[13 October 2008]
At the gas station-convenience store by my house in suburban Detroit, in among the air fresheners, junk food items, smokers’ accessories, and such, there’s also to be found a cache of handbags bearing the distinctive logos of Louis Vuitton, Kate Spade, Coach, Gucci, and Burberry. They’re fakes, of course, though pretty well done. But the ready availability of even the legitimate variety of these once exclusive luxury goods at department stores, outlet malls and other haunts of the déclassé is a measure of how premium fashion brands have gone astray, according to journalist Dana Thomas, whose Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster is now available in paperback.
Back in the good-old days, Thomas observes, luxury was the province of the privileged few, who demanded and received the finest things that their money could buy. Rather than toiling away for the honor of creating finely handcrafted rarities for the elite buyer, today’s premium brand houses are now interested first and foremost in making as much money as they possibly can. Their strategy for doing so is to adopt the same principles of economic rationality that provided many of their traditional patrons the financial wherewithal to afford being catered to in the first place. That is, they lowered production costs by adopting modern mass manufacturing techniques and broadened their customer base to include pretty much anyone with an available credit limit. That this should scandalize us is Thomas’s primary contention. (And Paul Verhoeven claimed to ‘blow the lid off’ of Las Vegas dance extravaganzas with his now camp classic Showgirls.)
Thomas, a style and culture reporter for Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, and Condé Nast Portfolio, traveled the world in search of her story. There are first-hand reports from the fashion ateliers of New York, Milan, and Paris, and interviews with top designers such as Giorgio Armani, Tom Ford and Miuccia Prada. She also visited the sweatshops of Asia, including factories in China that churn out bootlegged product like the stuff on display at my local service station. These sections are the best parts of the book, providing evidence of how market logic pervades even the highest levels of global culture.
Go to any upscale shopping district in any major city in the world these days and you’ll likely see exactly the same merchandise and brands for sale—Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, etc., in addition to those already mentioned. Most of the stuff is made with the same value-chain efficiencies and by the same production sources that supply Wal-Mart and Target. It’s certainly ironic that the supposedly most refined provinces of taste have become subject to the same mechanisms of McDonaldization, which have coated everyday life with a film of transfatty ooze. Whether it’s a tragedy, as Thomas would have it, is open to debate.
The main villains in Thomas’s story are the corporate suits who sold out the premium brands for a pot of filthy lucre. The biggest villain of them all is Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world’s largest premium brand conglomerate. He gobbles up fashion and other chic nameplates like Jabba the Hut at an intergalactic complimentary buffet and he subjects them to a relentless bottom-line focus. Competitors are forced to follow suit or go under, setting off a race to the bottom. The shills are abetted by unsophisticated consumers the world over who are mesmerized by the brand names that have been pushed at them in a blitz of advertising and product placements, and who aren’t discerning enough to recognize ‘true’ quality.
Deluxe is journalistic reportage and thus needs to identify names and faces in close-up view. (“Who?” is the first question in the reporter’s mantra.) But a more structural perspective shows that contemporary fashion is part of larger social and economic trends. High-end fashion was headed down the road to corporatization and democratization long before Arnault staged the coup that led to his takeover of LVHM with the ouster of the last Vuitton family member in 1990. As Thomas notes, buts glosses over, licensing of couture brands to the middle-market started in the early 1950s under Christian Dior. In the ‘60s, Yves Saint-Laurent expanded it with his Rive Gauche boutiques and popular products such as Opium perfume, the woman’s pantsuit and the safari jacket. Others, like Givenchy, and Pierre Cardin, employed similar practices. The growth in the designer mid-range tracked the general rise of affluence of the postwar era in Europe and America.
Several times Thomas mentions globalization, but never defines it or how fashion fits in. Globalization, simply put, is the not-so-recent economic and social restructuring of capitalism to transcend the nation-state system and consolidate wealth and power into fewer private hands. Rather than being a victim of globalization, fashion, particularly apparel, has been on the cutting edge of it, as it were. Since the early 1970s, it has pioneered, along with the automotive and electronics sectors, outsourcing of production to lesser-developed regions and substituting financialization and leverage for long-term capital investment. It has also been a leader in exploiting registered trademarks and other forms of intellectual property as sources of revenue. And instead of being unique in experiencing the supersession of family proprietorship by outside investors and corporate integration, the fashion industry’s concentration of transnational control is similar to that of publishing, media, financial services, and many other areas of business.
Thomas ends the book on what she considers a positive note. In the closing pages, she describes a visit to Daslu, ‘the world’s most luxurious store’, located in São Paolo, Brazil. Hidden by a long private drive and not one but two security gates, it’s where South America’s thin upper crust alight from their bulletproofed limos to wile away the hours having personal shoppers bring them refreshments and just about anything else their precious hearts desire—forget about the millions of people who live in squalor in the shantytowns of the surrounding city. It’s where I imagine Laura and the twins will shop after W finishes gutting the American economy and the Bush clan sets up its life in exile. And for some reason, it seems like there are more important things to fret about in that situation than the fact that they might have to carry their pirated swag in a production-line handbag or, heaven forbid, a knockoff.