As regular readers of The Luxe Chronicles know well, one of the recurring themes on this blog is the ‘dumbing down’ or diluting of a luxury brand that comes from mass expansion and mass distribution.
This is understandably a sore point for some luxury brands who have aggressively pursued an expansion policy dubbed ‘democratization of luxury’ and have reaped considerable profit from it. For many critics of the industry however, this term has become code for ubiquitous branding of all manner of merchandise to increase short term profit with little regard for the brand’s integrity and in turn, the industry’s long term prospects. Journalist Dana Thomas in her highly acclaimed book “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster” compared Louis Vuitton’s expansive growth over the past decade to that of McDonald’s suggesting that the ‘LV’ logo had become almost as ubiquitous as that of the fast food chain’s. This statement famously got her “disinvited” to the Louis Vuitton runway show by an irate Yves Carcelle, CEO of Louis Vuitton. There were many protestations, denials and general hoopla surrounding Thomas’ claims at the time of her book’s launch coming from LVMH and other luxury groups. Yet, several news items of this past week suggests to me that her assessment, not to mention her fast food analogy with all its connotations, may have been dead on the money.
As I was perusing Wednesday’s edition of Women’s Wear Daily, I came across two items that really drove the point home. First, while speaking about his creative process to students at London’s Central Saint Martins College, Marc Jacobs touched upon his strained relationship with the business executives at Louis Vuitton. As an example, Jacobs reportedly pointed to the commercial success of his Stephen Sprouse “graffiti” monogram collection for Louis Vuitton in spring 2001 as vindication over the executives who were initially reluctant to approve production of the showroom models. WWD quotes Jacobs as stating “The press reaction to all that graffiti was so amazing…[but] they bitched and moaned, [saying] ‘we’re not going to do it’. I just couldn’t believe it…at the time, that’s how narrow minded they were…[but] $300 million later, they think it’s a good idea!” Jacobs then added, somewhat smugly, that his detractors no longer work at Louis Vuitton. (Source) Are we to surmise from this anecdote that at the end of the day, what matters most at Louis Vuitton is the cash that a product pulls in and not much else? It’s no coincidence that the graffiti bag marked a new era at Louis Vuitton, that of the disposable “it” bag with a shelf life of two fashion seasons at most. It replaced what up until then had been core values of the venerable French brand – tradition and longevity. This signals to me that while the pricetag may suggest a luxury product, Louis Vuitton has ceased being a luxury brand in the traditional sense of the term and has become a mere fashion brand. There is of course nothing inherently wrong with this. As long as customers understand what it is they’re buying, who am I to quibble? The question is, do they?
Coincidentally, a second item in the same issue of WWD entitled “More Fashion Exposure”, points to something far more disturbing. In fact, this second news item is perhaps more damaging to Louis Vuitton (and the other luxury brands mentioned) in that it goes to the very heart of the luxury industry’s claim of superiority – its reliance on traditional French craftsmanship with all the prestige, quality and refinement it suggests. An Italian investigative television series called “Report”, the same that exposed the use of undocumented Chinese workers to produce Italian luxury goods in Italy’s Prato region last December raising serious doubts about the “Made in Italy” label, revisited the issue again recently. This time however, among the brands exposed for employing dodgy production practices are venerable French brands Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton. (Source) According to WWD, the series highlights the increasing reliance by many luxury brands on a network of shadowy Italian subcontractors to accomplish various aspects of production of their goods. This increased reliance on subcontractors is driven in part by the ever increasing production demands, a direct consequence of brands churning out ever more handbags, shoes, key fobs and other profit-boosting products. To cut costs and meet production demands, many of the Italian subcontractors in question resort to hiring undocumented Chinese workers who are frequently under the legal work age, work for long hours at a mere fraction of the pay and work in substandard conditions at great risk to their health and safety. Many of these workers have been smuggled into the country by criminal gangs and are extremely vulnerable to exploitation. For a detailed account, I urge you to read Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia (Macmillan, 2007) which documents the Italian underworld’s innumerable and deep ties to the Italian fashion industry. As I’ve pointed out in the past, this is not so much an issue of quality (many goods produced by Chinese labor is of exceptionally high quality). Rather, it is one of ethics.
As a consumer, when I walk through the doors of a luxury brand such as Louis Vuitton to purchase a pair of shoes, a handbag, a wallet or whatever else strikes my fancy, I am there to purchase a product that is the embodiment of a tradition of craftsmanship and quality that I understand to be among the very best in the world. I am, at least in part, buying into the history and reputation of the brand. The brand’s name and logo merely serve as a guarantee of sorts for the brand’s continued commitment to those traditions and values. Luxury brands understand the importance of perpetuating the myth of traditional local craftsmanship so as to justify the increasingly eye-popping price tags for their goods. In light of the information detailed above however, as a consumer, I simply can’t fathom shelling out thousands of my hard-earned dollars/Euros/pounds for a product that stands for little else than a myth. More importantly, I certainly don’t want to own a product tainted by human misery and exploitation. One would think that a luxury brand that spends untold amounts of money trumpeting its venerable history and burnishing its exclusive image would understand this, no?
To be fair, Louis Vuitton’s parent company LVMH is hardly the only luxury conglomerate to pursue this ‘democratization of luxury” strategy but their size, their high-profile ad campaigns and their aggressive tactics make them an especially easy target. They are also, for better or for worst, an industry leader and therefore set the tone and the practices for their industry as a whole. According to WWD, while a Chanel spokesperson is still “evaluating the broadcast”, Louis Vuitton, Dior (also owned by LVMH) and the other brands featured in the documentary with the notable exception of Diego della Valle of Tod’s have declined to comment. As they say, silence speaks volumes. As for Louis Vuitton, if all that matters at the end of the day is selling ever more handbags that may or may not be fully produced on French soil and by French artisans contrary to their claims, then there may no longer be much “luxe” left in the brand. At the end of the day, that would make it just another fashion brand. Caveat emptor.
The Luxe Chronicles