Call for Comments: What is Luxury Fashion, Really?

From Monica: What do Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Moet, Hennessy, Fendi, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, Loewe, Celine, Bulgari, Tiffany and Co., and Sephora all have in common? They’re all owned by LVMH, the world’s largest corporate conglomerate specializing in luxury goods. What about Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Gucci, Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent? They’re all owned by Kering, another luxury goods focused multinational corporation. And Cartier, Alaia, Chloe, Montblanc, and Van Cleef & Arpels? You probably guessed that those are all the same parent company too. Michael Kors, Versace, and Jimmy Choo—you get the point right? Behind the scenes, head designers get swapped between an umbrella company’s brands every few seasons. So the reason every one of these brands has a signature handbag and a sneaker and a watch and that they all kinda look vaguely the same is that…well…they kinda are the same. Diet Prada has made an Internet movement out of pointing out all the times brands rip each other off, but can you really rip off yourself? 

Are we just buying names? Most of your favorite cosmetics are probably made by your mom’s mainstay brands L’Oreal or Estee Lauder. Every single pair of sunglasses at Sunglass Hut, LensCrafters, and Pearle Vision—from your Ray Bans to your designer Chanel frames— were made by Luxottica. That Coach purse you bought at the outlet mall or at T.J. Maxx has a 90% likelihood that it was never sold inside a regular Coach retail store, and was instead made entirely for the discount market. Same with your Ralph Lauren polo shirt. Your “handmade in Italy” luxury handbag was likely put together by a skilled craftsperson being paid a wage similar to a garment factory worker across the globe. In 2020, rather than put its unsold merchandise on sale, Burberry incinerated over 37 million dollars worth of product. In fact, Nike, Cartier, Montblanc, Chanel, Luis Vuitton, and Michael Kors have all been caught torching merchandise in attempts not to “devalue the brand.”   

Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada
It’s cerulean.

So what’s my point? I’d like to think that in 2022 we’re all aware of the extreme labor abuses or the incredibly harmful environmental impacts of fast fashion and $5 T-shirts, but as Queen Meryl Streep Miranda Priestly would remind us, it all starts at the top. This episode, I want to pull back the curtain on the luxury fashion industry, and I want to break down the history that got us here. 

One of the most profound texts I read during graduate school was Dana Thomas’ Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster. Thomas does an excellent job of tracing the history of these originally family-owned luxury brands into logomania monsters. For the most part, these family-owned brands realized that licensing deals could keep them afloat during the industry transition away from custom couture garments towards off-the-rack ready to wear. Unfortunately, by the 1980s most of these brands’ original founders were dying, and their name had been over-licensed—you may have heard me jump into this a history a little during my House of Gucci breakdown in our Things You Missed episode. Bernard Arnault, founder of LVMH, used the decade to collect the near-bankrupt fashion houses like Pokemon cards, and replaced licensing deals with in-house accessory lines that would fund the brand’s increasingly extravagant runway presentations, which today regularly total in the realm of one million dollars per show. Despite the aesthetic same-ness of their products, the marketing strategies behind these luxury houses continue to rely on the concepts of history and legacy driven by the names of the original brands, but with decidedly fantasy, revisionist histories. CoCo Chanel was well documented as a Nazi agent with a Nazi officer boyfriend, and Hugo Boss enthusiastically designed Nazi uniforms. So why the fuck are we coveting $8,000 Chanel purses and buying BOSS by Hugo Boss on sale at Macy’s?!

Lady Gaga in House of Gucci
Father, Son, House of Gucci monogrammed nonsense.

Fashion journalism itself exists by a rather unspoken rule that no designer’s collection is every truly critiqued. Even our definitions of what high fashion is originates from a fixed system. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, the division of the museum which determines which garments or designers are deemed historically significant enough for permanent collection or exhibition, is actually named the Anna Wintour Costume Center after the chair of the Met Gala and editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine— a consumer product which is literally funded primarily by the placement of advertisements and products of luxury fashion. The head curator of the Costume Center is Andrew Bolton, whose longtime partner is fashion designer Thom Browne, clearly an inspiration for Bolton’s 2019 Camp exhibition. Even within the realms of cultural institutions seemingly built to display “art for art’s sake,” fashion cannot be separated from its capitalist motivations. 

Runway model from Schiaparelli Spring 2022 show
Schiaparelli Spring 2022

And yet, I love luxury fashion. I study it, I buy it, I’ve watched every new development from each new collection of the currently-happening Couture Week in Paris. I have favorite designers and library shelves full of fashion exhibition books from the Met. I worked for a year at Michael Kors. My lucky outfits are a 70s vintage Ferragamo blouse and a pair of almost unwearably tall 2011 YSL platform boots, both of which felt like the greatest treasures I’ve ever found at the charity shop. I’m always preaching about the ways that I want us to be more conscious consumers, but my study of this industry means I’m still participant in consuming the spectacle and perpetuating its mythology. I suppose my questions this week are why we still care about luxury fashion when the definitions have changed so much over time, and how we are still able to value aesthetic beauty in design when all we see are the same things repeated?  

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