Deluxe by Dana Thomas

January 19th, 2008 at 6:33 pm

I should not have read Deluxe immediately after having read Richistan. I’m a huge fan of coupling two similar books, it’s like peanut butter and jelly, or whiskey and my mouth, but this combination was unintended or at least unconscious and these true tales of Excess and Image left me in a bizarre, contradictory paradox of feeling both rich and poor. Rich in Spirit. Poor in Reality.

If there ever was a pair of prissy Siamese twins sashaying around the world on their yachts clutching Hermes handbags like vultures to a carcass, it is Richistan and Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster. More wealth and money in America has meant more shopping and buying. Throw in some ruthless business tactics and aggressive marketing and you have sewn a gown of change. Drastic change. But contrary to the alliterate subtitle, Deluxe is not about Luxury Losing Its Luster. It’s about Luxury Losing Its Faint Glean of Pretension. A polish perhaps long overdue. But maybe I’m too much of a liberal populist.

As Thomas explains in her introduction, “The luxury industry has changed the way people dress. It has realigned our economic class system. It has changed the way we interact. It has become part of our social fabric. To achieve this, it has sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history, and hoodwinked its consumers. In order to make luxury “accessible,” tycoons have stripped away all that has made it special.” And though that may sound like some vindictive, polemical, rabble-rousing, Thomas can’t sustain the vitriol throughout the entire book. She loves the luxury industry too much.

Deluxe is a tale of Modern American Consumption, which is not about quality or practicality, or need, or even price, but about the Brand, which is a Lie. And like all the other well-marketed and perpetrated brands (lies), luxury has been masterfully sold. For the most part, luxury goods are still of superb design and style, but just mass-produced and marketed.

Deluxe is about how globalization has finally made it to the luxury industry. The “art” of luxury has been replaced by the bottom line. If you’re a shareholder in say, LVMH, that line looks very nice (the luxury goods industry is a $157 billion business). If you’re Dana Thomas, that line does not look as lustery as it used to.

Deluxe is about the reformation of a storied, elite industry historically run by artisans and craftsmen that has been taken over by capitalists with their eyes not on design, style, and luxury, but on their balance sheets. Once in power, these businessmen applied the Usual Tactics to the luxury industry with profitable results: outsource to reduce costs, market heavily in order to sell the image, status, and story of the brand, and then market to the middle class, especially with entry-level products like fragrances and handbags, and sell what’s left for a discount at outlet malls. Now that the fussy ogre that is America has been sated and is lying down for a nap, go after the emerging markets: China, India, and Russia.

This may seem all fine and well and par for the course, but what Dana Thomas takes issue with is that the Luxury Industry has lost its credibility and has forsaken its noble past. As she explains, “When luxury brands themselves go mass market, however – selling a full range of goods in ubiquitous boutiques, outlets and duty-free stores and on their own Web sites – they undermine their well-crafted message. They become an everyday occurrence, a common presence. They aren’t a luxury anymore.”

Thomas’ story is significant and interesting enough but blandly told. As a fashion writer having covered the industry for decades, she has great reverence and respect for luxury but her straightforward, journalistic approach felt flat to me. The blow-by-blow history interspersed with anecdotes failed to make me care about the loss of a little luster. That’s not to discredit Thomas’ impressive tale. Deluxe is clearly a labor of love and the result of exhaustive research and travel from someone who was already on expert on the topic. It contains a variety of opinions and perspectives but you almost wish someone told it who had a smaller bias and a bigger penchant for weaving a more revealing and rousing tale.

Thomas is at her best when she departs from bemoaning the loss of abstract, nebulous ideals and focuses on the legitimate social and economic ramifications of this industry’s massive evolution. One of the most interesting elements of the book was Thomas’ investigation into the widespread counterfeiting of luxury goods that has risen from luxury brand’s outrageously high demand. As Thomas notes, “The industry’s marketing plan had worked: consumers don’t buy luxury branded items for what they are, but for what they represent. People don’t believe there is a difference between real and fake anymore.” But before you buy a fake Fendi bag to satisfy your lust for status and image, please, please read this book. Counterfeiting is a dark, detrimental black market and before you know it you’ll believe that one commercial that insists smoking marijuana contributes to terrorism. Counterfeiting contributes to terrorism too by the way. So buy from your local grow house. And buy a real bag. After reading this book, I can tell. I can. See that stitching?

But what was really interesting was learning that Gucci uses a special machine developed and used exclusively by them to cut cowhide that uses water jets moving at twice the speed of sound. As Thomas observes, “The water jet is remarkable to see because, in fact, you can’t see it. All you see is the leather cut, as if by magic, and a mist from the water jet dissipating to the sides.” Isn’t that NEAT?

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