Luxury used to be a synonym for quality. Fashion’s most storied brands built their brands on the best materials and the most skilled craftspeople, then charged customers a premium for both. But at some point over the last 15 years, things changed.
“I love fashion and I used to able to justify spending money on it because I could tell people that luxury was so much better quality,” says Eugene Rabkin, founder of StyleZeitgeist and a columnist for Business of Fashion. “But I can’t do that any more. And that makes me quite sad.”
Fashion labels have always traded on their most intangible quality – brand. Though there’s a thousand ways to slice precisely what ‘brand’ means, a large part of it is the feeling you get when you purchase something: buy a Volvo and you feel safe; wear a Rolex and you feel like a baller. Since we equate cost and quality, luxury brands keep their prices high so that, when you pick up a Saint Laurent leather jacket, you assume you’ve invested in something crafted by artisans, from the best materials. Even if it’s not said explicitly.
According to Rabkin, over the last decade brands have increasingly exploited this assumption for profit. “Prices have gone up, but the quality has come down,” he says. The 20 biggest companies in fashion gobble up 97 per cent of the profit, which gives them a stranglehold on the market. To hit their punchy growth targets, they need to either slash quality or increase prices. “They’ve done both,” says Rabkin. To sell worse worse clothes at higher prices, they’ve doubled down on their runway shows, ad campaigns and influencer relationships, which ups the visibility – and lustability – of what they make, rather than the quality.
The result is that clothes have become merch. “So you have the graphics, the big logos,” says Rabkin. Gucci, a brand originally built on high-end leather goods, now makes more than half its revenue from millennials. This is not a demographic with the spending power for five-piece trunk sets. But it buys T-shirts, sweats, trainers and phone cases in coffer-swelling numbers. Like band tees, they’re a way rep your love of the brand in a (comparatively) accessible way. But all this plastic and jersey is a world removed from what ‘luxury’ once meant.
“It’s about hype,” says Chris Morency, editor-at-large for Hypebeast. “If something’s hyped, it doesn’t matter what material it’s made out of, if you want it.” He points to Supreme’s box logo tees as an example, which despite retailing for less insane prices, resell for up to £500. “It’s not the intrinsic value, it’s the cultural value created around it. But that only exists for a few products at a time.”
To create hype, you need to limit accessibility. Supreme does it by creating far less product than its customers want – you have to hustle to get your hands on the handful of logo drops each season. Others do it with price; Enfants Riches Déprimes, which defines itself as much as an art project as a brand, sells £1,400 hoodies, specifically to lock out a mass consumer (it also once flogged a $7,000 cashmere hangman’s noose). For others, it’s about irony; Vetement’s DHL T-shirt remains the high-water mark for expensive jokes designed to appeal to a handful of fashion insiders.
That’s also why Burberry used to burn excess stock. Luxury brands would rather take a loss on the product than have their sense of exclusivity diluted by selling it at markdown. “These days it’s quite possible to buy mid-to-accessible luxury goods from smaller upstart brands, or even the high street, that are as good as or better than the pieces you would get from LVMH,” says Luke McDonald, a stylist at men’s fashion start-up Thread. “The price reflects the prestige and branding of the product, so you get a £700 branded sweatshirt that was manufactured for less than £50.”
The big loser here, as well as the customer, is the planet. Though fast fashion brands are rightly blamed for the environmental catastrophes caused by the clothing industry, luxury has equally bloody hands. In the Fashion Transparency Index, which ranks brands according to how opaque their supply chains are, no luxury labels appear in the top half. Though some are starting to reveal more about how their clothes are made, the prevailing trend is that the more expensive the clothes, the less clarity they offer about how they’re made.
This is the opposite of how the luxury industry’s long positioned itself, as the home of craft and quality. “In its infancy, in the 1950s, it was built on backbreaking handwork and luxurious materials,” says McDonald. The biggest houses still employ hundreds of skilled dressmakers in their ateliers, who create the sumptuous, painstaking products shown during couture week. But the market for this kind of work has evaporated – a huge proportion of couture pieces are sold at a loss – and it now exists largely as a marketing exercise, to bestow an aura of quality on goods that are made cheaply but sold at massive markup.
The good stuff is still out there, though. It’s just harder to find. “I love what Yohji [Yamamoto] does,” says Rabkin. “The Japanese still know how to make things.” He also highlights Jun Takahashi’s Undercover as a brand that brings a luxury sensibility to streetwear, rather than the other way around. “He makes T-shirts, but they’re great T-shirts.”
“You need to think about what you’re getting for your money,” says McDonald. The accelerated fashion cycle, in which trends arise then disappear in a matter of months, does not encourage craftsmanship. After all, why spend time and money on something that’s going to be thrown out in a couple of seasons? Instead, look to clothes with a shelf life, both in terms of how they look and how they’re made. “If you love a designer at one of the higher end houses then it may truly be worth it to buy a one off piece from a coveted collection. But if you want a beautiful leather bag, why not go for something unique and of the same quality from an upcoming independent designer?”