If luxury is available to all - does it cease to be luxury? This is the primary argument of Dana Thomas' fascinating examination of an industry that tends to defy rational consumer behavior (but who said we consumers were ever rational!). She has thoroughly researched the subject and the book is replete with facts and figures embedded in a narrative that reads more like a novel. Given it is written in 2007, there are some statistics or trends that will have been tested by our economic troubles, however, the primary premise and other key facets of the book remain true and relevant. And what overwhelms is the author's curiosity and nose for appropriate detail.
It is equal parts history, sociology, and brand and business strategy treatise. Overall, it is a compelling indictment of how the luxury industry has evolved from artisans to staggering brand behemoths presiding over a $157 billion industry (35 brands control 60% of the business). As Thomas explains, "The way we dress reflects not only our personality but also our economic, political, and social standing and our self-worth." Luxury brands have leveraged this insight and rolled out calculated marketing strategies to feed our desires and insecurities. And we have responded appropriately pursuing luxury to differentiate ourselves.
The author defines the subject, "Luxury wasn't simply a product. It denoted a history of tradition, superior quality, and often a pampered buying experience. Luxury was a natural and expected element of upper-class life, like belonging to the right clubs or having the right surname." Yet, soon, in the interests of profits, luxury companies, "turned their sights on a new target audience: the middle market, that broad socioeconomic demographic that includes everyone one from teachers and sales executives to high-tech entrepreneurs, McMansion suburbanites, the ghetto fabulous, even the criminally wealthy."
This democratization of luxury made the goods accessible to more and grew the top and bottom lines. However, as Thomas concludes, this eroded all that made it special in the first place. She argues that Louis Vuitton now "has a logo as recognizable as the Golden Arches". Business leaders who control these brands "have shifted the focus from what the product is to what it represents". Francoise Montenay of Chanel believes, "Luxury is exclusivity. At a minimum, it must be impeccable. Maximum, unique."
I enjoyed the histories of many of the luxury brands, characters featured like Bernard Arnault and Tom Ford, facts such as Charles Frederick Worth being among the first to stage fashion shows and the first to put a signature label on his clothes, pros and cons of brand licensing, designers becoming superstars, the always staggering practice of counterfeiting, the vintage market, and the impact of outlet malls.
In terms of the book's premise, Tom Ford says, "Luxury fashion brands today are too available, everything is too uniform, and customer business too pedestrian." I suggest you draw your own conclusion by reading this tremendous book which is available to all but that will be read by a few.