Book Review


Deluxe is one of the first books that I read that linked clothing to sustainability issues for me.  Sustainability isn't a specific topic in the book, which is unsurprising given the year of publication (2007) but the connection is present, particularly in hindsight.  Deluxe is also a book that offers an explanation for why it feels like we (the common, non-fancy consumers) were suddenly surrounded by everything fancy, seemingly overnight.

The author, experienced journalist Dana Thomas, walks the reader through the origins of luxury, from when clothing and luggage were made to order, crafted from beginning to end by one person, rather than manufactured on an assembly line.  At that time, rich artisanal materials and careful, personal process were what categorized a product as a luxury item.  Then gradually the great luxury houses such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Dior were bought, sold, absorbed and reconfigured by the desires of the shareholders and the mass market.  Over time they became brands, focusing more on profit, production costs, and retail stores, than on the hand-crafted, personalized goods which had been their hallmark.

Thomas highlights the considerable metamorphosis of this $157 billion industry by zooming in on a few key products and trends, namely handbags, perfume, and the advent of the use celebrities for product placement.  While the nature of luxury apparel has obviously changed over time, some of the industry's most stark developments have occurred in perfume and handbags, products which Thomas uses to highlight the cost-savings measures that luxury houses have taken in order to increase profits for their shareholders.

In the book, her discussion of handbags is a perfect lens through which to view her depiction of the evolution of couture to mass consumption.  Handbags for women originated as practical affairs, carryalls used to carry provisions and a wallet while bicycling somewhere during the gasoline rations of war time, before they became more significant tools when women began entering the work force in greater numbers in the seventies.  At that point, they still needed to be practical and somewhat conservative, and they were not a priority of a couture house.

Handbags really caught fire for luxury brands as a tool for drawing the middle market to their brands, and they now account for thirty percent of the total global luxury market.  As shareholders sought to expand their market beyond the rarefied client base and towards a much broader audience, it became clear  that handbags were useful as entry-level items.  By offering a basic version of their handbag at a lower price point, women who wouldn't normally shop couture could buy it and not only did it whet her appetite for that brand, but it also didn't have to fit her body, like clothing or shoes, making it an easy, cost-effective item to produce.  They employed a similar method with their perfumes.  Over time, many, if not most, of these luxury items have come to be produced in China, where they can be produced at lower cost and in the quantities necessary to satisfy the hunger of this new broader customer base.

Deluxe is a riveting read, for those interested in fashion and for those of us occasionally tempted by lovely, slightly-out-of-reach goods.  It also make an excellent globalization case study, and it can offer more explanation as to why we feel tempted by certain brands, in spite of ourselves.  In some specific cases, it has helped to remind me why shopping certain high-end brands may be largely not worth it.

One of the most exciting things about this book to me is that it unveils the roots of the stronger maker movement in which we currently find ourselves.  It is comforting to me that many people have noticed a lack of authenticity from companies who seem to care only about labels, and have been seeking things made by their friends and neighbors.  Reading a book like Deluxe makes it easier to ignore the big brands, or at least to view them with more skepticism than you may have previously employed, and to want to put your hands on something that feels 'real'.  Even if you don't want to be a maker, this book will not only entertain you, but probably strengthen your interest in supporting makers rather than marketers.