*Note: I’m planning a separate post on the chapter in Deluxe about perfume, “The Sweet Smell of Success.”
Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, by Dana Thomas, was on my reading list since it hit bookstore shelves back in 2007. What a time for me to decide to pick it up! When I bought my copy last summer, everything seemed on the surface to be okay, with the exception of the slowing housing market. Strange to think I waited not only until the country was in crisis to read this book, but also until I was facing my own challenge with trying to find a job as the unemployment rate climbs steadily toward ten percent.
But this book is about luxury, and one thing is certain: the luxury market will obtain. What Ms. Thomas does an excellent job of making perfectly clear is the difference between luxury and perceived luxury, between the real thing and the image. We are citizens in the cave, casting our eyes upon the shadow of luxury goods, believing in the market, pouring our hard-earned money into it. The premise of this book follows along the same lines as the discussions of the beleaguered housing market. Who is at fault here? Is it the people who’ve grown the industry, created the desire, and put the goods in reach of consumers who want or need to afford these luxury goods, or is it the fault of common consumers for reaching too far beyond their financial capabilities?
Too many people believe that credit is money. While credit companies have filled people’s mail boxes willy nilly with outlandish offers for even people with the worst credit ratings, these companies are not responsible for picking up the pen and filling out the application. If you know how much money you make, if you know how much money is in your bank account and how much money you owe for rent or mortgage and so on and so forth, then you have some idea of whether or not you can really afford that credit card. The problem is, we want stuff. And when we fill out the applications, we’re not thinking about our bank account balance and our credit limit, but about the stuff we can buy when we get the card. Possibility. That’s the name of the game.
Don’t get me wrong–I am as easily seduced by possibility as the next person. While I do a fair job of keeping spending in check and adding to my savings, I still understand what it means to want something, not for the thing itself but for the possibilities it represents. Anyone who says she’s above such desire is most likely lying, for the things we buy are as much items to satisfy ourselves as to persuade those around us that we are a certain kind of someone. You are as guilty of pandering to your own image if you proudly announce you only buy clothes at WalMart or Goodwill (assuming you do so by choice rather than necessity, of course) as you are if you’re showing off your new Louboutins from Neiman’s. On the one hand, you advertise yourself as a person of thrift, and on the other, as a person of luxury.
Thomas covers the luxury market from several angles, including the formation of luxury conglomerates and global luxury markets, “it” products–bags, perfumes–marketed (or “produced” by) celebrities and their stylists, and the demand for and damage brought by an ever-expanding market for fakes. All throughout the book, a dichotomy presents itself: luxury versus status, summed up nicely by Miuccia Prada: “…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 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.”
The point seems to be, status can be bought, or we like to believe it can. I kept thinking about the Sex And The City episode “The Caste System,” where Miranda invites Steve to her law firm’s annual shindig and offers to buy him a new suit. She loves Steve and doesn’t care that he’s a bartender who makes far less money than she does. She would like to be able to spend her hard-earned money to buy him nice things and fails to understand his discomfort at the inequities in their salaries. When she discusses the problem with the girls, it’s Charlotte who gives voice to the actual problem at hand: “You’re talking about more than a difference in income. You’re talking about a difference in background and education. This guy is working class…[You’re] trying to pretend we live in a classless society, and we don’t.”
Even though Carrie calls Charlotte “Marie Antoinette” for making such a comment, I think it’s true, and I think it’s at the heart of what’s presented in Deluxe. The mass market for “luxury” goods has not grown so much as the market for “status” goods. And although Americans make up one of the largest groups of consumers of status goods, we are not alone, and we are not the largest group. According to Thomas’s figures, the Japanese make up half of the luxury or status goods market, and while they claim “durability” is the greatest factor in their decision to purchase branded luxury items over anything else, Thomas posits this theory, based on sociologists’ research: “According to the polls, Japanese consider themselves to be a classless society–in one study, 85 percent stated they were middle class. At the same time, in Japan, conformity is prized. By wearing and carrying luxury goods covered with logos, the Japanese are able to identify themselves in socioeconomic terms as well as conform to social mores.” In other words, to pretend class does not exist, but at the same time to clearly define oneself as a certain type of person belonging to a certain class.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese are rising quickly through the consumer ranks for much the same reason. Thomas reports that Vogue China editor Angelica Cheung told her, “ ‘Most Chinese buy luxury as a status symbol rather than taste. They want people to know they are carrying around something expensive…They can’t pronounce the names and they don’t know where it comes from. They just want it because it’s expensive.’” It seems that so many burgeoning economies are taking their cues about luxury and status from the West. No chance exists for new entries into these markets, because they are dominated by Western brands. But are we selling them the lie?
And what about the lies we sell ourselves? The most disturbing chapter in the book is the one concerning the rise of the counterfeit luxury goods market. Thomas explains, “When the luxury goods market went democratic, they thought they could satisfy the middle market with lower-priced handbags and perfume. What they didn’t count on was middle-market consumers satisfying their craving for higher-end items by buying fake versions that they could pass of as real.” She goes on to describe the ways in which these counterfeit goods are produced, touring factories that employ people working literally around the clock until they pass out from exhaustion, or children who’ve been sold to factories because their parents are so poor they believe they are actually giving their kids a chance at a better life. And for what? So we can carry our fake bags to Target? So we can fool ourselves into believing we are better off than we really are?
What I like about this book is that I keep going back over things in my head, and I could write at far greater length about my thoughts if I had space and time and didn’t want to be a tiresome windbag. The premise is about so much more than logo-ed handbags or couture fashion–it’s about all the ways we trick ourselves into believing in dreams, in mobility. The real rich–the true purveyors of luxury–stay hidden. They don’t shop in stores; they don’t attend fashion shows; they don‘t walk the red carpet. They are from many countries, and they are beyond reach. And as one South American woman tells Thomas at the end of the book, “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. [Thomas‘s emphasis]” What then, we must ask ourselves, are we really reaching for?
*images from powells.com, louisvuitton.com, chanel.com, hbo.com, and nytimes.com