It's funny how things are like kismet in the blogosphere...I was just finishing my post about this subject when Chic & Charming scooped me! Regardless, we both agree: Dana Thomas' book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster is required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in fashion. If you have more than a passing interest (and you probably do if you're reading this,) then it's a prerequisite. Then there are all of those interested in business, modern economy, product sourcing, power politics, hostile takeovers, history, style, and juicy gossip, then this is a book for you too.
I loved every moment of Dana Thomas' Deluxe, finding so many passages resonating with my personal experience in the fashion industry. My copy is now dog-eared and underlined - there's wisdom in these pages! In fact, I've become a little bit obsessed, telling everyone I know how much they need to read it. It surprises me though because it seems that a lot of people in the blogosphere still haven't given this work the time of day. Sure, they might mention it in passing, but have they read it? (I always find it so funny when people cite references that they haven't read. It didn't work in college, and it doesn't work now.)
Ms. Thomas has entree to interviews most fashion writers could not imagine. She asks Miuccia Prada directly about how many times she's filed for IPO, she asks Fred Hayman about his sales per square foot totals at Giorgio Beverly Hills in the mid-80s, she talks with Elaine Wynn about how Las Vegas has changed the luxury and retail industries forever. She also talks directly to LVMH's Bernard Arnault and Louis Vuitton CEO Yves Carcelle, who, it is rumored, "uninvited" her to the Fall 2008 Louis Vuitton fashion show because of her candid remarks about the brand in Deluxe.
I loved the passages about visiting the one rose grower in Grasse who harvests the Centifolia rose exclusively for Chanel No. 5, the part about the history of the iconic Hermès handbags, and the chapter about shopping at Daslu in São Paolo (which sounds like heaven...an expensive heaven.) Dana Thomas' intrepid candor comes throughout the work, providing first-hand glimpses of the "fashion gods" that are usually kept so high on their pedestals. For instance, this is her description of Miuccia Prada:
"She had moral objections to taking over the business: she was a feminist and a communist, albeit an Yves Saint Laurent-wearing, haute bourgeois feminist communist who had never worked a day in her life."
I laughed out loud reading this, and appreciated that even with this background, Miuccia Prada does "get it" when it comes to the inherent essence of luxury. This is how Ms. Miuccia puts it:
"To fake luxury today is easy. You put some details from the brand's past, you put a little bit of gold, and that's it. I can't bear that...Real luxurious people hate status. You don't look rich because you have a rich dress. When you look at a person, do you see the spirit or the sexiness or the creativity? Just to see a big diamond, what does it mean? It's all about satisfaction. I think it's horrible, this judgment based on money. It's all an illusion that you look better because you have a symbol of luxury. Really, it doesn't bring you anything. It's so banal."
I think banal is the perfect word for the state of "luxury" today. I think that's the word I was after when I wrote my post on the ridiculous notion of "Affordable Luxury" a few months ago - the post that brought Dana Thomas' new book to my attention via the flurry of discussion that followed.
Ms. Thomas' book cooled my own fires of disappointment about the industry which was indeed a relief. I'm not going crazy, it seems, it truly is the brands that are doing it to themselves. The moment fashion changed into the beast we know it today was when the large conglomerates took over from the families of designers and craftspeople, and decided they had to satisfy shareholders and boost stock prices. The easiest way to do this, as we've seen, is by catering to the indiscriminate middle-market, which has now been stretched into a true mass market. The luxury industry has now become it's own worst enemy, a source of its own demise.
Ms. Thomas concludes Deluxe with a hopeful note, however, by alluding that the true luxury customer will always exist, will always buy the true product. Cristiane Saddi, a Daslu customer confides to Thomas:
"Daslu clients don't need the logo entry-level handbag or to wear labels or logos. We buy from luxury brands, but not ordinary products. Special items. There's always something special. You can see what is mass and what is special. Luxury is not how much you can buy. Luxury is the knowledge of how to do it right, how to take the time to understand and choose well. Luxury is buying the right thing."
I'm not sure that the luxury brands know what the right thing is any longer, even if their better customers do, but Dana Thomas' book certainly leaves that optimistic idea open. Perhaps things will again get back to what they once were: exclusive items, small productions, hand-craftsmanship, and the true customer...not merely the mass buyer.