In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Don’t DieJenny Diski
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre 
by Dana Thomas.
Allen Lane, 375 pp., £20, September 2007, 978 0 7139 9823 8
Show More
Show More

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.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 29 No. 23 · 29 November 2007

In her lament for the lost lustre of ‘luxe’, Jenny Diski summarises a science-fiction story, ‘I can’t remember by whom’ (LRB, 1 November). She recounts the fantastic tale of a New York journalist, ‘lost in the Appalachians’, who discovers a clan of ‘hillbillies’ whose habits of dress predict future trends. That story is by the unfashionable but brilliant Avram Davidson (1923-93). Entitled ‘The Sources of the Nile’, it is not set in Appalachia or Ancient Egypt but New York, specifically the Bronx, just south of Davidson’s native Yonkers.

Joshua Cohen
Brooklyn

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.