“Vuitton is the McDonald’s of the luxury industry,” says Dana Thomas in Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, her extensively researched account of how supersized tactics transform luxe into de-luxe. Through brief biographies, juicy company histories, interviews with major players, and revealing statistics, Thomas traces the inelegant pursuit of the bottom line, a pursuit for which luxury traded its soul.
Part One covers the rise and fall of Old Europe’s luxury goods production, with a focus on Vuitton’s eventual “democratization” of formerly exclusive products. Part Two delves into marketing, outsourcing of labor, and the world of celebrity endorsement — from the indirect yet outrageously lucrative advertising generated when celebrities wear designer goods, to the phenomenon of celebrity perfumes. Though it deals little with perfume, Part Three was the most compelling section for me. It contains both chilling anecdotes about counterfeiting (it is not a victimless crime) and thoughtful observations on the future of luxury.
Although perfume references crop up throughout the book (like handbags and leather goods, perfume is an “entry product” into luxury brands), perfume lovers may wish to jump to Part II, Chapter Five: “The Sweet Smell of Success.” Here Thomas shows how the perfume industry has, like the rest of luxury fashion, lowered its standards while expanding its consumer base in order to keep the cash flowing in. Chances are regular followers of Now Smell This will not be shocked. Perfumistas have long lamented Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy's takeover of Guerlain, the reformulation of countless perfume classics, cost cutting in packaging, and the declining quality of fragrance materials. I wish the chapter had covered counterfeit perfumes and the escalating regulation of ingredients — two unintended consequences (or at least side effects) of mass marketing. Likewise, the notion of “niche” perfume would have fit well in this discussion. With its claim to high quality ingredients and exclusivity, niche seems to have filled the gap left by old-school luxury fragrances. Yet with Annick Goutal, Jo Malone, Bond No 9, and Serge Lutens sold in (selected) department stores, the borderline between mainstream and niche has blurred. I doubt we can assume that niche remains a beacon of integrity, impervious to the unblinking scrutiny of this book.
A smooth and colorful read, Deluxe is peppered with zingers such as Valentino CEO Michele Norsa’s comment: “Perceived quality is more important than real quality.” (p. 221) Terms of the trade — shrinkage, purse-party ladies, Parasite Singles — spice up every chapter. We encounter plenty of sell-outs — and heroes, too. Hermès, Net-à-Porter.com, and Louboutin rise to the top. Despite the book’s overall bubble-bursting message, glimmers of hope emerge, particularly in the discussion of Laboratoire Monique Rémy, and in Jean-Claude Ellena’s interview.
“What Fast Food Nation did for food service, this book does for fashion[…]” says the L.A. Times quote on the back cover. Eye-opening? Yes. But comparisons to Fast Food Nation are a stretch. After all, luxury goods are not our daily bread. Fast Food Nation exposed the devastation of small business, health, neighborhoods, families, the work force and the environment due to one massive industry. Deluxe reveals nothing that scathing. The legitimate luxury business comes off as cheapened and jaded, but not toxic. After all, it is difficult to get too worked up over products whose roots in Old Europe’s monarchies and aristocracies have always whispered, “Let them eat cake.”
Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster
New York: Penguin Books 2007
Softcover, 375 pages