Colette

What is modern luxury?

22

I’ve just finished reading Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster by Dana Thomas, and if you are at all interested in the world of fashion and the drastic changes it’s undergone, you should definitely pick it up!

Luxury used to mean the best money could buy. Luxury products were expensive and totally out of reach for most people, but they carried with them a tradition of exquisite craftsmanship, perfect presentation, and an unrivaled experience of service. Some of the large luxury companies still stand by these principles (she shows how Chanel and Hermes, for example, still go above and beyond in the pursuit of quality).

dior new look

dior

{images above: women in Dior in the 1940s/50s via sacheverelle}

But most luxury brands have changed dramatically. The businessmen at the helm have realized that they can make a killing by focusing on marketing “entry level” products to the middle market. That means handbags, sunglasses, perfume, cosmetics… the things a middle income person could afford to splurge on to get a taste of that fancy brand. Meanwhile, the quality has plummeted and most products are secretly produced in Chinese factories (while being stamped “made in Italy”). Some of these factories are sweat shops. Some employ child labor. The companies make a lot of profit.

vuitton ad with Scarlett J

{image above: Louis Vuitton ad}

Luxury brands used to be owned and run by designers. For the most part, they are now part of giant conglomerates and totally focused on the bottom line. Designers are almost expendable, and the clothes are in some part just a vehicle to sell the brand and thereby sell more handbags. Couture clothing has only gotten less attainable, because it’s not meant to be sold to many people. Instead, we get “fast fashion” versions of the designs. I was fascinated to learn this tidbit:

“More than two hundred thousand women worldwide wore couture in the 1950s. It was an expected part of a bourgeois woman’s everyday life. Today, in comparison, a mere two hundred women worldwide buy haute couture.”

So this left me with a question: What is luxury now, to you and I? Are there still real luxuries available to normal people? Is sewing one of those luxuries?

Personally, I would like to think that I appreciate craftsmanship, detail, and quality. I like things that last a good long time and look beautiful. Sewing is one of the few ways I have to attain that. Of course, there are other reasons I sew, but I do like being able to create a perfectly tailored silk dress in my own home.

But I don’t think it’s the only answer. One of the interesting points she makes is that there are small businesses who are able to stay small and, because of their scale, maintain that attention to quality. Louboutin is a wonderful example of a very small company run by the designer who has managed to stay small, make amazing products, refrain from even advertising, and not sell out. I liked almost everything he has to say:

“Luxury is the possibility to stay close to your customers, and do things that you know they will love. It’s about subtlety and details. It’s about service […] Luxury is not consumerism. It is educating the eyes to see that special quality.” -Louboutin

This could be a mantra for my own business, in a way. But I think there are other, even smaller artist-run companies like Louboutin, carrying the flag for quality and originality, not merely reaching for money and growth. I can think of some in my own community, in fact.

What do you think? Is luxury a farce? A marketing gimmick? Do you think it’s different than it was 60 years ago? Does it mean something to you?

Sarai Mitnick   —   Founder

Sarai started Colette back in 2009. She believes the primary role of a business should be to help people. She loves good books, sewing with wool, her charming cats, working in her garden, and eating salsa.

Comments 22

Peter malepatternboldness.blogspot.com

Great topic and I have also read “Deluxe.” I have mixed feelings about the whole issue of luxury. First, luxury is what you make: there is no objective standard. To some, just having something that someone ELSE sewed is a luxury! But in terms of having the highest of high levels of craftsmanship, that might not be it.

If people cared that much about quality, they wouldn’t buy knock-off Dior “baguette” bags on Canal St. in NYC! They obviously have figured out that it’s what the bag represents (status, power, good taste) and not the quality of the workmanship. Who cares, when it’s going to go out of fashion in a few years anyway?

I guess my point is that I don’t think people are being deceived here any more than they are when they buy a $75 pair of jeans (made by teenage girls in Mexico).

Long ago, luxury brands were accessible to only the very few. Would you be in that pool of 200,000? It sounds like a lot but it’s not. Most women would were wearing some “Paris Original” knockoff bought at Orbach’s.

Despite the lower quality and rip-off-nature of a “designer” item, there’s something more democratic about it too in that it’s accessible to more people.

Still it feeds the desire to pretend we’re something we’re not: rich! If we didn’t live in a world with such shocking, immoral inequality, it wouldn’t matter.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

You make some really excellent points, Peter.

I don’t think the public is being deceived so much as manipulated, but I also think consumers are complicit. Luxury companies have long known that their products represent status. I think the problem is that that has become their sole focus at this point.

I think you’re right, that luxury does not equate to craftsmanship for most people. But that’s what is so sad to me, because (1) it means more garbage in the landfills (2) more cheap manufacturing and the attendant human rights problems and (3) lower appreciation for the true craftspeople out there.

I don’t mean to come off as anti-designer handbag or anything, because I’m not, and I’m sure most of them are lovely and well made. I just think it’s interesting and telling that so many people care more about appearing to appreciate quality than actually having an awareness of it.

M thelazymilliner.blogspot.com

Unless the economy turns around, I’d say even the number of people who wear haute couture now will drop further…unless they’re a bunch of corrupt, rich politicians.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

Maybe so, but some economies continue to grow. Perhaps more couture will be bought in China and India in the coming years and decades.

Toby Wollin kitchencountereconomics.com

What is luxury today? Well, for people who are not standard sizes, being able to get something that fits is the ultimate luxury. Buying a genuine designer bag which has been produced in the same sweatshop as bags for Target and Canal Street is not luxury — except for the corporation, which is making a luxurious profit margin on it. The same labor, the same techniques, the same equipment – it’s all the same. Perhaps the zipper is nicer or the leather and lining is nicer (though I am not sure that is true either). Perhaps the tag embossed with the designer’s name has been added in another unit in Italy (so that they can add the tag that says ‘made in Italy’). But this is not luxury – because it is still based on the premise that everything is disposable. Those of us who sew/knit/craft etc. have the ability to produce luxurious things for ourselves and our families because we care; we take the time to do things in the traditional careful way, and we are in control of the entire piece.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

“But this is not luxury – because it is still based on the premise that everything is disposable.”

This is another thing I love about things that are handmade. Even if the quality isn’t wonderful, the item is still made with thought and intention. It’s usually not meant to be discarded.

It sounds cheesy, but I really think the love, thought, and personality that goes into making something is a part of its value to me!

Amy dartandhem.blogspot.com

I am assuming that you have but if you have not you should read The End of Fashion by Teri Agins. It is a bit dated, I think it was written in the 90’s. The subtitle is How Mass Marketing Changed Fashion Forever or something like that. It talks about the same things how mass produced cheap clothes brought an end to quality dressmakers, like Martha, as well as the couture business.

Luxury to me is quality. looking good versus looking trendy. loving everything in my closet. I hate the cheap knock offs because to me they are cheap. I will always know that they are cheap. I would rather save up and buy one good quality high end piece that I will use the rest of my life and then pass on. i think plastering yourself in any kind of label(real or fake, high end or low end) is cheap and I would be embarrassed to go out looking like that.
i also think it looks cheap, particularly on fashiony trendy people, to go out with the tacking still in the vent of your dress or jacket. but that is a personal pet peeve of mine.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

Thank you for the recommendation, I will find that book at the library!

Amy dartandhem.blogspot.com

Sorry. that turned into a bit of an unrelated rant!

Sarai colettepatterns.com

Haha, not at all! I remeber when I was a teenager, the first time I bought a skirt with pleats that were tacked like that. I’m glad my mom told that I was supposed to remove them!

The Cupcake Goddess thecupcakegoddess.com

I also think the public is being manipulated here. It’s very interesting to have an education in an artistic field and see that. I have an education in music performance and have years of classical training. I don’t feel that luxury is something that only a minority of rich people have. I think its a mind set. But people aren’t educated in that way. Take for instance music. Most people think that classical music is for stuffy old people with alot of money. The funny thing is that you can find classical music everywhere and no, its not at a luxurious price. To find its real luxury though you have to be open to be educated by it. I’ll grant you that alternative music is fun to listen to and exciting and can make you feel good. But what about the inspiration of hearing Ives’ Unanswered Question and the feeling of actually “feeling” the true meaning of life. That’s luxury, but yet we aren’t open to creating that for ourselves.
I realize I’m not in a music class here, but I think the same principle applies for all areas of life as well. What is it to eat, live, wear and breathe luxury? It’s more than just consuming it. It’s being.

Sara sara-sundries.blogspot.com

I really enjoyed this post, and I’d like to read the book someday. For about 20 years I read Vogue cover to cover (until my daughter was born). I also read all my grandma’s saved Vogues from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. I have to agree about the marketing, and the other points you highlighted don’t surprise me. When I was a teen it was a dream that someday I might splurge and buy myself an item of couture. Now that I see “couture” handbags and sunglasses at every turn, it makes me laugh. I would not buy one. I would save up for something special, even if it didn’t advertise it’s logo.
Luxury to me today is buying Keen shoes that are expensive (to me) but that I know will feel great and last a long time. Or, buying lovely wool and cotton yarns to crochet with. I have to agree with you that sewing for yourself is a luxury nowadays, especially since when everything is added up, you probably end up spending more to make it yourself than to buy it manufactured and imported.

D

My mind is much more geared to interior design and home furnishings rather than “fashion”, but I’ll try to apply some of my principles from one to the other…

first, we need to take a look at the word ‘luxury’ and how it can be used to describe something…

Is an item a luxury item because it’s expensive compared to other alternatives? because it’s rare/limited? ephemeral or hard to take care of? is the material a luxurious material (silk, cashmere, feathers from rare birds, etc) is the item easily reproduced or copied? is the item made to one’s specifications (custom goods) Is the cost/time of production lengthy?

So, for me, in the interior design world, a custom made wool and silk rug hand knotted in Nepal is a luxury item in quite a few ways. It’s a handmade time consuming one of a kind piece that one could do without or use a cheaper alternative. Likewise, a plank edged slab table on a cast bronze base is a luxury item, as is a white silk sofa.

Alternately, in the fashion world, I consider a few very high end things to be true luxury, because so much of it is easily copied. Certainly, a bespoke camel hair coat is a luxury, as is a hand beaded wedding gown or a pair of custom made leather boots…

On the flip side, I don’t adhere to the belief that just because something has a luxury BRAND slapped on the label that it is indeed a luxury ITEM. Case in point: I bought a Coach bag a few years ago. I wanted a luxury bag – one that stood for the quality that the brand was built on. I had a pretty difficult time finding a simple, all leather handbag with minimal branding. The fabric bags with the Coach logo emblazoned on them are not luxury items, to me. They’re trendy, disposable fashion pieces…

Not sure if any of that made any sense! :)

Karin themrs.eu

Luxury, to me, is not really about the name tag on an item. It hasn’t even much to do with the price that we pay for an item.
To me, real luxury is when I feel treated in a special way. That can be the way I am approached in a store. It can be the way an item (whether it’s clothing or something else) is packaged, wrapped in beautiful paper, put into a lovely box. It’s in the details of a garment, that make me feel like it’s not mass produced, but made especially for me (or for some client who really appreciates it at least). Often you’ll find this kind of service at the larger houses, the expensive brands, but it’s not always the case. More and more you see, like you said, that those brands let go of their service principles, giving up (in my eyes) that what made them really outstanding. But sometimes you find this kind of service in a little shop online, where I ordered something that I received the next day, with in the lovely package a handwritten note.
That, to me, is luxury.

Clare luckymia.blogspot.com

For me, a luxury is something which gives me a good deal of satisfaction or improves the quality of my life somehow, and isn’t necessarily prohibitively expensive or branded. When I have clear-outs, I struggle to (and often don’t) part with things I bought when I had no money, because I usually remember the purchase and exactly what it meant to have that item, even if it only cost 50p from a charity shop. It would have been a luxury. ahhh listen to that weeping violin!! It’s fine, I survived but my attitude to buying stuff hasn’t moved on in that I don’t buy blindly and weigh up purchases to the extent that I could never be accused of being spontaneous! Having said that, now money is less of an issue I’m happy to pay more for something well-made from quality materials which will last. I worry more now about whether or not I’m making an ethical purchase.

royaltygirl royaltygirl.wordpress.com

I loved this post! I am training a teenage daughter to have taste and a style sense of her own and am finding it very difficult in this world today. Style and taste seem to be equated with a poorly made mass reproduced brand name. I have introduced her to sewing and am finding that this, in addition to visiting stores like Chanel and neiman marcus to look “inside” garments and feel the fabrics etc. has helped me to focus her eye to what is quality. Buying her one very nicely made silk Kate Spade dress (made in china, but with great workmanship) has helped her to see the difference between target clothes and quality craftsmanship. The seams are all french, the hem is finished with lace hem tape, the fabric has a heavy hand and the buttons are beautiful and substantial. I am encouraging her to use these details in her own sewing! It makes such a difference! I believe we have to start training our children young but not create label snobs. Etsy.com has been great for showing that you can get a luxury experience for a smaller price tag. Certain sellers packaging, notes, quality goods etc are rival to some of the best couture shops. You have to know how to find them amidst the throng of “stuff”‘ but they are out there to be had. Thank you for your posting it was very inspiring and I am going to purchase that book right away!

Rose thelaughingmonkey.com

To me, having the time to sew my own clothes is indeed a luxury. As a stay at home mom to to young children, I don’t have the time to sew that I once did. I absolutely love to have handmade clothes that are made with quality materials, and that fit well.

I have never liked trendy items like designer handbags, sunglasses, etc. I specifically WON’T buy something if it has the company’s name splashed all over it. Why would I want to pay to advertise for someone?

Grace badmomgoodmom.blogspot.com

I also read Luxury. You may also be interested in reading “Factory Girls”, about the lives of the girls who work in Chinese factories. It’s fascinating, and I even learned why the quality is so uneven in those factories. I have mixed feelings about luxury and “Made in China”. But, it’s better to have an informed opinion than to resort to uninformed rants.

Re the 200,000 couture consumers of the past. Did you know that couturiers used to license their designs to US dept stores like I Magnin? The designers would ship the patterns and materials to a handful of partner stores. Customers would order exactly what they wanted, in their size. There was very little waste, which is why couture used to be more relatively affordable. Plus, women didn’t buy as many new clothes, so they would spend more per item. If you find the clothes in vintage stores, they bear the labels of both the European designer and the US store.

This domestic US production was fueled by post-war prosperity in the US and the availability of European immigrants (like my FIL) seeking a better life. The dollar was stronger against European currencies then, too.

SwanDiamondRose swandiamondrose.com

i’m a modern luxury brand :) and you are a modern luxury brand :)

products that still have people connected to them.

handmade.

i’m too tired to add more but i really believe that as saucy as i may have made it sound.

jen blog.loveliette.com

i’m very intrigued by this book – thanks for posting! i agree that the luxury companies (most of them) have changed in terms of quality and of their target market. you can’t watch t.v. without being bombarded with ads for mercedes and other luxury cars, regardless of what show you are watching. many people not only start to want these things, they may being to feel entitled to them. but who can really afford them? (i think this is at least a small part of the huge personal debt problem in the u.s.)

people want a “deal” and they say they want quality but they often don’t find both; i think the deal wins over. i often hear ladies complain about how expensive anthropologie is, and while i cannot afford everything i want there (and i’m not certain what their manufacturing practices are; i know i see things there made in china, etc), i don’t think $200 is too much for a well-made silk dress. i mean, if i made a well-fitting, detailed silk dress and tried to sell it, i’d definitely charge more than $200! i guess because of big box brands and so forth, most consumers don’t understand how much work is really involved in creating a garment, particularly a well-made one, since everything nowadays is relatively cheap. (i hope i don’t sound like a hypocritic as i’m certainly not out there buying chanel and i get many household goods at target!)

i also read that, for example, the average person gets a new cell phone every 6 months! i can hardly believe it (i’ve had mine for 5 years, it’s really low-tech and dorky) but i guess it’s true – many consumers want the latest and greatest and become tired of the cheap stuff they buy and go out and replace it with more cheap stuff.

anyway, in the last few years i have splurged more on high end things but only if i truly love them. as it turns out these have been smart purchases for me. i bought a pair of $200 jeans last year (which nearly gave me a heart attack) BUT i’ve worn them so many times i’ve gotten my money’s worth; plus they fit like a glove.

ack, sounds like a rambled a bit! ;D anyway, i’m going to check out that book!

Pashmina verypashmina.com

Your article (and I guess the book) tends to focus on the downsides of mass marketing and the growth of the luxury fashion brands, but there are upsides too!

Take your comment that in the 50s more women wore couture than today. But why is that? The gap between the mega rich and the poor continues to grow, so it’s not the case that people can no longer afford couture.

Instead, they choose not to purchase because their needs can be satisfied by off the shelf pieces. Yes, some brands have taken their products down market and sacrificed quality for short term bucks. But that’s a very miopic strategy and very soon the brand will have been critically undermined.

The majority produce high quality products in an increased range of colors and sizes that more than satisfy the needs of the modern woman.

LiNCOLN PARK lpwrites.com

Thank you for this post.

I have mixed feelings about this subject. I believe that luxury is relevant to the time and space of the discussion. Like — a given day in my life where I would demand that a diamond I wear be at least, of VS quality; vs. another day where even the idea that I could have clean, hot water running down my back from a high-pressure showerhead would feel so luxurious and privileged as to move me to tears.

Some who feel the luxury of cashmere for the first time feel it in a sweater of cashmere-blend. Some who’ve paid for the finest handcrafted, meticulously packaged soap find no luxury in the allergic reaction that followed; yet could find luxury in a creamy, mass-produced, decent smelling soap, like Caress or Dove.

I get what you’re saying about the decline in quality and maybe even thoughfulness of the luxury brands we have come to know over time. You have the knock-offs. Then you have the tiered branding from the luxury manufacturer; such as MARC JACOBS vs MARC BY MARC JACOBS — and the question becomes: “Is it still a luxury item if I buy the value version?”

To me, luxury has become more of an action verb than anything else; and I have newfound respect for those who save two paychecks to aspire to what another shopper feels is a degradation of a luxury brand. If the mass produced Coach bag makes the wearer feel like she has a suite at the Waldorf Astoria when she wears it — then that is a luxury item. If the next guy’s idea of luxury is to have a carpet hand-loomed by 357 artisans day and night for six years under 40-watt lighting in Farawayistan, then that, to him, is a luxury item.

I think what I’m saying is that in my experience — luxury as an item, or a concept, is in the eye of the person doing the luxuriating.

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