Saturday, August 25, 2007

Selling records

Caroline Weber reviews the book that got Julie Fredrickson talking about sample sales and non-industry label-crazed women: Dana Thomas's Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster. From Weber's review:

For Thomas, a cultural and fashion writer for Newsweek in Paris and the Paris correspondent for the Australian Harper’s Bazaar, the luxury industry is a sham because its offerings in no way merit the high price tags they command. Yet once upon a time, they most certainly did. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when many of luxury’s founding fathers first set up shop, paying more money meant getting something truly exceptional. Dresses from Christian Dior, luggage from Louis Vuitton, jewelry from Cartier: in the golden period of luxury, these items carried prestige because of their superior craftsmanship and design. True, only the very privileged could afford them, but it was this exclusivity that gave them their cachet. Although they may have “cared about making a profit,” the merchants who served this pampered class aimed chiefly “to produce the finest products possible.”

That's a stretch. Emile Zola's 1883 The Ladies' Paradise describes a mid-19th century Parisian department store, complete with a profiteering boss and customers willing to go broke in order to own the next big thing. The small shop owners who criticize the new, mass-produced, crass world of the department store are in fact no less sleazy and profit-minded than Ladies' Paradise owner Mouret. Capitalism did not begin with the craze for designer logos, and it certainly did not start with Louis Vuitton's latest merger. Every store offering 'organic,' 'free trade,' or 'high quality' is, as Rufus Wainwright said honestly and admirably of his performance in Central Park, "just trying to sell records." There's no shame in hoping your innovations bring about profit. The art of disguising that motivation is what leads to some goods being presented as virtuous or long-lasting and others--designer logo sunglasses, manicures, tobacco and alcohol products--as entirely unnecessary but there if you want them, the assumption being that enough people do and which variety they pick is the only question.

But back to clothing. If in the golden age of luxury, well-made products were for the wealthy and no one else, why was this a good thing? Shouldn't long-lasting, high-quality clothes be for those who cannot afford new ones every five minutes? And conversely, if you intend to buy new dresses each season, unless you are Nan Kempner (which I can safely say you are not), what do you care if the old ones last forever?


jean paul monazique said...

it is not about the quality of a garment, it is about what you can brag about the quality of a garment.


It is not capitalism, it is keeping up with the jonesism.

Phoebe said...

I don't understand. Isn't keeping up with the Joneses an expression from the 1950s, and a concept older still?

James said...

I think Grobstein has dealt with this, sort of.

But yeah, it's a weird complaint. Perhaps today these luxury items aren't such high quality? That would be a legitimate complaint, I think. Also, it's possible that the increasing quality of luxury items is actually bad for society (along the lines of "immiserizing growth"), but I don't think that's the point Weber is making.

Phoebe said...

The complaint goes well beyond luxury items not being good quality. But even that, as a complaint, is odd from a capitalist perspective. If people care more about the exclusivity or appearance of an item than about it being long-lasting, then why shouldn't glamorous but less sturdy items cost more? If the question is owning things that don't look bizarre or fall apart, there's always L.L. Bean.

Rita said...

"if you intend to buy new dresses each season, unless you are Nan Kempner (which I can safely say you are not), what do you care if the old ones last forever?"

This is what I don't get either. Why pretend that the expensive stuff you buy is a long-term investment when, if you care about fashion, you will by definition buy the next hot thing? An investment is something that will appreciate in value over time; clothes and shoes never do. If you want to throw money at the next big thing that will actually pay off, buy property.