February 5, 2013

Book Review: Deluxe--How Luxury Lost its Luster

First, A Summary

We all know that the fashion industry is not as glamourous as it's cracked up to be, but the reality surrounding the so-called luxury brands is still quite shocking. Upon reading Dana Thomas's exposee, we find that many design houses, such as Dior and Gucci, are now parts of gigantic corporations including multiple luxury brands, and that their items are all made in the same factories. Profits for CEOs and shareholders are what matter now, not quality or good design. Only at the highest levels are true couture items handcrafted from the finest materials; most of what is sold is mass produced in China. Markups are insane, with Louis Vuitton having the highest. If you buy a logo-covered Louis Vuitton bag, you are paying thirteen times what it is worth! The days of Lucy and Ethel buying designer dresses are long gone. A woman with a similar income today would not be able to buy a custom-made frock at all with the current markups; now she can only hope to "buy into the dream" by purchasing perfumes, wallets, and purses whose labels proclaim to the world, "I cost a lot of money! Look at me!"

In many ways it shouldn't be a surprise that marginal items such as wallets are often not made in the same factories as clothing--even in houses where the clothing is still made carefully by highly trained British, French, or Italian artisans, inexpensive logo items such as tee shirts, key chains, wallets, and so forth are usually made by very poorly paid workers in China, Bangladesh, or other impoverished Asian countries. At the same time, these items are priced as if they were still lovingly hand-stitched, leading to huge profits for the corporate owners and declining value for consumers. Sadly, the insanely priced purses so loved by fashionable women today very often fall into this category as well. What I have learned from reading this book is that if you want a masterpiece of a pocketbook, something that is made the old-fashioned way and built to last, Hermes is your only option among the big luxury brands. I guess sometimes you actually do get what you pay for, but boy! what a price.

So usually the wallets and purses are tossed out by the thousand in hazardous factories, and they may have even been created by marketing people rather than the big cheese. But at least the perfume comes from the designer, right? Think again. Apparently most designer fragrances are made by other companies who have payed for the right to use the license in exchange for most of the retail profits. That $75 "perfume" flaunted by a nude woman in a glossy magazine ad is very likely a highly watered-down substance made by a soap company such as Proctor and Gamble! To top it off, generally the designer or house have little or no input into the actual smell. There are some exceptions, however. Chanel No. 5, the best-selling scent of all time, is still made from extremely high-quality ingredients--every rose used in it comes from the same family-owned farm in France!--and Coco Chanel herself played a huge role in its development.

With the disenchantment that this sort of knowledge brings, you may be tempted to say, "Forget this! I'll just buy a knockoff." Hold on there, cowgirl! You might be a bit surprised to find out where your money is going when you buy a counterfeit Burberry hat or Tommy shirt. You might also be surprised to find out where these items come from. When you see that Gucci bag for only $150 at the flea market, keep in mind that you are looking at an item that was very likely produced by literal slave labour. There is so much money to be had in making counterfeit designer clothing and accessories that people actually buy other people, usually women and children, and keep them in pure squalor as they turn out cheap copies which are sold for huge profits. The author of this book quotes a case in which a group of slave children had all had their legs broken so that they could not possibly escape, all because one little boy innocently asked to go outside and play.

Let's say you can stomach the idea that slaves may have made that really cheap Gucci lookalike. But can you handle where your money will go when you buy it? Besides obviously providing the stimulus to keep human trafficking and child labour alive, your money could actually be funding terrorist organizations. I know, it sounds so crazy it must be made up, right? Nope. Al Qaeda raised a lot of money by selling phony tee shirts in New York City, then used those profits to commit the horrific acts of September 11th. Al Qaeda are not the only well-known terrorist group to profit from making and selling counterfeits: Hezbollah is in the business too. And don't forget the mafia! So is counterfeiting a victim-less crime as many say? No way, Jose!

A Review of the Book

It is impossible to separate the book completely from its content, which is very readable, at times astonishing, terrifying, and fascinating. Your eyes will be opened wide as you see not only how the "other half" live, but how materialistic our world has become--women becoming prostitutes in order to buy Louis Vuitton bags, for instance--and how far corporations will go to get a bigger profit. Dana Thomas does an amazing job describing the painstaking way in which Hermes bags are made or Pucci silk is woven, using these examples of careful artistry to counterpoint the increasing sloppy mass-production that is ruining the luxury industry.

Her writing style is at times too informal, however. It is not acceptable to throw around words like "evil" when you are including a biographical sketch of someone, or at least it wasn't when I took college classes! Personal opinion shines through a little too often for me to give this book a full five stars. However, due to the painstaking research, brilliant detail, and very insightful interviews with people from every aspect of the fashion world, I have to recommend that everyone who has ever dreamed of buying a Burberry trench or a pair of Jimmy Choos to read this book. In fact, if you just want to see which way the world is turning, read this book!

4 1/2 of 5 stars

Try your local independent bookstore first, but if you can't find it anywhere, here is a link.
Deluxe How Luxury Lost its Luster

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