It’s easy to pigeonhole the luxury fashion industry as expensive and exclusive. Though trends evolve in the luxury sector (for brands and in terms of consumer behaviour), above all luxury is about a set of values. Traditionally, luxury is associated with quality, craftsmanship and rarity but these values are changing.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to establish a value system or to quantify the perception of value amongst consumers.
The perception of value is manipulated by marketing and is inherent to brand success. Of course the term ‘value’ means different things at different levels of the market. At the lower end, it means discounts and value for money. At the top of the scale, however, we talk about investment value, and like any kind of financial construct, there’s risk attached. In fashion, value is dependent on the market, tastes and influencers – The Emperor’s New Clothes if you will. With so much friction in the fashion industry at the moment, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to establish a value system or to quantify the perception of value amongst consumers.
Recently, a number of luxury brands have chosen to opt for the see-now, buy-now system, whereby the collections shown on the catwalks will be available to purchase within days of the show, rather than six months later. Its purpose is to appease the discontent of buyers and customers whose exposure to catwalk shows is magnified by social media; they want instant gratification. It’s also a rebuff to the high street brands that can replicate the key pieces – and crucially get them on the shop floor – in advance of the original product.
The debate rages on, with some detractors stating that this approach denigrates the notion of luxury. Francois-Henri Pinault of Kering Group said that it “negates the dream of luxury” and that waiting for the products to become available is the very essence of luxury itself. Time, heritage, longevity; these are words that have always been associated with luxury and yet in many ways, the luxury world is being turned on its head. Maybe Pinault thinks he’s protecting the establishment, whereas brands like Burberry are sensing the commercial appeal. In reality, lots of luxury brands are actually mass market, at least in terms of their availability. Waiting lists aside, it’s possible to purchase a £10,000 dress online without any kind of true luxury experience. Sit in your pyjamas, click, enter credit card details, and the next day a delivery man (in a hurry) appears at the door, wanting a signature on one of those handheld screens (a scribble will do, love!) – transaction complete. No pomp, no ceremony. It’s making both brands and customers question what the true characteristics of luxury are. If anyone (with the cash) can have it, then what makes it so special?
In trend circles, we’ve been talking about ‘experiential luxury’ for a number of years – the idea that luxury consumers are spending heavily on once-in-a-lifetime trips to world heritage sites, fine dining and speculative space travel rather than expensive bags and shoes. This trend will continue as long as brands are focused on celebrity endorsements rather than cloistering traditional customers in the rarefied world of sublime luxury – check Balmain’s deep and meaningful relationship with the Kardashians for proof! To me, the essence of luxury is discretion. In this most non-discreet of eras, surely keeping schtum is the most luxurious thing we can do? Luxury is being sequestered in private rooms, no labels, no brouhaha, just a quiet assertion of wealth and privilege without the brash rustle of ‘new money’… but then I’m not the one rolling in the dough.
At the other end of the scale is the desire for fakes. I remember the height of the fakes boom, where people would return from holidays in Asia, Italy, New York and well frankly their local market, with pleather bags, belts and T-shirts bearing the logos of major fashion houses; D&G, Versace, Louis Vuitton and Fendi were all immortalized in crude prints and misspelled labels. My favourite was a pair of fake Chanel sunglasses I bought in China in 2004. On the inside of the arms, the print said, “Chanel, Made in Pairs” It was an attempt to live the dream, to own a chunk of luxury even if it was faked, but the bubble burst and rightly so. We’re in an era where acting-up and fakery are the concern of reality TV stars and the bloggers-eating-avocado-on-toast. It’s not cool to fake-it-until-you-make-it anymore.
However, the market in fake goods is still a major problem for many luxury brands. Salvatore Ferragamo has just announced a novel way to counteract counterfeits with a microchip inserted in some of its shoes and handbags. It’s designed to dissuade forgeries but also as a method of authentication in the secondary market. Luxury brands are recognizing the new values associated with reselling items online and at auction and they’re thinking of ways to make luxury brands seem like legitimate investments. And why wouldn’t they? With online marketplaces such as Vestiaire Collective, Depop, Shpock, Poshmark and Vinted raking in users and sales, the resale market has never been more profitable or easier to access. In January it was announced that since 1980, as an investment, the Hermès Birkin bag has seen a greater increase in value than either gold or the stock market. The main reason for its rise in value is scarcity. Prospective customers need to wait years to be eligible to purchase a new one, while resold versions can fetch six figure sums at auction.
So maybe Pinault has a point? The waiting, the desire, the scarcity; are these the values that can be best attributed to today’s luxury market? Or is it a democracy of wealth: a globally available, Instagram-inspired, celeb-endorsed playground for the rich and the wannabes? My dream of luxury is the former, but in 2016 I suspect the latter is truer.
Thanks for reading,