The Devil Sells Prada

Book Review–NYT. August 26, 2007


How Luxury Lost Its Luster.- By Dana Thomas.

The Penguin Press.

“Luxury,” Socrates once declared, “is artificial poverty.” I’m not poor, but there’s nothing like an afternoon spent shopping for luxury goods to make me feel that way. On a recent jaunt through some of Midtown Manhattan’s snazzier stores, I began to wonder why this should be the case. When, I asked myself, did it become commonplace to charge several thousand dollars for a mass-produced handbag? How could the flimsy designer sundress I bought on sale — a “steal,” the saleswoman assured me — still wind up costing a whole month’s salary? Why is my favorite brand of lipstick more expensive than a nice bottle of Italian wine? When did these products’ values grow so distorted, and what is the would-be customer to make of it all ?


In the midst of my consumerist crisis, the question I should have been asking was: Dana Thomas, where have you been all my life? In “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster,” Thomas investigates the business of designer clothing, leather goods and cosmetics, and finds it wanting. Hijacked, over the past two or three decades, by corporate profiteers with a “single-minded focus on profitability,” the luxury industry has “sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history and hoodwinked its consumers.” Hoodwinked? The truth hurts. After I read “Deluxe,” suddenly my new sundress no longer looked like such a steal. Au contraire, the book’s line of argument suggested, it was I who’d been robbed.

For Thomas, a cultural and fashion writer for Newsweek in Paris and the Paris correspondent for the Australian Harper’s Bazaar, the luxury industry is a sham because its offerings in no way merit the high price tags they command. Yet once upon a time, they most certainly did. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when many of luxury’s founding fathers first set up shop, paying more money meant getting something truly exceptional. Dresses from Christian Dior, luggage from Louis Vuitton, jewelry from Cartier: in the golden period of luxury, these items carried prestige because of their superior craftsmanship and design. True, only the very privileged could afford them, but it was this exclusivity that gave them their cachet. Although they may have “cared about making a profit,” the merchants who served this pampered class aimed chiefly “to produce the finest products possible.”

All that changed, however, in the last decades of the 20th century, when a new breed of luxury purveyor, epitomized by Bernard Arnault, now the chairman and chief executive of the multibillion-dollar LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton conglomerate, first came on the scene. “A businessman, not a fashion person,” Arnault realized that the mystique of the great brand names represented an invaluable — and historically underexploited — asset. Identifying the luxury sector as “the only area in which it is possible to make luxury margins,” Arnault snapped up Dior, Vuitton and a clutch of other star brands. Then, by spending hundreds of millions on advertising, dressing celebrities for the red carpet, “splashing the logo on everything from handbags to bikinis,” and pushing product in duty-free stores and flagship boutiques all around the world, he turned these brands into objects of global consumer desire. In so doing, Arnault changed “the course of luxury forever.”

And strictly, Thomas argues, for the worse. Insofar as luxury has gone corporate, relentlessly focused on the bottom line, quality has disappeared. In order to keep margins high (in 2005, LVMH recorded more than $17 billion in sales and a net profit of almost $1.8 billion), Arnault and his competitors have cut costs wherever and whenever possible. The most obvious strategies involve using cheaper materials, replacing skilled artisans with computers and machines and outsourcing labor to less expensive markets like China. Sneakier tactics include “cutting sleeves a half an inch shorter” (“when you get to 1,000, you see the savings,” one employee told the author), replacing finished seams with raw edges and eliminating linings on the grounds that “women don’t really need” them. A grouchy aside: my aforementioned sundress is (a) an LVMH brand and (b) unlined. It is also (c) white, which means that a lining would sure have come in handy. But if Arnault can amass a personal fortune of more than $21 billion by forcing me to display my underwear, then who am I to complain?

In truth, the perverse reality of luxury consumption today is that so few people are complaining, and so many are clamoring for what Thomas refers to (a bit too frequently for my taste) as a piece of the “dream.” Paradoxically, as craftsmanship has waned, consumer appetite has grown — and not just among luxury’s original, elite clientele. The vast reach of contemporary advertising, distribution and product-placement efforts has effectively democratized luxury, making once exclusive brands available, if only in the form of logo-covered sneakers or sunglasses, to middle-market customers the world over. “Luxury-brand logos convey wealth, status and chic,” Thomas explains, “even if the bearer of the logo-ed product is a middle-market suburban housewife who bought it on credit.”

as a result, a designer jacket or handbag or watch no longer transmits reliable information about its wearer’s socioeconomic stature or background. Without quite coming right out and saying it, Thomas seems nostalgic for the good old days when “a middle-market suburban housewife,” say, couldn’t be confused with her betters. The author is shocked to overhear a woman “in a designer pantsuit, good jewelry and Chanel sunglasses” expressing interest in a fake Rolex. Spotting a couple loading shopping bags into a $380,000 car, she is surprised to learn that their loot came from an outlet store. In a discussion of the booming, underground market for counterfeit luxury goods, she compares “folks with a craving for the goods but not enough dough for the genuine thing” to petty teenage drug users — eager “to buy a couple of joints with their allowance or baby-sitting money.” She quotes a commentator on the last days of the Roman Republic, who contrasts an era of rampant, nouveau-riche acquisitiveness to an earlier and more “patrician” age when “people used to know their place.”

These hints of condescension are regrettable, for Thomas’s message is relevant to shoppers of every stripe. Whether upscale or middle-market, paying in cash or buying on credit, today’s customer is barraged at every turn with the logos that, for titans like Arnault, mean pure, corporate gold. “Deluxe” performs a valuable service by reminding us that these labels don’t mean much else. Once guarantors of value and integrity, they are now markers that point toward nothing, guiding the consumer on a road to nowhere.

Caroline Weber is a frequent contributor to the Book Review. Her most recent book, “Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution,” will be published in paperback this fall.

(c) New York Times


2 Responses to “The Devil Sells Prada”

  1. September 12, 2007 at 11:25 am

    Louis Vuitton is definitely a hot brand of handbags and accessories but I really prefer Chanel and this article just adds to my views I am not much feeling the styles, I really would prefer to have a Chanel or even a Chloe it would even cost me less.

  2. 2 Entropy
    September 13, 2007 at 9:46 am

    Status for sale

    Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre

    by Dana Thomas
    Advert for The Scotsman Digital Archive

    Allen Lane, 376pp, £20

    THERE WAS A TIME – THE CH’IN dynasty in China, 221-207BC – when luxury really meant something: Indian pearls, foreign crystal, perfumes such as myrrh and, most of all, the red branching coral from the Mediterranean. Coral came from somewhere inconvenient. It was delicate; at first only emperors owned it, so everyone wanted it. It was lovely if you liked that sort of thing, and pointless unless you chose to believe it had a point. It was luxury defined.

    Naturally, it was a perfect measure of status. The noble Wang K’ai was fiercely proud of his two feet of coral, until his rival, Shih Ch’ung, took an iron bar and smashed it. Then Shih did something truly cruel. He offered compensation, which meant revealing his own collection of three-foot corals, four-footers and more, all of them lovely. Size matters: Shih was the greater man.

    But his triumph ruined everything. If nobles could have coral, then it wasn’t royal any more. Xinru Liu, historian of these matters, explains that great luxuries were first exclusive to the royal courts, but then nobles got interested, then the “lower social strata” – which is us. When that happened, luxury had to be defined all over again.

    It’s curious that Dana Thomas, who does “culture and fashion” for Newsweek, is telling the same story two millennia later, but missing the point. This time, it’s a matter of honest craftsmen who once made excellent things – Dior the frock-maker, Louis Vuitton the trunk-maker, the men who brewed perfumes for kings – whose names are now assets of multinationals and whose trademarks slip into the dreams of Japanese typists and Californian housewives and magically, hypnotically, make them spend.

    Once, you bought a trunk because you travelled, and a good one if you could afford it. If you were Sammy Davis Jr you bought a trunk with a bar in it. New York society women bought frocks from Worth in Paris because that was the uniform, the price of admission to the balls. At Versailles, perfume eased you through the stinking day. Even the Hermès Birkin bag, the almost unavailable holdall, was practical before it was iconic: just a way to stop papers spilling.

    Then marketing men arrived and everything went abstract. You don’t buy useful, excellent things; you aspire to the class, the lovely uselessness of the people who once bought them. Exact and personal production collapsed into mild dishonesty: “Made in Italy” shoes, manufactured in China, then the soles stuck on in Italy; frocks whose sleeves lose half an inch to save on fabric; chemical perfumes because real flowers cost too much. Clothes don’t really need linings, do they?

    This was still “luxury”, we were told, but luxury we could all have. Any Ch’in noble knew a universal luxury is no luxury at all, but every glossy magazine says different. If you can’t buy the Yves Saint Laurent frocks, get a handbag (handbags are the profit centre of the fashion trade nowadays). If you don’t need a trunk, buy the perfume. If you can’t afford the suits, get a T-shirt. Cover yourself with the right badges to show you have exactly what you deserve (and, no, there is no irony in this trade).

    Even Tom Ford, the one-time mastermind of Gucci, has become dubious. “It’s like McDonald’s,” he says. “The merchandise and the philosophy behind it is very similar.” And yet serious executives, admittedly cosmetic executives, will tell you Ford was “the combustion that drove the entire 1990s”; a whole culture, so the fashionistas say, shrank to fit his notions.

    This is alarming, and worth analysing. Even the detail is intriguing: you can’t help but wonder what an artist like Yves Saint Laurent truly made of the (brief) career of YSL car tyres.

    Unfortunately, Dana Thomas doesn’t show the big picture, doesn’t often name names, dismisses a contract killing in a phrase, but tells all about the suits (some of them “hay-coloured”) worn by the bosses of the corporations who are shifting the culture their way.

    She seems upset – more interested, frankly – that her early Prada gowns are still immaculate while her later trousers split in all directions. The names she used to love are losing meaning. But as a shoe-maker called Louboutin tells her, sagely: “Luxury is not consumerism. It is educating the eye to see that special quality.”

    So here’s the bigger picture. “Luxury” helped make our celebrity culture; the name and fame of Dior sold perfume long before J-Lo and Sarah Jessica Parker. But it is also its profit centre, which is why it is so seriously, even brutally defended. Men who depend on a set of initials and squiggles – or the name of Mrs Beckham – to make an 80 per cent mark-up on a leather bag reckon they have “intellectual property”.

    Thomas takes this at face value. She doesn’t like pirates. She’d hate me to tell you the best Prada knock-offs are sold down the street from the Prada shop in Rome. She quotes jobs lost in Europe to the pirates, but not how many European craftsmen lost their jobs when legitimate corporations moved production to Mauritius, then to China, and now to Vietnam. She never asks if the meaning of labels changes when the products change.

    And she overdoes it. She insists your replica Rolex is the product of “violent crime syndicates that also deal in narcotics, weapons, child prostitution, human trafficking and terrorism”. Well, perhaps, and there are experts with live anecdotes on her side, but she has to admit the fake Rolex business has also built a university in Senegal, which nobody else could do, and her standards of proof are curious.

    Could there be a link between pirated handbags and 9/11? Thomas triumphantly reveals that one (unnamed) Manhattan luggage store that sold fakes was run by a – gasp! – “man of Middle Eastern descent” who owned a flight simulator program (I once gave one to a godson; what does that make me? A suicide godfather?). She says there’s a market in South America – she’s vague about where – that saw 1,500 counterfeit stalls “purportedly owned and operated by al-Qaeda” shut down in the week after the Twin Towers atrocity.

    This is odd; does Thomas reckon al-Qaeda is going out of business? Or is it possible that 1,500 clever merchants saw what she goes on to report: that 9/11 shipwrecked the luxury trade for a time?

    She does at least quote a New York security maven, Andrew Oberfeldt, who gets the point. “The only way to stop counterfeiting,” he says, “is to get people to stop buying all this crap.”

    Finally, after her corporate litany is done, she touches on the really interesting question: if “luxury” is just a trade, like groceries but more profitable, then what now satisfies the rich and truly luxurious?

    Apparently they still want Armani, but that’s just good taste. They have their underwear made in Paris by the great-great-granddaughter of the woman who invented the bra. If they’re bored with commercial smells, Patou will whip up something made to order for a mere $70,000 or so.

    But here’s what is interesting: now everyone can shop, they don’t go shopping. They don’t even go to the couture shows. They’re not remotely influenced by who wears what at the Oscars. “The women who buy couture,” Karl Lagerfeld says, “don’t want to be associated with actresses.”

    The great ladies have a taste for good, cheap stuff: they have found their inner mall rat. Their personal shoppers set style and pack suitcases, while they fuss mostly over the discount for a bulk buy at Dior. They have embraced the Green Stamps principle: anything free must be good.

    Put a mere five million on your Nieman Marcus card in a year and you get a free three-week holiday; although why you would need one is a mystery.

    In other words: they’re reinventing luxury. Goods are democratic, they all get marked down in the end; but in a service economy, the luxury is service where you call all the shots. Those nobles from the Ch’in dynasty would recognise their old, old story still.

    This article: http://living.scotsman.com/books.cfm?id=1434832007

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