your feet and tailored them specifically to your foot. If one foot was larger than the other, he would account for that. The shoes would likely be made from leather or possibly canvas, and if they began to wear too soon, you could take them back to the man and he would fix them.

Now shoes are mass produced in countries halfway around the world. They might still be made from high quality leather or canvas, or they might be made from an inferior product. Often, they are produced in factories with poor ventilation, by people who are almost coerced into making them, for anyone with roughly that size foot. This is true whether you are buying a pair of Nikes, a pair of Keds, or a pair of Jimmy Choos. The process is entirely impersonal and largely mechanized. If the shoe falls apart, you are likely out of luck, although you might be able to mail the shoe somewhere where a person will eventually repair it, and mail it back. What have we gained from moving from the former system to the latter? Cheaper shoes? Possibly, although try telling that to the woman in the Jimmy Choos. Speed is a possible benefit – when something is mass produced, you usually don’t have to wait weeks or months for it, as you might in the case of a custom made shoe. The sole (no pun intended) benefit seems to be that the new shoes, produced by a company rather than a person, bear the name, logo, or signature style of the company, thereby conferring status on the wearer. Owning a Jimmy Choo or an Air Jordan or a Chuck Taylor means something. It says who you are, and everybody, everywhere knows what it means. That wasn’t the case when Giapetto the Cobbler made your wingtips.

While the benefits of this system, a system that reaches into nearly all areas of our life, seem small, the costs have been enormous. Is it any wonder that incidences of e coli in meat, of poisoned fish, of lead-tainted toys and aluminum toothpaste have risen as we’ve moved production of these things farther and farther from our homes and demanded them brought to us at an increasingly cheaper rate? It’s a simple formula at work here: accountability is directly related to distance. What have we sacrificed so that we can have things cheaply? When are we going to decide that spending more might actually be worth it? Obviously, not all of us can afford to spend more on food, but those of who can often aren’t. Also, I wouldn’t recommend spending anything on a handbag if you are one of these people. But if you have the money to buy a suit or a new dress or a steak, you may want to ask yourself – what went into this product?

is a staff writer for The Millions. Patrick has worked in the book business for over seven years, including a two-year stint as the webmaster and blogger for Vroman's Bookstore. He is currently the Community Manager for Goodreads.com. He's written book reviews for Publishers Weekly, and he's spoken about books and the internet at the LA Times Festival of Books, the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association spring meetings, and the 140 Characters Conference. He writes the sporadically entertaining Tumblr blog The Feeling.

2 comments:

  1. An excellent pair of reviews qua meditations. I too am a lover of the well-made and am curious if you know of any references that list companies and manufacturers who don't cut corners?

    Also, re: Part I, I think t-shirts should be made that say "Stop Bovine Flatulence." I would buy one.

  2. Good question. I don't believe such a list exists, precisely because few companies will admit to making something in China. Thomas talks of companies hiding the labels that say "Made in China" inside the lining of a bag or a coat, or making the handle in Italy, then attaching a label that says "Made in Italy" to the handle. The problem is bigger in Europe, where the laws regarding country of origin labeling aren't as stringent. The only companies that Thomas gives 100% positive scores to are Hermes and Chanel.

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