I recently had a debate with someone about what counts as a “luxury” brand. We debated our Chanel and our Gabbana mingled with our Vuitton and our Prada over the course of our conversation and came up with the consensus that there were less and less luxury brands available on the market. I mean sure, there are lots of expensive brands, but does expensive really equal luxury? We also discussed something I brought up on this week’s Luxury Lundi, a concept we coined affordable luxury.
Affordable luxury, to me anyway, is the ability to enjoy a luxury brand or experience withing the confines of your financial reality. That means either finding small ways to indulge in luxury brands (like the makeup bag I talked about Monday) or saving up to afford it (à la Céline luggage bag or vacation in 5-star resorts in Maldives, perhaps?)
But in figuring out affordable luxury, specifically around tangible items and brands, I also came into some questions that needed answering. What exactly was a luxury brand? Was it luxury because of the price tag? Was it luxury because other people coveted it? The definition of a luxury item itself came into question and luckily for me was recently highlighted in an interview with Patrick Thomas, the Chief Executive for Hermès. He was asked “Why do you think consumers buy luxury goods?” and his answer pretty much sums up my thoughts on the luxury market.
If you go to the Latin dictionary, you will see the root word ‘luxus.’ The first definition is show off, bling-bling. The second definition is about quality and refinement. There was a significant majority of people who were buying in the first category until the end of the last century and now you have more and more people in a mature market like [North America] or Europe where people are buying because they have a real knowledge of quality — they are interested in discretion, elegance, refinement. They are more interested in quality than in showing off. Whoever you are, you want more quality in you life, be it intellectual, be it mental, be it property. Nobody wants to see people with money showing off their money.
His answer struck a chord with me because as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized that while I could afford to purchase some showy Louis Vuitton monogram luggage, I do not like what that says about me. The Louis Vuitton brand has taken such a hit in my (and many other) books because their logo is splattered across tacky women with money everywhere, and knocked off to within an inch of its life in the arms of teenagers worldwide. The brand has lost one of its most important elements, it’s cachet. True luxury is in the discretion and quality that accompanies brands – and exudes elegance and refinement.
In a true story, I once visited the home of someone who had just returned home from China, proudly wanting to show me the room where they had bought LV everything. Phoney Louis Vuitton logo bedsheets, monogrammed curtains and comforter sets filled the small room with so much phoniness that I could barely continue standing next to the hostess with matching Vuitton logo sandals, capri pants and visor…. All fake, all thought to be a status symbol. I suppose you could say I’m jaded on the brand from that experience, but in full disclosure I do own a vintage LV monogram Keepall handbag (which I wear only when going out to dinner with serious fashionistas whom I can not compete on new Chloe bags with) and I do think that their Epi luggage (such as this one) are divine for travelling, and can be picked up relatively inexpensively if you search eBay’s vintage selection.
Just look at some of the logo-splattered (and in my opinion, horrifically unrefined) pieces the brand has put out in the last few years that many people spent thousands of dollars on:
And while I can not argue that LV products are good quality, I can argue that their ubiquitousness and universality have diminished the luxury of the brand in my eyes. This is probably a great time to insert the #FirstWorldProblems hashtag, no?
Going back to the interview mentioned above, Mr. Thomas also brought up how Hermes is a brand that has always invested in quality. He noted that the founder of Hermès really started out in the 1830’s making top-quality horse saddles and harnesses, which were used by aristocrats and nobles in that time period. That’s how the brand name became known by American billionaires and Russian czars – and how they were afforded the ability to expand into other top-quality areas such as the bags for which women everywhere covet.
But if you look at Hermès products, very few of them feature obnoxious logos. I have owned a couple of pieces (alas, no bags) which have all been of top notch quality. The Hermès brand has been copied, sure, but the true luxury in owning an Hermès bag is in the quality of the leather and craftsmanship which goes into making them, and not that they were falsely slapped together with a serger and glue gun in China.
As a comparison to the LV pieces above, here are some of the more famous (and classically styled, sans-logo) Hermès pieces:
If you’re interested in reading a great book about the implications and costs of the counterfeit items for these luxury brands, I highly recommend Dana Thomas’s book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster. It’s a great look into how luxury brands are no longer luxury. The summary of the book explains it perfectly:
Once luxury was available only to the rarefied and aristocratic world of old money and royalty. It offered a history of tradition, superior quality, and a pampered buying experience. Today, however, luxury is simply a product packaged and sold by multibillion-dollar global corporations focused on growth, visibility, brand awareness, advertising, and, above all, profits. Award-winning journalist Dana Thomas digs deep into the dark side of the luxury industry to uncover all the secrets that Prada, Gucci, and Burberry don?t want us to know. Deluxe is an uncompromising look behind the glossy façade that will enthrall anyone interested in fashion, finance, or culture.
I also can recommend one of my favorite books of all-time, a book called Bringing Home the Birkin by Michael Tonello, a true story about a man who travelled all over Europe buying and then re-selling Hermès products. It’s hilarious, fascinating and best of all now that it’s in paperback, only $8.99. It’s synopsis doesn’t give it enough credit…
For more than twenty years, the Hermès Birkin bag has been the iconic symbol of fashion, luxury, and wealth. With a fabled waiting list of more than two years to purchase one, the average fashionista has a better chance of climbing Mount Everest in Prada pumps than of possessing this coveted carryall. Unless, of course, she happens to know Michael Tonello. . . With down-to-earth wit, Michael Tonello chronicles the unusual ventures that took him to nearly every continent—and from eBay to Paris auction houses and into the lives of celebrities and poseurs alike—on the road to becoming a successful entrepreneur and Robin Hood to thousands of desperate rich women.