Dana Thomas’ 2007 book on the luxury fashion business is one of those books that really makes you angry, but at the same time is so interesting that you can’t possibly put the book down until you have read the entire dirty story. Since the book was published, much has come out about the “luxury” industry – Louis Vuitton ads showing their bags being handcrafted in a small workshop while they are actually made in an assembly line fashion, Burberry bags being made in Chinese factories where people are paid less than the industry average in China, the rumors of a takeover of Hermès by LVMH.
Deluxe starts in the 19th century, at the beginning of the industry, when luxury goods were handcrafted by expert craftsmen and women for the people who could afford to pay for the very best. Louis Vuitton and his artisans made trunks and Charles Frederick Worth made gowns for the rich and glamorous. By the 1920s, there were 300,000 workers in the French luxury business, turning out lush fabrics and laces, shoes, jewelry, luggage, couture dresses and hats.
World War II severely damaged the luxury industry in Paris, and even after the war ended, it took some time for it to rebound. The 1950s were a time of prosperity and growth, but then the 1960s came along and many of the old couture houses and luxury makers were out of step with the more youthful feel in fashion. Many companies began licensing their name in order to increase profits.
But it was the late 1980s that saw the biggest changes in the luxury industry. To greatly simplify the story, following the lead of Bernard Arnault the luxury industry went corporate. Starting with LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy), groups started acquiring the stock of many of the luxury brands. Today it is a rare company that remains independently run, not under the umbrella of one of the big groups.
Along the same time there was a move toward “luxury for the masses.” By masses, they mean the middle class, people who can not afford an Yves Saint Laurent couture dress, but can buy a bit of the feeling of luxury with a purchase of YSL perfume or lipstick. These are the people who might not have $2000 for a Louis Vuitton bag, but they can splurge $300 on a small accessory.
That $300 accessory might seem like small potatoes to a company like LV, but consider their mark-up. According to Thomas, the profits are astounding. That $300 credit card case costs LV around $30 to make. And companies who produce in China reap even bigger profits.
It used to be that part of the appeal of buying a luxury item was the experience itself. The shops were luxurious places, with attentive salespersons who knew you and your taste. The shopper was pampered. Today, buying most “luxury” goods is like any other shopping experience. You go into the store, pick out what you want, pay for it and leave with a shopping bag that announces that you just bought something expensive for yourself. I was recently in the shoe department of Neiman Marcus, where there were sale racks of shoes, just like I’d expect to see in Macy’s. People were helping themselves to $1000 shoes. The only difference in the two shopping experiences are the prices.
However, according to Thomas, not all is lost. There are still a few, true luxury companies, in the historical sense of the word, where the products are handcrafted using the finest materials. Many of these are small, privately owned companies, who really do not care about growth. But then there is Hermès, where the handbags are still hand sewn, and the silk for the scarves is woven in Italy in one of the few remaining factories that does luxury weaving. She also sites Chanel, which still uses the finest ingredients in their perfumes, and whose couture works closely with luxury suppliers like the Lesage embroidery house. But then, this all comes at a price.
But that is part of the point – to have the best, you have to pay for it.
Or you can buy vintage, something that Thomas mentions briefly. Luxury items abound on online selling sites, but please, stick with sellers you know and trust, and who have a return policy. Or you might get really lucky. In a recent article in my local paper, a Goodwill manager mentioned that his store recently had a bag from Hermès, which he had authenticated and found it to be the real deal. I could have cried!