Christmas shopping: Do most luxury shoppers care about style over substance?

Designer labels have become a craze in the luxury industry. For many, social value has overtaken the need for quality. Fashion expert Dana Thomas explains why. Photo: Louis Vuitton now has 400 stores world-wide

FLORIDA, December 10, 2012 — The luxury industry has gone from boutique business to international conglomerate over the last few decades. How has this impacted the quality of high-end merchandise?

Today, a great many consumers are taken with the idea of designer labels. Is this a continuation of past tradition, or quite the opposite? Furthermore, when most people shop for luxury goods, are they looking for superior craftsmanship or just something to denote social status?

In any case, during the none-too-distant future, might the luxury industry return to its traditional form?

Veteran fashion journalist and bestselling author Dana Thomas answers all of these questions and explains about her life and career in this second part of our discussion.

Joseph F. Cotto: Generally speaking, how has the conglomeration of the luxury industry impacted the quality of its products? 

Dana Thomas:

Dana Thomas, fashion expert

The overall quality of luxury products in the last 15 to 20 years had dropped dramatically, shockingly, I’d say. Pants and jackets are rarely lined anymore, cheaper thread is used and breaks more easily, cheaper fabrics are used, knitwear is no longer made of one piece but stitched together at the seams, and comes unraveled easily, and the dyes wash out easily. I could go on and on.

Simultaneously, the retail prices have skyrocketed to ridiculous and at times insulting heights. And the shareholders of these companies have become extremely wealthy. It’s pretty easy to see what’s going on.

Cotto: Today, many people are crazed with the idea of designer labels. Was it always this way?

Thomas: No. The craze for designer labels started in the 1970s when Madison Avenue turned the focus of advertising away from product and toward logos, not only in luxury fashion but in everything. The luxury logo mania really hit its stride in the 1990s, when the houses were taken over by financiers whose primary goal was to make money, and the global economy was booming and people wanting to show off their new wealth.

The luxury advertising executives took advantage of that, and focused advertising (and product) on logos. So the reason consumers chose to buy luxury was not for what it was but for what it represented.

Cotto: From your standpoint, when most people shop for luxury goods, are they searching for quality craftsmanship or something to denote social status?

Thomas: It depends on the customer and the culture. Right now in China, for example, I would guess that the average consumer is buying it for social status because for so long under Communist rule there was no social status. 

 Japanese customers buy it for both reasons: they are very demanding for quality, but they also like to show off their social status.  In the U.S., it varies by city, state, reason, and social group. 

But generally speaking, most do not buy it for quality because the quality now is often inferior to what it once was.

Cotto: During the years ahead, do you expect the luxury industry to readopt its traditional values? Or is this simply not plausible?

Thomas: Yes and no. Big luxury, like any big corporate domain — automobiles, farming, construction — cannot go back to doing business the old way, meaning quality, integrity, uniqueness. They are just too big, and their mission is too different. But they can add niches to the machine, like a new line that does things the old-fashioned way. Like Cadillac in the GM stable. At the same time, there will be a rise of rebels — I call them luxury refugees — who will and are starting companies that want to stay small, produce only the best, and sell with love and integrity.

It’s kind of like supermarkets vs. farmer’s markets, chain restaurants vs. farm-to-table bistros. The same will and it is happening in luxury, and this is good.

Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering exactly how it was that you came to be such a noted fashion journalist. Tell us a bit about your life and career.

Thomas: Born in Washington D.C. and raised on the Philadelphia Main Line, I started my journalism career at the Washington Post as a newsroom copy aide while still studying communications at American University. I soon landed a job as the assistant to Nina Hyde, the Post’s fashion editor, and learned from Hyde that fashion was as important a beat as any other on the paper; it’s a big business that should be taken seriously. It’s not simply about hemlines.

In my time at the Post, I also worked as the assistant to the classical music critic Joseph McLellan, covered parties and State dinners and did any other story for the Style section that I could. I moved to Paris in 1992, when I married a Frenchman, continued to string for the Post, and in 1995, moved over to Newsweek’s Paris bureau, where I served as the European Arts & Entertainment correspondent.

I also covered fashion for the magazine, and wrote for it until Tina Brown took over two years ago. My first book “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster,” was published in 2007 and became a New York Times bestseller. I’m currently a contributing editor now for WSJ, the Wall Street Journal’s monthly style magazine and I still live in Paris.

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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