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May 30, 2010

Another downer: "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster"

After reading "The End of Fashion" last week, I serendipitously stumbled upon "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost it's Luster," at the Salvation Army (hello, irony) on Friday and jumped right in.

Written by Dana Thomas and published in 2007,  "Deluxe" tells a similar story to that of Teri Agins' 1999 "The End of Fashion," though it brings us forward nearly ten years and has a narrower focus.  It's a depressing tale.

The subject is marketing and fashion brands and how global corporations like LVMH and others have bought up small, tradition-bound, family-operated luxury companies and simultaneously exploited their reputation for fine craftsmanship, mass marketed their pedigrees, and squeezed them for profits, all the while compromising the quality that made them famous in the first place.

I would not be a consumer of brands like Louis Vuitton or Chanel regardless of who owned them; still, I feel about these historic luxury companies the way I feel about the endangered glaciers in Glacier National Park: I may not benefit directly but it's nice to know they're there.  To discover that a so-called luxury item selling for thousands of dollars is produced at one-tenth the cost by young Chinese women living on a factory campus is literally disillusioning.

I recognize even in myself a certain snobbishness regarding the provenance of an item (Italy, good; China, bad) as if Chinese workers had less right to jobs, comfort, and all the good things we all desire.  We're all human beings.  No one with a conscience, however, wants to purchase something made by people who are exploited or whose production is environmentally destructive.  But knowingly or not, most of us do.  We drive cars, we turn on lights, we eat bananas, we drink soda out of aluminum cans.
What's goes on in the world of luxury brands is just a window into how corporations affect us all, some more destructively than others. 

Corporations by design must grow and they're expected to increase profits from quarter to quarter.  They manufacture things (usually) but their primary purpose is to enrich their shareholders.  We see the results in the loss of our local stores when Walmart moves in, the tragedy that's currently unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico due to cut-rate, largely unregulated drilling by British Petroleum, corporate farming, corporate food production, corporate restaurant chains, corporate weapons manufacturing and "security," the list goes on and on.

Who owns Singer today and why does a Janome sewing machine look just like a Brother?

If your pension fund or 401K is invested in a profitable corporation (and it probably is/was), or you work for one, however, you might be more ambivalent.  It depends on your perspective.

I strongly recommend reading "Deluxe" even if it is a bit depressing; it's a fascinating story and it's eye-opening to discover what's driving those ubiquitous ads for luxury labels.  Frankly, it was startling leafing through some vintage Eighties copies of Vogue I own a few weeks ago, to see how low-key and soft-sell the advertising was back then; no global brands.  There were a LOT of cigarette ads, however.

So readers, should we lament the loss of the true, family-owned luxury brand that formerly catered only to a small circle of the very rich?   Is it really our loss, or theirs?

Should we resist purchasing anything produced by a corporation, regardless of where it's made, and limit ourselves -- where we can -- to sites like Etsy?


  1. I really enjoyed reading this when it came out (I'm so cheap, I checked it out of the library!) But there's more bad news. The Made in Italy item might have been made in an Italian sweatshop filled with nearly enslaved Chinese women as well. And Etsy also has lots of resellers selling Chinese made junk and marked up prices. (handmade? sure, just by young women in China not some artsy young lady in Brooklyn.

  2. I'll be looking for this at my local library....... love the irony of you finding it at the thrift store!

    I subscribed to your blog about a week ago when I stumbled it and I love it. You dear one, have an amazingly beautiful smile.

  3. I haven't spent a lot of time on Etsy yet, so forgive me if I get this totally wrong. But is there any way to know how/ where the 'ingredients' of a product you're buying have come from? Surely, if the trend to buy handmade continues then the corporations will shift focus from the complete product to the components? Profit margins are their only concern and they'll find a way to adapt.

    As it stands I have no way of knowing where the fabric I purchase from Etsy/ Ebay/ wherever comes from, at what environmental cost or under what working conditions it was grown despite wanting to be more ethically and environmentally conscious by making as much as I can myself. Under the current system and the desire for profit I don't see how we can, realistically, keep track of where everything comes from that makes up everything we buy.

  4. Nice post Peter.
    My Sister in-law is NZ born Chinese and in the late 80s was staunchly against buying made in china. She has now turned full circle and says "at least they HAVE jobs". I guess it is terribly hard to judge one culture from sitting in another (or is it easy?).

    And you are right Peter, we have no idea how the things that fill our lives and homes came into being. I wonder how things will be in another 10 or 20 years time, and if the pendulum will shift the other way?

  5. I've never been a label lover,being a Berkeley girl, after all. To me the label is meaningless if everything is made in an anonymous factory. The point of the luxury good WAS that it was handmade by artisans, not factory made by Triangle Shirtwaist workers.

  6. I buy nearly all my jewelry from a girl on Etsy who uses vintage beads and sterling silver (I'm allergic to nickel and copper). I'm sure the wires are Made in China, but the beads and adornments are at least reused. :/ But I'll pay $30 for a pair of her earrings in a flash, whereas I won't drop that at Macy's.

    I worked for a company that contracted with Chinese factories to manufacture consumer electronics. I didn't personally go to China, but I worked with people who did, and it's not incredibly pretty. Far the opposite actually, which is why I felt pretty free to mock people getting all whooped up over the iPad. That thing comes from a dirty factory in Shenzhen, just like every other electronic device you buy. Provenance is not something to be forgotten.

    It's also just basically impossible to know what to do. I saw some people protesting lately - "Boycott Victoria's Secret; Clothes Made in Sri Lanka." Okay. I know Sri Lanka has issues, but how do I know what that really means in this context? Is the garment factory there providing a much needed leg-up? Or is it exploitation? I don't know, and the information available online is so polarized, it's practically impossible to find out.

  7. That books sounds like an interesting read. I will have to check it out at the library.

    I used to be one of those that if it did not have a luxury label on it I did not buy it. But that all changed when I found out that some of those luxury brands manufacture their goods in the same places as the non-luxury brand item and then I visited a factory in Brazil. I cried during the whole tour. That is one of the reasons why I decided to start sewing for myself, started making my own jewelry and over all become a more conscious shopper.

  8. Soap box:

    Lament the loss of on shore manufacturing here and in other nations sent overseas to the 800lb gorilla China.

    The search for profit is so cut throat that a sewing contract is frequently sold multiple times through a chain of manufacturers ending up at the bottom of the bottom feeders who produce it for the smallest sum. Each sale of the contract yielding a percentage of profit to each seller and making it impossible to maintain standards for employee work and health environment thereby effectively skirting a brands' workplace safety requirements and child labor laws. True, there are sweatshops the world over and yet in the US, the vast majority of what is available to us is manufactured or partially assembled in China, this country does drive the SOP standard.

    Not a luxury brand buyer? Score a bargain at any store and realise there's cost of product development, materials, labor, profit to the manufacturer, overhead for operation of said store, advertising, plus a slim profit so they can stay in business squeezed into that one item. On the other end of bargain, thrifting still requires a garment originate from somewhere.

    There is nothing wrong with profit. There is however something wrong with how an object came in to being. When we buy something that is so cheap as to seem impossibly priced it's either a loss leader or made under questionable practices. When profit motive becomes the only factor in consideration, the garment industry damages the health of its employees and poisons the environment.

    That being said, I love that certain luxury branded items require many, many hours of hand labor by skilled artisans making them works of art. I would purchase an Hermes bag or Chanel cardigan jacket if I was wealthy. By supporting your fellow artisans and businesses that follow honest principles you use what you can that make the big boys listen. $

  9. From what I have read, the Chinese would rather work in a factory than pick through garbage, so that is a pro. The con is that the corporations clearly take advantage of them. What to do?
    I suggest reading "A Year Without 'Made In China'". It is a little disappointing, since the woman who wrote it is whiny and uncreative (never once does she make anything herself, use sites like Etsy or go to second-hand shops, all obvious choices to crafty folks) but it is certainly eye-opening. Now I play a game at work with myself, seeing how many things are Made In China. It's pretty scary, but sometimes you get a nice surprise.

  10. Boo, my original comment was eaten.

    I think it can be hard to feel like you are doing enough when it seems like there are so many problems and no finite solutions, but if you give a moment's thought to what you're buying - where it comes from, what it's made of - I think you are already doing more than most.

    When it comes to just clothing, I sew. But what about the fabric, and notions? Admittedly I buy most of my fabric new, and the availability to me of highly sustainable fabrics I don't think has come to a point where it is affordable to most, or even appealing to most (color, design).

    It's hard to keep a conversation like this going, because it's a part of something much, much bigger and the rabbit hole is very deep (what if my organic cotton source isn't local? is fabric dyed only by roots and berries acceptable?).

    On the one hand, do as much as you can, but don't think about it too much because we're all doomed. ;)

    Also, I agree with Lisette's point. It's really not enough to boycott a corporation when the people working in those factories need those jobs, and I'm sure feel very differently about their situation than we do. You have to show the companies you have issues with why you're not giving them your money, and what would have to change before they saw a dime from you again.

  11. And, yeah, Etsy's great! But nothing is untainted (vintage shoes mailed to your door, etc.)

  12. great post peter... and very timely too, i was recently at a talk/interview with katharine hamnett and it was really refreshing to hear how frank and down to earth she is about the fashion industry, but even she struggles to get the ethically sourced, organic fabric that she switched to using, which is pretty depressing for the little home sewer

  13. I must correct you on one thing. The company in question is a multi-national called "BP", not "British Petroleum".

  14. "No one with a conscience, however, wants to purchase something made by people who are exploited or whose production is environmentally destructive."

    Maybe I don't have a conscience, but I disagree. If I buy something from China and contribute to the exploitation of a ten year old girl in a sweatshop, is that actually bad? Obviously it's bad that she's not being paid fairly, but if she didn't have her job, she'd be begging on the street or selling herself as a prostitute. Is that better?

  15. Peter, you have such a talent for identifying and taking on the big questions. I really appreciate how you facilitate these conversations. In this post, I especially liked your analogy about the glaciers--you are not personally benefiting, but it's good to know they are there. I couldn't have formulated it so well, but I feel the same way. I would like to know that traditions of the highest quality of craftsmanship are being continued so that they are not gone from our world entirely. On the other hand, is it only elitism that can sustain them?

    Well, once again, I loved hearing your and others' perspectives on these difficult questions.

  16. Hope you see this? Sri Lanka has higher standards for worker wages and conditions than anyplace else in SE Asia, by agreement with manufacturers. Young women live in company dormitories partly because their village families want to help them protect their virtue, but they have better jobs than they would have in the village. I would not hesitate to buy clothes made in Sri Lanka.
    Also, I try not to overbuy. Most people in the West buy a lot more than they really need. Buying less can make the producers get more interested in better quality? A challenging problem.

    1. Thanks Kristina -- great info! Please check out my post today about fast fashion.


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