Book Review: Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster

In the beginning there were clothes. They were at your service – they performed for you, practical, reliable, appropriate. Still, we are thoughtful creatures, driven to art and individuality – and so clothes became fashion, and eventually, fashion became couture. No longer strictly practical, this new rank of clothes represented something more than just a cover. They were luxury: costly fabric impeccably tailored to be durable, classic, and stylish. But what is luxury now? Dana Thomas’s book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster is the culmination of several tears of work, collaged journalism, and covert interviews. This sometimes brutal chronicle of the luxury fashion industry is both history and commentary and invites a re-evaluation of all things haute.

Primarily a Eurocentric account, Deluxe moves through the history of luxury brands from their humble beginnings in France and Italy to the global conglomerates they have become. From family-owned couture houses to fashion luxury groups, Thomas’s main thesis is clear: high-end fashion has been watered down for mass consumption. She mourns this unwelcome dilution without subtlety, freely using war imagery to describe the violent takeover of fashion’s most beloved houses, “where dreams, desires and beauty are manufactured.”

Thomas marks the beginning of the decline of couture in the 50s, coinciding with the rise of the middle Markey and the start of fashion licensing. Since then couturiers have been replaced by ready-to-wear luxury designers who churn out assembly-line products with a luxury price tag – a price tag reflecting the desirability of the logo rather than the item itself. Companies once private and dedicated to product integrity are now public, driver by ego and shareholder greed; quality, once the hallmark of couture, has been obscured by the incessant demand for profit.

What do we imagine luxury is? The fulfillment of the senses – touch, sight, smell, taste – the sound of the garment rustling as you let it drop over your head, or as you walk within it. How does it feel? Today, Thomas laments, luxury is brand – the “cult of luxury.” It is no longer about the quality of the product, the stimulation of the sense, but about profitability – how to cheapen the foods and sell them to the widest audience possible. The product is secondary to what it represents, and its quality is a consideration low on the list. Thomas depicts this new industry as an unstoppable global force and even Louis Vuitton, the historic couturier credited with the first fashion show and first name-brand logo, and a house long respected for integrity and quality of design, is ultimately referred to as the “McDonald’s of the fashion industry.”

Deluxe is a memorable read, including accounts of the birth of consequences of Chanel No. 5 (did you know that every 30 seconds of every day, there is a bottle of Chanel No. 5 sold somewhere in the world?) and the innovative production of the Gucci handbag. There is also an amusing and fascinating introduction to Miuccia Prada, Poli-Sci Ph.D. and Mime understudy. Thomas invites us to join her in the presence of the fashion mavens. She never fails to detail the mannerisms, hesitations, and of course dress of these personalities that have shaped the world of luxury fashion.

With an easy, yet structured style, Thomas manages to remind without repeating, presenting her information in an orderly, but not necessarily prescriptive way. The frequent (sometimes bordering on excessive) use of statistics may threaten to become wearisome, but this is balanced by allowing the reader to approach each chapter independently. Divided into three parts Deluxe first sets the global stage: the formation of luxury groups, public stock offerings, and globalization. The book then breaks down the luxury industry by item (handbags, perfumes, textiles, shoes) and places each into a historical, social, and political context, lending an unexpected depth to the discussion. Finally, it takes on the contemporary mania with brands, from knock-offs to mass luxury as seen in the success of such chains as H&M and Zara. Thomas’s ability to rephrase and revisit the key elements in her study complements her research in such a way that even the most distracted reader will be able to follow along, or skip forward or backward to the most interesting subjects. With the introduction of such notable terms as “democratization of luxury”, “bipolar shopping disorder,” luxury refugees,” “fast fashion, and “Parasite Singles,” Thomas’s prose is both stimulating and evocative.

In the end, Thomas exhibits a certain nostalgia for an earlier, more refined expression and experience of taste and style. But while her book is most certainly a lament, she chooses to exit the discussion on a hopeful note, concentrating on those, like shoemaker Christian Louboutin, who have remained committed and loyal to the idea of luxury as exceptional quality, service, elegance, and authenticity: “Luxury is not consumerism. It is educating the eyes to see that special quality.”

by Dana Thomas, Penguin Press, 2007, 346 pages
Review by Rachel Melis (originally published in Worn Fashion Journal Issue 9)

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