TBN: Luxury Industry Edition- The End of Good Taste
Updated: Feb 18, 2020
(Introductory note: This article is the result of two months' worth of reading up on the topic and speaking with members on various fora in public and private conversations, in an effort to separate fact from fiction. I have included all official sources linked throughout the text, which I would recommend to read in full)
The end of good taste
This has been going on for more than a decade, but for me it has finally gone too far. I can only speak about my relationship with the luxury goods market: I studied fashion journalism, worked in the sector for years and know both the consumer and producer sides of this story.
As a firm believer in good quality and design, at age 40, I have built a dependable wardrobe of classic pieces. Example: throughout the years, I invested in three long winter coats: one black, one camel, one dark blue. All italian, well-tailored, from soft, durable wool, they range in age from twenty years to three, all in great condition. I can say with certainty I'll never need another winter coat. I paid for them after I had saved for them and they rewarded me by being indestructible. I can literally wear a potato sack underneath and still look well dressed.
My true passion was handbags, however. My collection started when I was working as a stylist. Still a junior, I was assigned to style all shoots for the special wedding issue by myself. I freaked, somehow managed to do the job without getting a stroke, got paid with a lump sum and invested the money in two things: Lasik eye surgery and a classic Chanel flap bag. In my mind, both were essential.
I am part of a generation that grew up looking to the luxury houses to educate ourselves on what good taste is. Now, the luxury goods market is officially vulgar. It's not their design- it's their prices. Let's talk bags, in particular. A medium-sized luxury handbag will set you back from 1,500 to upward of 3,500 euros. With a price that high, you'd expect the bag to be virtually bullet-proof, correct? It turns out that, no: they cost more, last less and follow a fast-fashion model of business. In the old days, we saved up for certain, and few, bags-for-life. Now, we buy big and we buy often.
Consumers in the Western and Eastern markets alike, complain about the ridiculous price increases but guess what? The luxury goods market is booming. 7% steady annual growth for the foreseeable future.
source Associated Press
What do you buy for a 2,500 euros price tag these days?
You buy a small to medium luxury brand handbag. You buy original design. You buy social prestige. Here's what you do not buy with a 2,500 euros bag:
You do not buy ethical or fair business practices.
The New York Times had long exposed that luxury brands lie about where they make their bags. This is not, always, illegal. EU legislation requires only the final stages in a product's production to be completed in an EU country in order to qualify for a 'Made In' label. Example: a bag made almost entirely in China, is then imported to France. There, its straps are attached and the labels sewn. The bag is now complete and legally bears the 'Made In France' tag, complying with EU legislation. In fact, when Santo Versace lobbied and succeeded in passing a law that would require on extra step, the law was blocked from the EU because it would give Italian products unfair advantage over other EU members. Despite this legal allowance, brands still just lie. The Kering group (owner of top brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen etc) was recently sued for lying about where their products are made. The case was settled. Louis Vuitton was caught being dishonest about where they make their shoes.
The Fashion Law underlines the wider consequences of this practice: 'Two things make the Selima v. Kering lawsuit particularly striking. First is the position of Kering's fashion brands at the upper echelon of the fashion totem pole - where, thanks to products' price points, consumers often assume they are made in traditional "luxury" conditions (i.e., made in their entirely in brand-owned and operated workshops in France, Italy, or the like). Second is the fact that the potentially hard-hitting allegations that Selima has lodged against Kering are likely not in any way limited to Kering brands. In fact, this alleged type of manufacture-import-relabel production ploy is probably quite pervasive, extending to many other similarly situated brands.'
Luxury brands have also often been exposed for using cheap and even illegal labour and compensation for manufacturing handbags. Industry sources report that the mass manufacturing of luxury brands is made in China and then the final details are assembled in Europe but for smaller quantities, they commission mills to do it for them in the infamous Italian city of Prato. This exposé from the New Yorker is worth reading in full. How does this sound to you: a person in Italy who makes a bag that costs 2,500 euros, gets paid 24 euros to make the bag. Often, an illegal migrant, in illegal working conditions, unfairly compensated. Redefines what luxury means, doesn't it?
You do not buy premium quality.
Quality in luxury brands has been long declining. I've been a member on fora for luxury hanbag lovers for more than 15 years. Declining quality is not only a common complaint on the Purse Forum: I've witnessed this first-hand. All my City and Motorcycle Balenciagas looked worse for wear within months of use. The last two Saint Laurent bags I bought presented flaws very soon. On one, the magnetic closure popped out, the black hardware was discoloured and the leather proved way too fragile for the corners; all within the first months of careful use. The second bag came with an obvious stitching flaw on the very front panel of the bag. Chanel lambskin is so fragile, there are endless discussion threads dedicated to caring for leather injuries and DIY hacks to enforce the leather. My own Chanel flap bag was eventually unuseable because of colour simply peeling off the corners. My Proenza Schouler suede PS1 satchel, however, wins the prize for RIDICULOUS quality: the suede changed colour simply by touching another fabric or skin. Within three wears, it looked very dirty and hardly luxurious for its 900 euros price. The fact that I had bought it at a discount was little solace. Louis Vuitton's wildly popular (and my own undying love) Pochette Metis bag was recalled by the company after years of complaints from users. Within months, this 1,300 euros bag presented cracking canvas, split piping and peeling glazing. Sky-high prices are certainly not reflective of quality. Yet, people keep on buying and bags continue to sell out. By definition, then, these bags are addressed to people who a) do not care for premium quality and b) for whom money is of no consequence. How positively vulgar for a market selling good taste.
These luxury houses built their prestige and sales over time, on customers that believed in good quality and made a point of investing in a beautifully designed, well-made bag that would last for years. People who prioritised aesthetics in their everyday life. The luxury houses have turned their backs to their original client base. They do not want us as customers any more. That is the brutal truth.
The replica market
There have been counterfeits (a.k.a. imitations, knock-offs, fakes, or replicas) of luxury bags for decades. They came in varying qualities; these contraband products have been combatted by law enforcement with crack-downs in customs, media frequently reporting of the replica market's links to global terrorism. Yet, another aspect of the replica market has emerged and it's just as booming as the luxury market: the boutique-grade replica (or 'mirror image' or 'top quality'). This means that the bag you are buying is of equal quality to the one from the brand's boutique. These are not sold as authentic, in an effort to scam consumers, but, proudly, as artful replicas. This sector was born out of the vaccuum created by the luxury goods market: too many luxury lovers excluded by pricing. I ran into this huge world of replica culture when a fellow member on an authentic hanbags' forum, during another of my rants about recent price increases, let me know that most handbag lovers now own a mix of authentic and replicas. We are talking about people who own ten authentic Hermès and another ten 'reps'. My reaction initially: 'WHAT?!? What in the bl***y h*ll?!? Have you no loyalty to our values?!?'. And this, coming from a person who could never justify buying an Hermès bag- I cannot reach the premium luxury products. After the initial shock regarding the extent of this phenomenon, I was floored by the description of a forum moderator describing her recent trip to China. She was guided through multiple buildings and taken to a large space, full of wealthy Westerners and Easterners that sipped on champagne while ordering next season's Chanel and Hermès from comprehensive replica factory dossiers.
We're not talking the kind that you buy off the street curb. High-grade replicas are so difficult to recognize, that professional authenticators rely on an expensive software tool called Entrupy, that analyzes leather on a microscopic level. If you have to look at the leather under a microscope to tell if a bag is authentic, Houston, we have a problem.
The narrative in the West is that this funds terrorism but that does not to seem to be the case for China. The notion of a global scheme of terrorists who fund their deadly activity by setting up factories, recruiting highly-trained artisans in meticulous stitching and seeking out Tanneries Haas leathers (arguably the best in the world), is, modestly put, a stretch of the imagination.The Chinese middle class, knowledgeable of both the luxury market and their own country's conditions, laugh at these claims. They say these are mom-and-pop shops, people expertly trained in luxury goods from working in luxury brand factories. At some point, they set up their own shop after learning the trade. They help sustain entire local economies that would otherwise be condemned to extreme poverty. They say the notion of paying so much money for a luxury brand bag is literally funny to the average Chinese person. Since there is so much demand and the internet allows for them to directly transact with a consumer in the US, the biggest replica market share, they have found a way to fit into the luxury market. They do not claim to sell authentic pieces, however, some Westerners do re-sell these as authentics. The Chinese vendors keep a vigilant eye for them and publish their information to warn consumers. They call them 'scammers' and 'bad people'. Elle magazine commented on rep culture recently in a less than condemning manner. The general tone now seems to be 'you're wearing rep? no judgement'.
Would I encourage you to buy a replica bag? Absolutely not. As, you may have realised, the ethics here are too nuanced. The law is not, however. Be aware that, should you decide to go ahead, you would be breaking the law. Intellectual property is sacred. In my opinion, however, when it is priced beyond any logical measure, it means that the notion should be reconsidered, entirely. Prices must, inevitably, correspond to a value, tangible or intangible. That tangible value is now obsolete, since chinese replicas are often better in quality.
Enter Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, the world's biggest e-commerce company that was sued by Kering for selling counterfeits (in spine-chilling irony, this happened at the very same time that Kering had been sued for lying about their manufacturing,). He has hit back at luxury brands by stating:
“We have to protect [intellectual property], we have to do everything to stop the fake products, but OEMs are making better products at a better price,” Mr Ma said, referring to original equipment manufacturers that typically make products for branded sellers. “The problem is the fake products today are of better quality and better price than the real names,” he said during a speech on Tuesday at Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou. “They are exactly the [same] factories, exactly the same raw materials but they do not use the names.”
The intangible value, unique design, is still valid, of course, but mainly serving social status for people with little to no regard for money. These days, it is rare to find a small/mini luxury bag for less 1,000 euros/dollars. A regular, medium sized luxury bag is 1,500 -3,500 euros/dollars.
Inevitably, I have adjusted to the new luxury climate. I have sold my entire Balenciaga collection, except for my first Motorcycle, through websites like Vestiaire Collective and Ebay. This funded my next purchases, that have been exclusively pre-loved pieces or rare finds in the January sales at Harrods. A full-price bag for me is not only harder but often out of the question: I refuse to save up for something that is not worth it. I revamped my Chanel flap bag at the Handbag Clinic, turning it from a beige, formal shoulder bag, to a matte black, crossbody bag for everyday wear. This cost me 450 pounds. This might seem outrageous but it's like getting a brand new Chanel bag. Back in the day, I bought the bag for 900 euros. It now costs 3.300 euros. Chanel is the worst when it comes to price increases, the most secretive about its production and does not follow lnflation. ''With this latest increase, the price now lands at $5,000 which represents a 56.25% increase in 7 years. The rate of inflation from 2012 to 2019 is only about 12%. ''
So if you are a consumer in search of good taste and refined aestetics (in the traditional sense) what are you to do?
Since luxury brands have positioned themselves in an arguably vulgar place and replicas can provide a great bag but absolutely nothing else tasteful, where do we go from here? A good option are small, independent brands like Strathberry and De Mellier that uphold high standards of craftsmanship and are more reasonably priced. The other option is, of course, going pre-loved. Not only is this not frowned upon, but any luxury collector worth their salt now brags about the 'deal' they got on a Celine Classic lizard version through Fashiophile and the RealReal. For me, here in Europe, Vestiaire Collective has been a godsend. But beware, it can be quite addictive. Do not impulse buy unless you are certain that the bag will fit your lifestyle: just because it's cheaper, doesn't mean you should buy it. After dozens of buys, my best one yet is a perfect-condition Louis Vuitton Saint Cloud in red epi leather for 300 euros. Ah. Just the dose of good taste I needed.
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photo via tradesy