n the early nineteenth century, a thirteen-year-old French boy named Louis Vuitton left his modest family homestead, a farm near the base of the Alps, for Paris, where he would become an apprentice to a luggage manufacturer. He made the 300-mile journey by foot, and, counting the odd jobs he picked up along the way, the trip took him more than two years.
In Paris, Vuitton designed the worlds first flat-top trunkearlier versions had domed lids to disperse rainwater off the backs of coachesto produce, for the first time, luggage that could be stacked efficiently. Before, trunks had been made of leather, which often attracted mold and cracked, and Vuitton developed a lightweight waterproof poplar and cotton alternative. When competitors copied him, Vuitton introduced a recognizable canvas print of red and beige stripes intended to distinguish his handiwork; soon, red became brown, and the checked two-tone design became the signature company pattern. The distinctive Louis Vuitton features we have come to associate with luxury and privilege were developed by the unpretentious craftsman in response to particular and very practical problems, and although his celebrated studio served the richest and most discriminating families of nineteenth-century Europe, it retained until his death in 1892 the ethos of a humble workshop, dedicated to exquisite quality produced in small volume. That year, the company produced its first handbag.
Today, Louis Vuitton is no modest Parisian atelier but the flagship brand of the worlds largest luxury goods conglomerate, LVMH (Mot Hennessy Louis Vuitton). Vuittons kind of fairy tale no longer has a place in the fashion industry, laments Newsweek correspondent Dana Thomas, in her new, richly reported book, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, because craftsmanship and elegance no longer govern the business. Profits do. Conglomerates like LVMH make money not by selling at prices that reward quality but in volume that rewards aggressive branding. Those houses that have thrived in the new $157 billion luxury goods economy have done so by marketing an image of Old World craftsmanship to the global midmarket consumer and by manufacturing branded products she might finally be able to afford. Deluxe is a melancholy meditation on the fate of the handbag in the age of mechanical reproduction.
Once upon a time, Thomas writes, the finest goods in the world were produced in small workshops run by family-owned businesses with retail outposts at Europes most desirable addresses in stores as solemn and exclusive as the dressing rooms of private estates. The business of these stores was conducted in hushed tones, Thomas recalls, and the salesladies werent just employees but models of aristocratic restraint.
These days, the opening of a luxury store is itself a public event, and the purpose of the structure is not to fortify a privileged retail space but to advertise the treasures found inside. Retail stores are often built with inviting transparent or translucent material and feature art galleries, screening rooms, concert halls, chic bars, and world-class restaurants. Saleswomen function not as service employees but as models. One Chanel store features a facade embedded with 700,000 light-emitting diodes that project swirling Chanel symbols into the night; more people visit the high-end Forum Shops mall at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas every year than do Disney World.
These anecdotes reveal a curious undercurrent of tycoon entitlement in the purchasing patterns of working Americans, but Thomas does not dwell on the U.S.nor, for that matter, on Europe, though her book purports to trace the decline of a continental artisanal tradition. Her story is really about the rise of a new luxury retail culture, dominated by Asia, with aspirational Japanese buying products manufactured by industrious Chinese in an exchange of goods merely supervised by the European houses.
Thomas quotes executives who describe Russia as a young consumption economy unwilling to save, and who pay lip service to the potential of the Chinese market, and who point to the 22 million Indians that join the consumer class every year. But the true prize in the new luxury economy is Japan. Half of all luxury goods produced in the world are sold to the Japanese, more than 40 percent of whom own at least one Louis Vuitton item. The journalist Kyoichi Tsuzuki has documented the countrys consumer frenzy in an acclaimed series of casually composed photographs of its happy victims: a schoolteacher in a shoebox apartment with a hundred-piece Versace collection and a girlfriend who curates it; a Buddhist monk who wears only Commes des Garons when he leaves his monastery; a patent executive whose Hermes stockpile, each piece preserved in its original box, occupies most of the volume of his four-story walkup, and who carries his Hermes briefcase to work with an Hermes towel wrapped around the handle to guard against perspiration damage.
The expansion of the luxury business isnt strictly a function of a growing public appetite, of course, and when Thomas suggests that the industry has suffered from commercialization, she marks herself as a courtier critic with a Tom Ripleylike romance for the antique ornaments of extreme wealth. It is hard to feel bad for the producers of luxury goods, for example, when encountering stories of Japanese who work as prostitutes to pay for new purses, or of Hurricane Katrina victims who used their Red Cross cards to buy from Louis Vuitton, whose profit on each handbag is 1,300 percent.
It is hard, but Thomas manages. She dismisses the term that the industry uses to describe its transformation: the democratization of luxury. She believes that leading houses have abandoned their artisanal ideals and that, far from welcoming new members to the leisure class, the new downmarket approach has merely lowered the standards by which a product is judged to be a luxury good. Though she is rarely without a supportive detail or data point on other subjects, Thomas can muster only anecdotal evidence to suggest that craftsmanship has suffered as the industry has expanded into new markets. At one point, she admits that Japanese customers frequently return products with defects acceptable or invisible to French and American buyers; at another, she writes that the head of Louis Vuitton Japan often returns items, even whole shipments, to headquarters, with the instruction Please sell these in Paris. What Thomas mourns isnt the loss of quality but of glamorous exclusivity.
The greatest threat to that exclusivity is the counterfeit market. One industry association reports that the counterfeiting of all goods has grown 1,700 percent since 1993; another estimates that as much as 7 percent of world trade is counterfeit. Louis Vuitton executives have suggested that only one in a hundred items bearing the famous LV logo is authentic. And yet, it is hard to sympathize with manufacturers, or with Thomas, who argues that counterfeiting amounts to lost profits and is an affront to intellectual property. This despite the fact that most items are produced in a countryChinahistorically hostile to that principle, and despite the fact that the black market contributes to brand visibility without siphoning too many potential customers from the legitimate retailer. Over several decades of mass marketing, luxury goods companies have taught the world to desire products bearing brand names most consumers could not possibly afford. You reap what you sew. ?