Plastic Crowns: The Fall of Luxury Fashion
Authenticity, purity, tradition, heritage, superior quality, timelessness; all these are words that come to mind when one considers the nature of luxury. That is why antiques stand firmly atop of the luxury pyramid, encompassing all such adjectives in an entirety of meaning that is lost in contemporary luxury goods. Few items nowadays hold the same intrinsic value, integrity and significance to culture, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the fashion industry, a place where end goals are worn blatantly on the metaphorical sleeve. When individual displays and emulations of status function as the key social interlocutor, fashion and dress act as a visual language, focalizing and projecting the exterior world’s core values, buried beneath layers of constructed meaning.
Although the changes which have led to the degradation of the luxury industry have begun long before the 20th century, structural changes in recent decades have reached such an obvious state so as to be recognizable without any previous knowledge or understanding of the fashion industry configuration, exposing its cracks with the pompous indifference of those that are beyond reproach.
For even though luxury may not be what it used to be, it continues to affirm itself with grandiosity, hiding behind nostalgic videos of old women skillfully weaving away in rustic surroundings and expertly orchestrated status branding to distract consumers from the loss of quality and production standards it suffered through its democratization.
Createurs de Mode, 1910
The fact is, the image of luxury we hold onto no longer exists. Yet nothing happens on its own; we have to ask ourselves whether the monumental changes the world underwent throughout the 20th and 21st centuries that have had such an immense effect on how we live, communicate and perceive the world, have also made the modern façade of luxury simply an inevitable side effect. Perhaps in order to survive globalization, steps were taken in directions that have led to the state of luxury we live with now - but what does that say about modern society and its values?
The one man or family run luxury companies which originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that focused on a small, timeless product offering composed of precious materials, expertly assembled and sold to an elite clientele without the slightest shadow of compromise eventually expanded into publicly traded global corporations cashing in billions of dollars through selling an increasingly wider portfolio of subpar products to pretty much anyone. As the structure of the luxury company grew too large to sustain the same level of attention to detail and quality standards that were previously the norm due to the restraints of running and coordinating a large scale business, other changes were underway: minute, in house control made way for a vast global network of unregulated, opaque supply chains, cheaper substitutes were found for expensive, precious raw materials and the designation of origin branding replaced designation of origin production - all because such a change in governance shifted the focus of luxury houses from creating one of a kind, prestigious products with pride and integrity, to inflating net income through any means necessary in order to keep shareholders happy.
Custom made, one on one service, Paul Poiret, 1910s
Guccio’s Gucci of 1920, the one that stayed true to traditional methods of production through utilizing the highly skilled local Florentine work force of artisans to produce fine leather goods, has little to no resemblance with the public multinational conglomerate it became towards the end of the century, before being in its turn absorbed by Kering. One can only imagine how the tolls of managing a group that includes giants like Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, Bottega Veneta, Boucheron, Sergio Rossi and parts of Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, would have taken on quality control and the upkeep of high-end luxury level standards.
Guccio and Rodolfo Gucci in front of the Rome store, 1938
Gucci ad, 1920's
Globalization and corporate interests run counter intuitively to the romantic notion of luxury they perpetuate, prioritizing cost reductions, reducing speed to market by taking time away from time demanding activities, and diverting funds and efforts to large scale marketing campaigns to draw more consumers into participating into fabricated status associations; all at the expense of the actual product made.
As The Guardian’s Tansy Hoskins drily notes, do expensive clothes come with a guarantee of ethics? Fashion journalists are quick to tout Burberry as a prime example of a recently revamped luxury brand, able to both innovate and retain its tradition of luxury classics; however few note that just three years prior to its very first digital runway see-now-buy-now sale the brand closed up shop in Britain to set up camp in China in order to increase profit margins.
While safe in the ownership and control of the founding family since its establishment in 1856, Burberry was bought in 1955 by Great Universal Stores, a retail conglomerate that expanded its offering through deals with manufacturers worldwide. Since then, Burberry has steadily closed down its British factories to relocate where its cheaper just as its patriotic ‘Made in Britain’ stand got louder. At the same time that they went down to only two local factories – one in Castleford that produces raincoats and a smaller one in Keighley - their website began featuring a beautiful origin story, complete with beautiful British hillsides and waterfalls. The reason for this, according to GMB, a UK trade union that raised an uproar trying to stop the relocation of one of their local factories to Asia, was that their £4 per polo shirt production costs were too high. Apparently the fact that these same polo shirts are sold for a good £175, a mark up of 4,275%, just wasn’t good enough.
Luxury marketers are now taught in university that luxury is largely subjective, requiring a mastery of weaving stories and meaning to justify sky high prices rather than the mastery of technique and other value adding signs of prowess that used to be mandatory in ateliers and workshops worldwide. Business of Fashion describes how lucrative being perceived as luxury is, allowing companies “to charge up to ten times the cost of manufacturing a garment” as well as gaining access to profitable licensing deals through third party producers, eliminating exclusive distribution practices, and launching cash rich diffusion lines. Double digit growth for luxury fashion brands isn’t achieved through their main couture lines, which are rather used to fuel logo centered aspirations, but through the sale of lower priced product lines such as cosmetics, fragrances and eyewear to the middle market, allowing individuals to buy into the dream for an affordable $40 to $100. Handbags, the more expensive of these accessories, are marked up ten to twelve times their production cost on average.
Unfortunately, this soulless envisioning of luxury as something to be simply manufactured through structured corporate strategy processes acts as the antithesis to what defines luxury in the first place, shaping the new, offensive social value apparent in consumption habits that what luxury represents is more important than what it is.
The rise in conspicuous consumption is apparent in the shift in the nature and function of logos; where they were once sewn discreetly on the inside of goods and garments, they now cover the entirety of their exterior bodies, emblazoned boldly in full view to all in order to communicate false perceptions of wealth and status; the elegance and virtue of modesty now replaced with vulgar exhibitionism. The types of goods crafted by the finest artisans, artists and dressmakers for an exclusive clientele of monarchs, aristocrats and old money families didn’t require such boorish showmanship; items of luxury, typically made to order or produced in very small quantities, spoke for themselves.
The apparently positive movement of the democratization of fashion in reality hides less than honorable intentions and even more questionable practices. By shifting the targets of high end luxury goods from the elite to the masses, shunning exclusivity for accessibility, what industry leaders and heads of corporations gained was access to an extensive middle market, and hence the potential for skyrocketing profits. To create the appeal, luxury houses resorted to the same cheap tactics used by crude tabloids such as bombarding audiences with shocking advertisements that had nothing to do with the product being sold just to get tongues wagging – nudity and sex were suddenly everywhere. But it didn’t end there. The paid celebrity endorsements and sponsorship of high profile entertainment events were accompanied by profit maximizing tactics previously unheard of in the realm of luxury: opening outlet malls to sell unsold stock at ridiculously cheap prices, opening stores in virtually every location possible so that you couldn’t go out for a coffee without falling upon a Louis Vuitton, switching from hand crafting to mechanic assembly line production, getting listed on the stock market and taking up permanent residence in duty free stores. The aim was to be accessible everywhere and anywhere to anyone.
To add insult to injury, supply side gimmicks were employed to up luxury goods’ prestige. Scarcity is heavily correlated with value because it suggests difficulty of finding or extracting raw materials, long production times due to attention to detail and level of craftsmanship, as well as the scarcity of the raw materials themselves, so precious we assume they are – but the fabricated illusion of scarcity entails the monitoring of mass produced supplies in order to leak them out in small batches and fetch the sort of prices associated with extremely rare goods innately imbued with prestige.
This is only one of the ways in which luxury corporations heavily milk our almost indelible romantic perceptions of luxury to maximize profits, yet, does this actually affect how we feel about them? Does it matter to us as consumers that warehouses are packed with luxury goods ready for sale in the coming years to distort our sense of material value? Perhaps what has allowed this is a concurrent shift in morals and shrinking of our individual universe – as long as conspicuous consumption is limited to demonstrating status in ones own circle or community, then whether the scarcity is real or fabricated doesn’t really matter as long as others in a community are not able to afford it.
Regardless, more people can now afford to buy into the world of luxury. While this end result may seem like a good one, it shields a negative detachment of prices from intrinsic value, a cultural acceptance of falsehood and dishonest products, and a glorification of immaterial value to the detriment of individuals’ quality of life. If all this democratization and cost cutting was to our benefit, it begs the question as to why it has paradoxically translated into higher and higher end prices. This question becomes more poignant when we look at the example of outlet malls - if we logically assume that nothing is sold at less than or equal to its cost of production (running an outlet mall has its expenses) then how is it designer heels can go for the humble price of 15 Euros?
What this also shields is a now normative instigation into this new form of immaterial consumerism; demand by the rising middle class was further encouraged through market deregulations, the expansion of retail credit, credit card debt and installment buying, which coupled with the rising disposable incomes of societies in the full swing of industrialization, fueled the rise and current predominance of leisurely consumption. This is not new of course; leisurely consumption followed a long line of micro cultural shifts such as that of advertising goods for individuals rather than for the household as a whole, and the transition of goods from utilitarian to conveyor of status symbols that were already visible from the 18th century, introducing conspicuous consumption as a normative activity.
Consumerism may be a natural derivative of a capitalist model, but its focus and extent arises out of carefully executed intention. A larger supply of consumer goods requires spending habits to increase in a linear fashion to accommodate it, opening up a host of tactics employed by manufacturers, beginning with the obvious, such as saturating the consumer’s life with advertising that would only be avoidable by the extreme reaction of secluding oneself from society, and ending with structural changes to business models and product life cycles that encourage a routine and perpetual spending on the same item, such as doctored obsolescence – the reason why your phone perpetually seems to get more fragile.
That the word ‘luxury’ rests solely on an empty definition that is no longer relevant is especially clear with this phenomenon, mirroring a transition from timeless and cross-generational objects to cyclical ones with limited life spans. Its safe to say that the revolution of fast fashion crossed into the territory of the luxury model, steadily eating into the market divide by adopting techniques to up their perceived brand value through collaborations with top designers and models as well as building other high end luxury associations such as the opening of a Top Shop flagship store in London right opposite Harrods.
Moreover, the complementary duo of hyper speed to market and constant multiplying of fashion seasons only got brands used to accommodating retailers with faster changing stock to entice customers to come back into their stores - and yet, flash collections a luxury label does not make. The destruction that these have had linger in the luxury industry as the largest and most destructive fast fashion intruders, magnifying in devastation as they embed themselves deeply into the procedural culture of the luxury fashion industry.
In order to remain competitive, luxury houses have had to downgrade to the production methods of fast fashion brands while maintaining an illusion of superiority. Even though Gucci maintains its headquarters in its birth city of Florence, it has a vast network of 400 first tier suppliers followed by a whopping 3,600 subcontracted suppliers involving unclear and unregulated practices. Some of these are companies based in Italy, specifically Prato, what used to be the largest fashion production hub in the country. However, over the years the small Tuscan town of Prato has steadily become home to the second largest Chinese population in Europe, allowing luxury companies such as Gucci, Prada, Versace and Armani, among others, to continue labeling their garments with the highly prized denomination of ‘Made in Italy’ whilst employing cheap migrant Chinese workers on the sly.
According to the Italian financial police captain Edoardo Marzocchi, the 100 Chinese factories established in Prato during the 90s multiplied to over 5,300, directly causing the demise of hundreds of Italian owned and controlled factories, and complete with the kind of set up you’d expect to find in an unregulated corner of an underdeveloped country’s industrial quadrant: lack of residence permits, cramped sheds, shoddy in-factory accommodation, illegal work hours and shockingly low wages.
Fashion factories, Prato, Italy
Yet, why wouldn't a large luxury fashion house make the switch to a Chinese run factory rather than support the dwindling numbers of Italian factories struggling to upkeep the Made in Italy brand? At a fraction of the cost, profit margins soar to tantalizing heights – and since production happened on Italian soil through a complex web of opaque supply chains, the chances of being held flagrantly accountable are next to nil. Luxury houses love of their heritage remains strictly confined to the brand storybooks.
For consumers, these tales are not new. The fact that the law allows a luxury producer to label an item where its last stitch occurred allowing them to easily outsource in underdeveloped countries at little to no consequence on their image has now become common knowledge. Even Vice outed Chanel for falling dead last in reports by Fashion Revolution and Ethical Consumer which listed fashion companies in a transparency index meant to shed light on the deceptive nature of fashion industry supply chains. What sustainable fashion activists continue to note is that garment production doesn’t begin with assembly, but down a long chain of facilities that dye, weave and finish fabrics to eventually end with the modern world’s most under appreciated underdogs: the agricultural industry and the farmer; the first and most pivotal foundation of a functioning society.
With growing concern on the topic of what defines contemporary luxury in an industry so tarnished by overhauling bottom line practices such as those outlined above, you would think that high end luxury companies would gladly shed light onto their production processes and raw materials sourcing and processing so as to cement their superiority and justify the stratospheric price tag. Instead, the world is either met with silence or excuses (“how should we know what our suppliers do behind our backs?”), the legal salvaging equivalent of “no comment” and “where’s my lawyer?”
Yet even with an impenetrable wall of secrecy, increasing pressure to keep up with the façade allows the truth to occasionally beam out of its cracks. With the level of involvement of Chinese manufacturers in the development of Western luxury brand’s goods going strong, they end up taking increasing fragments of the luxury production process. A Chinese director at a prominent Prato factory with offices in Hong Kong describes how banal the luxury design process has become: pencil sketches are sent over digitally in a secured file, the manufacturer then works with the brand in choosing pattern and fabric to finally create a prototype and send it to the client for inspection and alteration – a reality far removed from the meticulous artisanal methods we imagine when we picture true luxury.
Clearly, just because the factories are based in Italy doesn’t mean that that is where they source their raw materials. Large Chinese suppliers in Prato are incredibly well organized and vertically integrated with other facilities back in China close to the Guangdong province, where most source up to 90% of their raw materials. The only thing luxury corporations don’t compromise on is, ironically, the clothes’ labels and logo ribbons in order to prevent counterfeiting. The old cardboard I found lining the inside of my logo covered, leather Gucci wallet when I absent-mindedly ripped open a small tear is one of my favorite stories when illustrating the hypocrisy of the modern luxury market.
Unfortunately, the story of Prato illustrates that sometimes facts aren’t as simple as cheaper production elsewhere. The market still functions in terms of supply and demand, and over time, demand brings with it a horde of other factors that make it so that outsourcing isn’t faced with the old dilemma of cheap linked to low quality. Take New York City’s Garment District as an example. Initially, outsourcing meant fewer demand back home, hampering the local industry in long lasting ways by directly causing a decline in the availability of a local skilled workforce who either moved elsewhere for work as factories either closed down or were replaced by cheaper immigrants, or worse yet, by reducing the overall appeal of the profession, attracting fewer and fewer disciples willing to learn and pass down those skills.
Once set in motion, a domino effect ensues - now, due to decreased demand at home, local US factories are simply unwilling or unable to invest in the state of the art machinery able to create the varied kinds of clothing in demand today, whilst China’s government invests heavily in its manufacturing competitiveness. And why wouldn't they? The large investment makes sense as long as China continues to be forecasted to attract a growing percentage of the world’s manufacturing.
The effect is also found in the time old story of art versus commerce, creeping into the core of what makes creativity special in the first place. The pressure now begins in schools and universities, ingrained in the syllabus and minds of hungry fashion students who attack their creativity with a corporate mindset. Rapid growth requires a speedier and larger supply of creativity, demands strictly adverse to its very nature. Former head of Central Saint Martins Jane Rapley remembers a time when CSM was a pure art school. With globalization and the steady demise of patronage - which supported designers like Cristóbal Balenciaga - the pressure of competition seeped through corporations and into the souls of individuals, making it so that it is no longer an option to simply work on your craft. In the new social structure, chances of thriving past the bare minimum to survive whilst living for your art is an almost unachievable reality.
Digging into the pervasive effects of the fast fashion model re-exemplifies the significance of the glorification of visual language: the infiltration of falsified prestige in mediocre goods into the middle market has led to an almost blind insistence to hold onto ideals that are long gone. This explains how counterfeited luxury goods have become so commonplace and accessible. As Dana Thomas, the author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre, notes, “ Consumers don’t buy luxury branded items for what they are, but for what they represent. People don’t believe there is a difference between real and fake anymore.” With no tangible system of merit, consumers can easily buy into luxury reproductions of cheap, low-end market goods as long as they get their intangible fix. No example can be more evident than that of Balenciaga’s IKEA bag, sold for $2,145 versus the original version's 99 cents – but the cultural appropriation of the working classes and their lifestyles by luxury brands in order to fake street swag by dressing down their bourgeois origins is another story for another day.
Balenciaga's fabled Ikea bag
Of course, being true to their nature, luxury companies have in recent years capitalized on the notion of counterfeiting and branding parodies, only exemplifying their disgraceful fall from the pedestal. Parodies, once the realm of cheap production, have gained an expensive makeover, perhaps only permissible because deep down consumers have lost the respect associated with true luxury in order to feed the now ingrained need for trendy short-term consumables. Ironically, the authenticity of black market counterfeiting is being counterfeited by luxury brands.
What is interesting is that perhaps these cheap tactics are a sign that the structural changes that have occurred thus far are finally taking their toll, and that the luxury industry is reaching a tipping point – when something becomes an extreme parody of itself, it almost feels like the last step before a decline; or at least, a significant shift in structure or ideology. The short term gains of employing empty marketing practices borrowed from the fast fashion model will eventually make way for long term damage, especially to a brand’s core identity. A long, beautiful heritage can only cover up so much for so long.
For all of these reasons, and perhaps many more that only an undercover journalist working their way through the belly of the beast could know, it is safe to say that the luxury industry has steadily turned into the industry of fabricating luxury, a not so insignificant difference.
But there remains a sliver of hope - some labels are beginning to rethink their break from traditional luxury. Burberry’s Project Artisan, which envisions bringing more of its production back home, appears like a great start - even if it was talked up to more than what it is.
It is impossible to negate the rising effects on the industry of sustainable fashion activism and of the self-employed creative entrepreneur. Recent years have seen a glorification and return to artisanal means of production – small scale, clean, hand crafted; ethical by its very nature. At the end of the day, being cost effective means nothing if no one believes in your product, and perhaps the only way to do this is to turn your back to the big fashion machine and find a little bit of soul in what you do. Perhaps we are finally beginning to remember that meaning and purpose are found in the little things.
Thomas, D. (2007). Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre. New York: The Penguin Press.