The Fashionable Oxymoron

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Oscar de la Renta Fall 2007 - This bag is not "affordable"...as it shouldn't be!A post for Coutorture Salon on Luxury and Accessibility... 

“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” - James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story

Affordable luxury: two words that really don’t belong in the same description. In sixth-grade English class we would have learnt that this was an oxymoron – a paradox of two words, or the bringing together of two opposites. Sometimes oxymorons are successful, such as in the case of “eloquent silence” or “eccentric elegance,” however “affordable luxury” just doesn’t work.

Luxury is also the opposite of “necessity” – no one really needs a $2000 handbag when the free paper sacks from Whole Foods have convenient handles and lots of cargo space. Our modern consumerism has us brainwashed into thinking that the “It Bag” featured in Vogue actually is a necessity, but that’s just the magazines and marketing people getting into bed together to the detriment of our bank accounts. Once we turn the page and breathe normally again the intelligent person realizes that said “It Bag” falls under the “nice to have” category rather than the “need to have.”

True, no intelligent, style-minded, self-respecting person would actually use a paper bag to carry their everyday items, but the notion is worth considering.

During my tenure within LVMH, I learnt what luxury really meant, both concretely and abstractly. Concretely, the term has to do with design, craftsmanship, and quality. Abstractly, “luxury” is ethereal, aspirational for 99% of the population, and a semantic carrying the caché of exclusivity. I appreciate both sides of the coin: I understand the incredible beauty endowed in these products, while I also know the thrill of possession.

Ownership of luxury products should always be a privilege. By creating an “affordable luxury” market, the privilege becomes less thrilling, less exciting, less luxurious. Luxury brands used to be limited to the rarified air of Fifth Avenue, Rodeo Drive, Post Street, Worth Avenue, and the like. Everything inherent in a "luxury brand" connotes something that is hard-to-get, limited, and rare; today, luxury houses are popping up everywhere, even secondary and tertiary markets like suburban malls.  This then begs the question: if it’s so easy to get, is it really luxury?

Yes, the internet and ecommerce has widened the market – average Jane housewife in northern Minnesota can order up some expensive confection and have it delivered to her door, but what is this kind if accessibility doing to the brands? Some would say that due to the expense the items really aren't accessible, which therefore leads to the counterfeit industry. It's nice to know that for the sake of crappy knock-offs (ie: "affordable luxury") people are supporting child labor and terrorism. Doesn't that make you all warm inside?

During my time in luxury fashion I also saw the dangers of the maddening “must-have” mentality of consumers. I witnessed customers splitting the cost of a handbag across three and four credit cards, counseled the sobs of teenagers who were thought “uncool” because they didn’t have the bag that all their friends had, and heard the frustration of time-honored customers who vowed to never buy the brand again because they were sick of seeing it on every girl in the country. You see, to them the brand once meant “something” – it meant that they were privileged, that they were the “haves” and the others were the “have-nots”.

Sorry to make this a class issue, but when you get right down to it, that’s what luxury is all about – it simply isn’t mass-market, it’s exclusive. Let’s go back to the 1% of the population for whom luxury is NOT an aspiration, it’s a way of life. They have multiple homes, private planes, Bentleys and Maseratis. These people know luxury inside and out – they have the best of everything: clothing, hotels, toys, vacations, services… THIS is the luxury demographic, and it’s not for everyone.

If the luxury brands want to preserve their power and caché, I suggest that this is the group they target. Stop opening so many stores, stop targeting teenagers, stop dressing pop stars, stop being affordable. Already, some luxury brands are so watered-down that they are losing the affluent customer base that made them so aspirational in the first place. Is this what the brands want to happen?

“Watered-down aspirational” – now that’s an oxymoron!