Don’t Die

Jenny Diski

  • BuyDeluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre by Dana Thomas
    Allen Lane, 375 pp, £20.00, September 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9823 8

There’s a science-fiction short story, I can’t remember by whom, which has a New York journalist on a hiking tour, lost in the Appalachians. He comes across a ramshackle house lived in by a family of hillbillies and they give him a bed for the night. In the morning at breakfast he notices that one of the girls has her headscarf tied in a manner he’s never seen before – it’s strange but very elegant. One by one he discovers that all the other members of the family are wearing an article of clothing in an unknown way, or have run up a frock or made a sweater or decorated their dungarees to look startlingly different. When he asks about it, they each tell him they just sort of thought they would, no big deal, gotta milk the cow, chop some wood, see ya. He stays a while and it emerges that he has discovered in this one family the actual source of fashion, the single place from which all new trends spring and stream out to couturiers, glossy magazines and eventually the city streets. No one, not even the family themselves, had any idea that was how it worked.

Sadly, the desire for a particular style or item of fashion is not set in motion by banjo-picking mountain folk. In fact, style is not a personal choice at all. Roman and medieval sumptuary laws made the nature of luxury fashion perfectly clear: it maintained the social distinctions. Luxury was exclusivity. Cost wasn’t really the point, though if it was rare, it would consequently be expensive. The fact that the sumptuary laws were enacted suggests that price alone was not enough to keep the wrong people from getting hold of what it was not their place to have. What mattered was that only we (or they) wore or ate certain things, and as a result we (or they) knew at a glance who they (or we) were. If the hillbillies really were innovating astonishing new styles, no one would want them. ‘It is a fact,’ Montaigne said, ‘that when we had hardly been a year wearing broadcloth at court in mourning for King Henry II, silks had already sunk so low in everyone’s opinion that if you saw anyone dressed in them you immediately set them down as a bourgeois.’ Though the copywriters would like to have us believe that one instinctively knows when something is right, in fact one needs to keep a close eye on what us and them are buying this year to be certain of whether it’s right or terribly wrong. Luxury fashion in this sense is the very opposite of stylish. Luxury is not having ‘an eye’ but, as Tom Ford, formerly of YSL and Gucci, explains: ‘It’s like you’ve gotta have it or you’ll die.’

Sumptuary laws belong to a different age. Democracy demands that luxury is something everyone can have – well, let’s not be silly, capitalism demands it and whispers in our ear that it is our democratic right to have it. Democracy as it has come to be redefined means that everyone is a customer with the entitlements that a cash purchase or access to credit brings. You should have anything you want and, if you can’t, you can have a bit of it, just a little of what you fancy. ‘Everyone,’ Karl Lagerfeld says, ‘can afford a luxury handbag.’ Or, as Miuccia Prada translates: ‘It’s so easy to make money. The bag is the miracle of the company.’ ‘Everybody – everybody – is talking about handbags with the intensity of cardinals appointing a new pope,’ an English journalist wrote during London Fashion Week in 2006. (Of course, the ‘everybody’ both Lagerfeld and the journalist are talking about doesn’t embrace those whom democracy hasn’t included in the right to eat sufficiently or be housed or receive medical treatment, but you know what they mean.) Luxury can and must be anyone’s now, and ‘everyone’ wants it or they’ll die.

In order to accommodate this novel notion of deluxe, Dana Thomas, in her startling and richly informative book, draws a line between luxury and ‘the luxury industry’:

The luxury industry has changed the way people dress. It has realigned our economic class system. It has changed the way we interact. It has become part of our social fabric. To achieve this, it has sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history and hoodwinked its consumers. In order to make luxury ‘accessible’, tycoons have stripped away all that has made it special. Luxury has lost its lustre.

All that glisters isn’t gold. But then it never was. It isn’t that those shiny bits on the Gucci bag were once really made of precious metal but are now made of plastic gilt in order to get them out to the masses. The quality of the materials isn’t always spectacularly different. The point about luxury goods for the few was only partly that they were too expensive for anyone but the rich to buy: it was also that the shops that sold them were too daunting for any but those born and bred for social confidence to enter. It isn’t just that, as Thomas explains in loving detail, the bags once made individually by craftsmen are now made much more cheaply on a production line in a faraway country. The prices haven’t gone down, the goods are not always of a notably poorer quality: what has radically changed is that everyone thinks they are entitled to own one. All they need is to get the money together. Difficulty was the hallmark of luxury and ‘democratic’ ubiquity has dulled the lustre. But it has upped the profits exponentially. After all, if everyone has one of those, you have to want something else, and the luxury brands are delighted to oblige, season after season. It has turned out that I like this book much more than some of the fashion writers who reviewed it. Not surprising really: the vileness/disgust nexus of Thomas’s information is going to save me a fortune. Well, up to a point. I’ve just checked out the Mandarina Duck website and I’m pretty sure I’m going to die unless I get one of those Yamamoto one-sided jackets that’s really a bag.

Urged on by recent governments devoted to the market, the sultans of profit, and their underlings, the wizards of spin, people who before wouldn’t have thought of it or even, perhaps, about it, have been made to understand that what they keep their keys and purses in ought to be a Kelly bag costing £4000 and rising, and that buying into Hermès is good for them: an investment. An investment for what isn’t quite clear. I suppose that if you’re going to die if you don’t have one then it is an investment, and if you feel you’re alive if you do have one that’s also worth the money saved or borrowed. You really can’t have the frocks at £25,000-£100,000 a time, but you can carry the bag. And if four grand is a bit of a reach, there’s still Chloé and Miu Miu, who will flog you a Paddington bag or a tote for a little under £1000, unless you want the latter in grey ostrich leather, when it will cost you £1675. If you’re right at your credit card limit and can’t get it raised, there’s always the fake, or the fantasy that the Kelly you got on eBay for £1500 or £175 is a real bargain. The main thing is not to die.

Thomas writes with horror as a fashion journalist turned investigator about the globalisation of the luxury fashion houses and the financiers who are now in charge of them. It’s actually a more general story of moneymen and their shareholders taking charge of commodities (fashion, books, art) that were once valued for something in addition to profit. She offers a brilliantly ambiguous quote from Bernard Arnault, the chairman and CEO of LVMH (Moët, Hennessy, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Dior and more): ‘What I like is the idea of transforming creativity into profitability.’

Rampant profitability required a rethink. In the 1950s, 200,000 women wore designer clothing, now about two hundred women in the world buy haute couture. What profit-seeking corporations are good at is giving a long hard look at the old values and chucking them out. As a result, the new gargantuan global brands have concentrated on what used to be by-products of the couture houses: perfume and accessories. The profit is vast: the perfumes can be watered down and priced up, the bags and key rings can be outsourced and made in sweatshops in the Far East (China’s getting pricey, Vietnam and Cambodia are now 25-30 per cent cheaper), and magazines and movie stars can be persuaded to parade the items to their readers and fans to imply that a dab of Chanel No. 5 between the breasts will imbue you with a little bit of Nicole Kidman. You will never, not ever in your lifetime, earn enough to buy the dress she’s got on in the ad, and anyway where would you wear it? But for £40 you can spray yourself with 50 mls of eau de toilette. (Eau de toilette generally contains just 6 to 12 per cent of the concentrated perfume blended with solvents such as ethanol and water; 50 mls of the concentrated perfume would set you back something in the region of £416.)

No. 5 is a classic scent from 1919 that goes on selling, but the big money now is in new celebrity scents – JLo, Jordan, Posh, Naomi, Ethel – which come out at the rate of 200 a year, sell colossally for 12 months or so and then disappear. Thomas quotes a ‘nose’ on the briefs he gets from the luxury houses when they want a new scent:

Basically, it’s: ‘We want something for women … It should make them feel more feminine, but strong, and competent, but not too much, and it should work well in Europe and the US and especially in the Asian market, and it should be new but it should be classic, and young women should love it, but older women should love it too.’

The ‘nose’ adds: ‘If it’s a French house, the brief will also say, “And it should be a great and uncompromised work of art,” and if it’s an American brief it will say: “And it should smell like that Armani thing two years ago that did four million dollars in the first two months in Europe but also like the Givenchy that sold so well in China.”’

The vast corporations began to conglomerate in the economic atmosphere of the 1980s where growth was everything. The consolidators, like M. Arnault and his colleagues, have now got the middle and low-end market desperately wanting what they can almost afford, and they are radically changing the old production methods to provide for that desire. They’re cleaning up. The luxury-goods business is worth $157 billion. Thirty-five major brands control 60 per cent of the market. In 2004, nearly half the population of the UK claimed to have bought at least one luxury product in the previous 12 months.

There’s something of Montaigne’s sniffiness in all this. Thomas’s idea of luxury demands exclusivity. In fact, the designer bag is no longer a luxury if hundreds of thousands have it, no matter how expensive it is. Coco Chanel defined the situation perfectly: ‘Luxury is a necessity that begins where necessity ends.’ It’s a category that has gaped wide, and luxury has fallen into it. The customers are being hoodwinked, according to Thomas, because they believe their bags and keyrings to be made lovingly by a little man at a workbench in Paris whose craft was handed down from his little father, when in fact they are turned out on a sequential assembly line by machines or individuals who are treated like machines. The customers are paying not for the skills of the designer and artisan, but for the brand name (preferably prominent) and what it represents to those who recognise it. I’m not sure how hoodwinked anyone is. The brand has become the object. For those who want unique objects and can pay for them the little man, the genius with his remarkable skill, still exists, at least until Bernard Arnault buys him up. (It might be good if he stayed shtum, however, if the genius that is Alexander McQueen is anything to go by. After he was taken up and spat out by various moneymen, he said: ‘My clothes are out there on a limb, and I get slagged for it. It’s like Hitler and the Holocaust. He destroyed millions of people because he didn’t understand. That’s what a lot of people have done to me because they can’t understand what I do.’)

The passion for brands is moving ever eastwards. An extraordinary photograph in Deluxe (very badly reproduced, unfortunately) shows a young woman in a tiny room lying on her bed as if dead on a catafalque. Every surface is covered, every wall is hung, every chair is heaped, her body is layered with clothing, jewellery, make-up and shoes designed by Anna Sui. She is one of the series of ‘happy victims’ that Kyoichi Tsuzuki has photographed in Japan. There are collectors of every brand. One is a Buddhist monk who once a month takes off his robes and puts on one of his Comme des Garçons outfits and goes into Tokyo to add to his collection. A Martin Margiela collector never cooks at home for fear the smell will taint the clothes. The only thing in his refrigerator is eyedrops. ‘When he gets thirsty he goes to a convenience shop and drinks there, then goes back home.’

It began in Japan. ‘Twenty per cent of all luxury goods are sold in Japan and another 30 per cent to Japanese travelling abroad.’ The theory is that there is no space to spend wealth on land or property so it goes into luxury brands. The big players moved into the new markets. Vast emporia were put in handy spots to draw in the yen, but there’s a bigger market to come. Instead of making the products, the Chinese are beginning to buy them. The new middle class in China is a virgin market, and like most virgins ripe for exploitation. Ernst & Young estimate that by 2010 there will be 250 million Chinese who will be able to afford to buy luxury brands, and that by 2014 they will have overtaken Japan as the world’s major luxury consumer. At the moment they go to newly built megastores in Hong Kong to buy. Vuitton, Chanel and Dior are rubbing their hands. An advertising director at JWT in Shanghai is quoted:

Chinese people will gladly spend a price premium for goods that are publicly consumed. But it’s like buying a big glob of shiny glitter. They know which brands are famous, but they can’t tell you the difference between them in terms of quality or design. [They buy] to burnish their credentials as someone of the modern world by stocking up on a year’s supply of prestige.

There’s always someone ready to flog whisky and beads to the natives.

Growth is still the imperative. Bulgari is moving into the hotel business with a branded luxury place to stay in Milan. Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney and Viktor & Rolf have shown the way in another direction, by making collections to sell in mass-market outlets like H&M and Topshop. A curious mixture, this, of populism and the creation of value. There is only a single ‘issue’ of the collection. The shops and designers get worldwide publicity from the near massacre that occurs when the collections go on sale, and the clothes themselves appear on eBay and become collectors’ items, their value going from street back to luxury in a matter of days. The appropriation of populism by luxury designers is a smart survival strategy, creating a new kind of scarcity and better publicity for perfumes and accessories than money could buy. In the same way, when movie stars go and collect their Oscars in their loaned designer frocks, millions buy the scent and the bags. There’s a great new game going on between celebrities and design houses. Thomas suggests that actors are getting paid now to wear luxury goods to the right places, but there’s tough competition between the brands. ‘Charlize Theron and Hilary Swank reportedly decided at the last minute to replace the loaned Harry Winston jewels they were to wear to the Golden Globes with dangling earrings and six-figure cheques from Chopard.’ It’s a knife-edge business. ‘One year,’ a former employee of Bulgari says, ‘I had Chloë Sevigny sorted out with Bulgari and had her going in the car with it on, and when she got out of the car, she was wearing a cross by Asprey-Girard.’

When luxury goods become genuinely popular, there’s an opportunity to reassess the phenomenon of taste. The Beckhams having taken up Burberry nappies and the like caused millions to buy into the design house, to the distress of Burberry’s regular wealthy customers and eventually (it must have been a tough call) the company itself. The Burberry check is now indelibly associated with ‘chav’ culture. On the one hand this is simple snobbery, but on the other it does allow bystanders to look and wonder at the intrinsic worth of the stuff. What actually is so good about the Burberry design (or come to that Vuitton), aside from its name? It looks horrible, not because it’s on chavs, but because it’s horrible. A very fine website called Handbags of Horror matches designer bags with horror movie creatures. Go to it and check out the uncanny resemblance between Miu Miu’s Matelasse Hobo bag and the putrid zombie from Return of the Living Dead. It’s not totally obvious which you would prefer to have hanging from your shoulder.