Synopses & Reviews
A hard-hitting behind-the-scenes look at the luxury fashion industry today
There was a time when luxury was available only to the rarefied and aristocratic world of old money and royalty. Luxury wasn't simply a product, it was a lifestyle, one that denoted a history of tradition, superior quality and offered a pampered buying experience. Today's luxury marketplace would be virtually unrecognizable to its founders. Gone are the family-owned businesses dedicated to integrity and quality; the industry is now run by multi-billion dollar global corporations focused on growth, visibility, brand-awareness, advertising and above all, profits. Handcrafted goods are practically extinct, and almost all manufacturing has been outsourced to large factories in such places as China, where your expensive brand-name handbag is being assembled right next to one from a mass-market label that will cost substantially less.
Dana Thomas, a journalist who has covered style and the luxury business for The Washington Post, Newsweek and The New York Times Magazine from Paris for the past fifteen years, digs deep into the dark side of the luxury industry to uncover all the secrets that Prada, Gucci and Burberry don't want us to know. Traveling from the laboratories in Grasse, where the ingredients for Christian Dior and Prada perfumes are produced, to the crowded factories in China, where workers glue together "Made in Italy" bags by the thousands, Thomas explores the whole of today's high-end shopping experience to answer some pressing questions: What is the new definition of luxury when advertising for this lifestyle is targeted mainly toward the mass market? What are we paying for when quality has given way to quantity? Can integrity survive in a corporate culture driven to meet regular growth and profit projections? Is luxury still the best that money can buy?
Thomas has traveled all over the world to interview corporate heads and factory workers, old-money, old-luxury clients and new luxury-obsessed middle-market consumers, and she paints a surprising picture of today's New Luxury. With Deluxe, she delivers a fast-paced, uncompromising look at the real world behind the glossy magazines and red carpet couture and asks: How did luxury lose its luster?
"Newsweek reporter Thomas skillfully narrates European fashion houses' evolution from exclusive ateliers to marketing juggernauts. Telling the story through characters like the French mogul Bernard Arnault, she details how the perfection of old-time manufacturing, still seen in Herms handbags, has bowed to sweatshops and wild profits on mediocre merchandise. After a brisk history of luxury, Thomas shows why handbags and perfume are as susceptible to globalization and corporate greed as less rarefied industries. She follows the overarching story, parts of which are familiar, from boardrooms to street markets that unload millions in counterfeit goods, dropping irresistible details like a Japanese monk obsessed with Comme des Garons. But she's no killjoy. If anything, she's fond of the aristocratic past, snarks at 'behemoths that churn out perfume like Kraft makes cheese' and is too credulous of fashionistas' towering egos. Despite her grasp of business machinations, her argument that conglomerates have stolen luxury's soul doesn't entirely wash. As her tales of quotidian vs. ultra luxury make clear, the rich and chic can still distinguish themselves, even when Las Vegas hosts the world's ritziest brands. Thomas might have delved deeper into why fashion labels inspire such mania, beyond 'selling dreams,' but her curiosity is contagious." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Back in the late 1980s, the Prada backpack - made out of black or tobacco-brown parachute fabric trimmed in leather - became the "it" bag for many would-be fashionistas. It was hip, modern, lightweight and at $450 expensive, but not as expensive as the stratospherically priced bags made by Herms and Chanel. According to the fashion reporter Dana Thomas, that Prada backpack was also "the emblem of the radical change that luxury was undergoing at the time: the shift from small family businesses of beautifully handcrafted goods to global corporations selling to the middle market" - a shift from exclusivity to accessibility, from an emphasis on tradition and quality to an emphasis on growth and branding and profits.
With Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, Ms. Thomas - who has been the cultural and fashion writer for Newsweek in Paris for 12 years - has written a crisp, witty social history that's as entertaining as it is informative. Traveling from French perfume laboratories to Las Vegas shopping malls to assembly-line factories in China, she traces the evolving face of the luxury goods business, from design through marketing to showroom sales.
She gives us some sharply observed profiles of figures like Miuccia Prada, who was a Communist with a doctorate in political science when she took over her family's small luxury goods business in 1978, and the business tycoon Bernard Arnault , who relentlessly built LVMH into a luxury monolith with dozens of brands (including Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Dior) sold around the world.
Ms. Thomas peppers her narrative with lots of amusing asides about everything from how orange became Herms's signature color because it was the only color widely available during World War II to the money-saving benefits of raw-edge cutting, which has been marketed to the public as a cutting-edge, avant-garde innovation. But her focus remains on how a business that once catered to the wealthy elite has gone mass-market and the effects that democratization has had on the way ordinary people shop today, as conspicuous consumption and wretched excess have spread around the world. Labels, once discreetly stitched into couture clothes, have become logos adorning everything from baseball hats to supersized gold chains. Perfumes, once dreamed up by designers with an idea about a particular scent, are now concocted from briefs written by marketing executives brandishing polls and surveys and sales figures.
With globalization, Paris and New York are no longer exclusive luxury meccas. Ms. Thomas notes that a gigantic 690,000-square-foot luxury mall called Crocus City (featuring 180 boutiques, including Armani, Pucci and Versace) is flourishing outside Moscow, and that a group of high-end boutiques will be part of a luxury complex called Legation Quarter, scheduled to open in Tiananmen Square later this year.
"Approximately 40 percent of all Japanese own a Vuitton product" today, she says, and one recent poll showed that by 2004 the average American woman was buying more than four handbags a year. With more people visiting Caesars Palace's glitzy Forum Shops each year than Disney World, Las Vegas has made shopping synonymous with gambling and entertainment, even as outlet malls have brought designer clothing and accessories within the reach (and budget) of many suburbanites.
High-profile luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Herms and Cartier were founded in the 18th or 19th centuries by artisans dedicated to creating beautiful, finely made wares for the royal court in France and later, with the fall of the monarchy, for European aristocrats and prominent American families. Luxury remained, writes Ms. Thomas, "a domain of the wealthy and the famous" until "the Youthquake of the 1960s" pulled down social barriers and overthrew elitism. It would remain out of style "until a new and financially powerful demographic - the unmarried female executive - emerged in the 1980s."
As both disposable income and credit-card debt soared in industrialized nations, the middle class became the target of luxury vendors, who poured money into provocative advertising campaigns and courted movie stars and celebrities as style icons. In order to maximize profits, many corporations looked for ways to cut corners: they began to use cheaper materials, outsource production to developing nations (while falsely claiming that their goods were made in Western Europe) and replace hand craftsmanship with assembly-line production. Classic goods meant to last for years gave way, increasingly, to trendy items with a short shelf life; cheaper lines (featuring lower-priced items like T-shirts and cosmetic cases) were introduced as well.
Although this volume quotes Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, saying such changes mean that "more people are going to get better fashion" and "the more people who can have fashion, the better," the author reaches a more elitist and pessimistic conclusion. "The luxury industry has changed the way people dress," she writes. "It has realigned our economic class system. It has changed the way we interact with others. 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.
"Luxury has lost its luster."
--Sunday New York Times 8/19/07
Luxury, and How It Became Common
HARRY HURT III
WANT to buy luxury products like Louis Vuitton handbags? Gucci shoes? Prada dresses? There's no need to comb the fashion alleys of New York, Paris or Milan in search of the brands' boutique stores. Just zip over to the nearest mall, where high-end department stores hawk luggage, footwear, apparel, jewelry and virtually every other designer-label item that ever appeared under the klieg lights. But be prepared to see scores of fellow shoppers already wearing the exact goods you covet.
Therein lies the cruel commercial irony at the core of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, by Dana Thomas, a Paris-based culture and fashion writer for Newsweek (Penguin Press, 375 pages, $27.95). Ms. Thomas documents in entertaining and sometimes heart-wrenching detail how the luxury industry evolved from a proudly diverse array of family-owned houses into a $157 billion-a-year mass market whose products now lack the exclusivity - and in many cases the quality craftsmanship - that formed the basis for their cachet in the first place.
Along with changing the way we dress, the luxury industry "has realigned our economic class system," Ms. Thomas asserts. "It has changed the way we interact," she says. "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."
At first lip-blush, that might seem like merely an elitist complaint. Ms. Thomas shows, however, that the repercussions of "democratizing" luxury have had dire effects across the globe, and on almost every socio-economic level.
The corporate quest to reduce operating costs, for example, often leads to the creation of sweatshops. Along the way come an array of related crimes ranging from fraudulent labeling and counterfeiting to embezzlement and even prostitution paid for with luxury goods in lieu of cash.
If the corporatization of luxury is new, the flaunting of wealth through acquisitions is not: It dates at least as far back as the ancient Greeks and Etruscans. The ancestry of modern extravagance traces to the Bourbons and the Bonapartes. (After France earned $15 million selling hundreds of millions of acres to the United States, Napoleon's wife, Josephine, spent half of the money on clothes in 10 years, Ms. Thomas reports.)
Ms. Thomas argues that luxury not only indicates our tastes in fashion, it also defines our political, social, and economic standing and our self-worth. In America, the prevailing standards of taste and style were once set by new rich industrialists like the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, Morgans and Rockefellers.
"Luxury wasn't simply a product," Ms. Thomas writes. "It denoted a history of tradition, superior quality, and often a pampered buying experience.
"Luxury was a natural and expected element of upper-class life, like belonging to the right clubs or having the right surname. And it was produced in small quantities - often made to order - for an extremely limited and truly elite clientele."
Enter the villains of Ms. Thomas' book, the 35 leading luxury brands that now control over 60 percent of the global market. The list includes Prada, Gucci, Giorgio Armani, Herms and Chanel, all of which have revenue in excess of $1 billion a year. But the "Mr. Big" of the big luxury is LVMH Mot Hennessy Louis Vuitton, an $11 billion conglomerate whose labels also include Dior, Fendi and Berluti.
Some of the best-written - and most damning - passages in "Deluxe" recount the rise of LVMH's chairman, Bernard Arnault, considered by his critics to be the Machiavelli of luxury industry finance. Ms. Thomas describes how Mr. Arnault forced out the founding Vuitton clan in a vicious battle fueled by accusations of espionage and public smear tactics.
Citing startling statistics, Ms. Thomas describes how luxury empires like LVMH have spanned the globe. She reports, for example, that as of last year 40 percent of all Japanese people owned a product made by Vuitton, mainly from the monogram line.
That follows from the fact that the Japanese now account for 40 percent of all luxury sales, more than Americans (17 percent) and Europeans (16 percent) combined. India has more than five million customers for luxury goods, and China, whose 200 million such consumers now account for 12 percent of sales, is expected to be the most important market in the world by 2010, according to Ms. Thomas.
She spots signs of a slowly building consumer backlash and a renaissance of independent luxury houses that offer traditional quality and personal service. Her most prominent examples are the family-owned Daslu shopping empire in Brazil, and the French shoe designer Christian Louboutin.
"I see these men who build luxury brands to make money and I am in the same industry but I feel nothing in common with them," Mr. Louboutin declares. "Luxury is the possibility to stay close to your customers, and do things that you know they will love." He adds: "Luxury is not consumerism."
In the meantime, corporate success in mass merchandising luxury has taken a heavy toll on both culture and language. As Ms. Thomas's book points out from title to final page, one of the most dire effects has been to turn the term itself into a kind of oxymoron.
After all, what's the real luxury in being a "have" if hordes of logo-loving former have-nots can own the same products?
--Los Angeles Times 8/19/07
Thomas, the style and cultural reporter for "Newsweek," takes a hard-hitting look at the world of new luxury, and argues that globalization and corporate greed have ensured that old-time manufacturing has bowed to sweatshops and wild profits to produce mediocre merchandise.
Once luxury was available only to the rarefied and aristocratic world of old money and royalty. It offered a history of tradition, superior quality, and a pampered buying experience. Today, however, luxury is simply a product packaged and sold by multibillion-dollar global corporations focused on growth, visibility, brand awareness, advertising, and, above all, profits. Award-winning journalist Dana Thomas digs deep into the dark side of the luxury industry to uncover all the secrets that Prada, Gucci, and Burberry don?t want us to know. Deluxe
is an uncompromising look behind the glossy façade that will enthrall anyone interested in fashion, finance, or culture.
About the Author
Dana Thomas has been the cultural and fashion writer for Newsweek in Paris for twelve years. She has written about style for the New York Times Magazine since 1994, and has contributed to various publications, including The New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, the Washington Post, and the Financial Times in London. She is the Paris correspondent for Australian Harper's Bazaar, and a member of the Anglo-American Press Association in Paris and the Overseas Press Club. Thomas taught journalism at The American University of Paris from 1996 to 1999. In 1987, she received the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation Scholarship and the Ellis Haller Award for Outstanding Achievement in Journalism.