Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, by Dana Thomas, New
York: Penguin Press, 373 pages, $27.95
In September 2005, following the worst natural disaster in American history, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began distributing $2,000 debit cards to Hurricane Katrina’s neediest victims. The cards carried a note saying they were not to be used for alcohol, tobacco, or firearms. But the cards said nothing about $800 monogrammed handbags.
“We’ve seen three of the cards,” an employee of a Louis Vuitton store near Atlanta, Georgia, told the New York Daily News soon after the cards were issued. “This has been since Saturday.”
Opinion pages and blogs tore into the Vuitton fans like outlet shoppers at a bargain bin. The Daily News called them “profiteering ghouls,” and the syndicated columnist La Shawn Barber dubbed them “on-the-taxpayer-dime drunks.” Apparently, some things were OK to buy with the recovery money, such as bottled water and TV dinners. And some things were not OK, such as purses priced at 13 times production cost.
Clearly these women had an elastic definition of need, one that arguably abused the public’s generosity. But the bag ladies of Katrina should take heart; these days it’s tough for anyone to be a virtuous consumer. Among the excesses of our age is a plus-sized literature on the vast wasteland of human consumption, of full closets and empty souls. Titles such as Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need, and Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic point to an insatiable market for books that berate us for buying them.
To her great credit, Newsweek fashion writer Dana Thomas is not at all interested in inoculating her readers against the all-consuming epidemics that plague our shopping malls and threaten our children. In Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, Thomas takes it as given that the purchase of a hand-stitched crocodile leather Hermès Birkin bag is an experience ennobling to buyer and seller, a triumph of taste over vulgarity and artistry over philistinism. Thomas never once speaks of a mythical, pre-consumerist past of communitarian solidarity and material equality.
Instead, she has penned her own mythical history of consumerism, a history that emphasizes a purer, more elegant experience of material consumption. Thomas pines for the day when luxury was “simply about creating the finest things that money can buy,” when there was a place for “humble artisans who created the most beautiful wares imaginable.” Thierry Hermès started as a lowly harness maker with a shop in Paris, Louis Vuitton as the son of farmers who scored an apprenticeship with a Parisian trunk maker. By the late 19th century, both were master craftsmen who served the French aristocracy.
By Thomas’ account, some time in the 1980s, a decade she describes with all the nuance of a chainsaw-wielding Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, our humble artisans were replaced with bloodthirsty capitalists ripped from the pages of a Naomi Klein polemic. Fashion tycoons, Thomas reports, “hyped their brands mercilessly,” adopting “the luxury equivalent of the American military’s ‘shock and awe’ approach to war.…Luxury was no longer about creating the finest things money could buy. It was about making money, a lot of money.”
Strip this narrative of its self-sacrificing royal artisans and cigar-smoking fat cats, and it’s not implausible; something surely was lost as luxury went corporate in the late 1980s. The heirs of artisans who had dressed the French royal court started opening stores in airports. The House of Gucci, which began as a small saddlery shop in Florence, started selling its leftovers in suburban outlet malls; you could now buy last year’s It Bag on your way to Pretzel Time. Fashion houses licensed their names to lesser designers, an idea they’d gotten from, of all places, the Disney Corporation.
But for a reporter who covers the economics of fashion, Thomas seems surprisingly unacquainted with the concept of a tradeoff. Just as surely as something was lost when Gucci started stamping its name on cheap T-shirts, something was gained when the men and women working the sales counters could buy into the brands they were selling. The story of the last 30 years in fashion is one of democratization and proliferation, of a middle class and an elite becoming increasingly indistinguishable.
Undeniably, it’s also a story of filthy rich men getting richer. French businessman Bernard Arnault is fashion’s most famous guru and, to some, an embodiment of all that has gone terribly wrong with high fashion. Arnault was a rapacious real estate mogul living in America who one day, Thomas writes, “called his counsel Pierre Gode and instructed him to find a company to buy.” Gode pointed to Christian Dior, then part of a larger textile empire known as Agache-Willot.
Arnault had no roots in fashion. The way Thomas tells it, he could hardly dress himself. He spent $80 million on Agache-Willot and fired 8,000 workers. “Until the 1980s,” writes Thomas, “business in France was a gentleman’s game, governed by scruples and politesse.” Arnault “was a new breed of French executive, the sort whose goal was to succeed at any cost.”
Today Bernard Arnault is the seventh richest man on Earth. He has amassed the world’s largest luxury goods conglomerate, Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton S.A., known as LVMH. Arnault has collected brands like his customers collect handbags: LVMH now owns Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Fendi, Marc Jacobs, and dozens of other names.
This monster of a company heralded a transition in the way luxury was bought and sold. Just as middle- class consumers reached up toward aspirational brands in the ’80s, the same brands were reaching down to meet them. Fashion houses refocused on smaller items accessible to middle-class consumers, such as handbags, wallets, and key chains. In the golden age of couture, clothes were the be-all and end-all. Today Parisian fashion shows sporting Louis Vuitton couture simply reinforce the brand that sells bags, wallets, and perfumes to lawyers and investment bankers. Clothing accounts for a mere 5 percent of Vuitton’s sales.
Nowhere is this blurring of class lines more evident than in Las Vegas, where luxury retailing meets everyman in some of the most profitable retail space in the world. “In New York I feel so uncomfortable walking in a store, like I don’t belong there,” a Vegas tourist tells Thomas. “Las Vegas is much more relaxed, casual.” There’s a reason for that, as a retailer later explains: “You cannot be judgmental in Las Vegas. The person in the cutoffs and a holey T-shirt can open up a money belt and pull out $100,000 in cash.”
Seen one way, the converging consumer experiences of the rich and middle class are a signature triumph of a thriving market economy. “The capitalist achievement,” Joseph Schumpeter wrote in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, “does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens, but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.” But for Thomas and a number of designers she quotes throughout Deluxe, something is seriously wrong when a half-dressed tourist pulls a wad of money from a fanny pack and buys into the cherished heritage of Thierry Hermès. “In order to make luxury ‘accessible,’ ” argues Thomas, “tycoons have stripped away all that has made it special.”