In this monthly column by Eugene Rabkin, the founder of StyleZeitgeist shares his opinions, observations, and insights about the world of fashion. For this installment, Eugene delves into logos and the changing aesthetics of luxury apparel.
In a 2017 interview with 032c, Highsnobiety founder David Fischer said, “I was meeting with a luxury brand recently, and they were talking about not being exclusive anymore—about being inclusive. And I thought that was pretty interesting, because I know they wouldn’t have said that a year ago.”
Fischer is entirely correct in his observation that luxury and exclusivity are, by and large, no longer synonymous. Today, goods from luxury houses are ubiquitous. On a recent visit with my daughter to American Eagle, I observed the store’s clientele. One girl had on plastic pool slides by Gucci, another had a thin Gucci buckle belt, and another had a small YSL bag. Needless to say, I recognized those items not by their recognizable designs, but by their prominent logos. The rest of these teens’ outfits didn’t particularly scream “luxury” or “designer,” but those small statement pieces telegraphed to the world that they knew what was up. The logo did all of the talking.
The omnipresence of so-called “luxury fashion” isn’t a new story, but this time it’s got a distinctly 2019 flavor. In the ’80s, luxury brands engaged in rampant licensing. The theory was that if you licensed your name to a different company, creating a different product category, you would be sitting pretty collecting royalties without having to manage the complexities of the manufacturing and distribution processes. That’s how you ended up with Givenchy and Pierre Cardin button-up shirts at T.J. Maxx. This worked for a while — until it didn’t. All of a sudden brand dilution (and the loss of the wealthy clientele) was on every luxury house’s mind. The licensing was reigned in.
In the ’90s, the approach shifted to diffusion brands such as Versus by Versace, D&G by Dolce & Gabbana, and Moschino Cheap & Chic. It was thought that by tweaking the name of a high-end label for its lower-priced offerings, you differentiate it enough to attract the middle class without risking a house’s appeal to wealthier clients. This also worked for a while, until the worries about brand dilution resurfaced, and a lot of diffusion lines were shuttered.
In Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, fashion journalist Dana Thomas scathingly summarized the state of the luxury market that in reality caters to mass taste while raking in record profits. Over the past couple of decades, luxury fashion, Thomas writes, “sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history and hoodwinked its consumers.” The book was the swan song for luxury’s original purpose: making finely crafted goods in places where people get fair wages. That thesis went above most people’s heads and the book was roundly condemned as elitist.
On that note, nobody seems to care about brand dilution anymore. In 2011, Dolce & Gabbana folded D&G into its main brand, while Marc Jacobs discontinued his Marc by Marc Jacobs line in 2015. Both said that they would offer lower-priced goods under the main brand. Fast-forward to today and you can see the kind of “premium mediocre” stuff like headbands and plastic pool slides from virtually every luxury fashion brand. They are still incredibly expensive for what they are, but are a relatively inexpensive way to buy into a brand. Way more people can afford a $250 Balenciaga baseball hat than a $5,000 leather jacket. And the hat will have a prominent logo that will signal that you are a luxury consumer.
Why no one today seems to care about brand dilution is partly a matter of capitalist logic and partly because of new consumption patterns. Luxury fashion used to cater to the rich and still does to some degree. But even though the number of rich people is rapidly growing — according to The Economist, because of the tech explosion and the Chinese economic boom, millionaires are created at the rate of 250 per hour — the growth of the middle class, especially in China, has far outpaced it. And since the main luxury players like LVMH and Kering are now publicly listed conglomerates, they have to operate by the logic of capitalism, which demands ever-increasing profits in order to drive the prices of their stock upwards. Ergo, they have no choice but to sell premium mediocre stuff to the middle class under the guise of luxury.
This is especially obvious on the periphery. On a recent visit to the Saks Fifth Avenue men’s department in Atlanta, I was greeted by a parade of plastic pool slides from Fendi, Givenchy, Valentino, Versace, Gucci, and Balenciaga, which ranged in price from $200 to $300. Chances are they cost a couple of bucks to manufacture and are sold by the thousands. According to Lyst, a global fashion search platform, in the month of July, its users have searched for pool slides from the aforementioned brands 4,000 times.
That’s the supply side. On the demand side, the traditional wealthy customer that the luxury fashion market used to cater to no longer seems to be all that interested in it. This trend was exacerbated after the financial crash of 2008 when the rich thought that flaunting their wealth while the middle class was losing their homes was in bad taste. It’s not unlikely that this trend was never reversed.
When I brought up the topic of alienation of the rich to another fashion editor in a recent conversation, he shrugged his shoulders and retorted that the women on the Upper East Side switched to athleisure long ago. The comment was jolting but rang true, as any casual observer of Park Avenue can attest. And as far as the newly minted millionaires from the tech world are concerned, luxury fashion seems to be the last thing they want to spend their money on. The concept of “stealth wealth” seems to have taken over for these monied classes. Everyone knows that Mark Zuckerberg is rich; he doesn’t need to spend money on clothes, but he still sets the tone for the Silicon Valley uniform.
All of this points to the fact that in many respects, luxury is no longer special. What made luxury rarefied was quality, scarcity, and its high price. Few luxury fashion consumers today care about quality — they gladly buy $700 sneakers while cobblers everywhere are going out of business because most people no longer wear leather shoes. Pricing is now all over the place. While a lot of luxury is still prohibitively expensive, most houses make the bulk of their revenue from entry-level categories like footwear, fragrance, and small leather goods.
The only reliable marker of luxury left is scarcity. The new generation of the luxury consumer that grew up on limited-edition streetwear drops knows that territory all too well. It did not take savvy brands like Vetements to figure this out — if they could make their trendy product scarce, their margins would skyrocket. That’s how they’ve gotten away with selling $1,500 cotton hoodies.
Meanwhile, frustrated with such a landscape, much of the fashion cognoscenti kicked themselves into nostalgia mode, turning the market for vintage fashion into a big business. This makes sense, because, besides custom-made clothes, where else do you go for fashion that won’t make you look like everyone else? And while a lot of luxury fashion today can be had at a deep markdown or at an outlet mall if you are patient enough, the market for vintage Raf Simons and Helmut Lang on the men’s side, and Margiela and Ghesquiere-era Balenciaga on the women’s is red-hot.
“Our customers don’t want to be figured out in the way culture dictates today,” says Gil Linton, the founder and CEO of curated vintage fashion platform Byronesque. “To quote Marilyn Manson, people want what we sell because, ‘Everything’s been said before, nothing left to say anymore. When it’s all the same, you can ask for it by name.’”
Scarcity is a fascinating phenomenon because it flies in the face of traditional economics and its supply-and-demand paradigm. And while scarcity has traditionally been the provenance of luxury, clever streetwear brands like Supreme and Palace have figured out that it can work at any price point. If you add scarcity to an already-hyped product, its desirability goes through the roof, and so does your reputation for being the coolest brand around. And if you keep the prices low enough to make it affordable in theory, you don’t alienate people.
The conundrum that luxury brands face today is that democratization is automatically considered “good,” and elitism is automatically considered “bad.” For luxury this is a paradox, but for streetwear it’s not, and that’s one of the reasons why streetwear has been so successful. Arguably, Supreme is the most elitist brand out there, because its releases are so limited, but who would ever even consider calling it elitist? Meanwhile, in some circles, luxury is still a dirty word because of its connotations with exclusivity and classism.
Thomas’ book was the last lament for luxury as a product of human excellence — it was dedicated to the world of artisans who took pride in what they made and in designers who pushed fashion to the extremes of possibility for the sake of testing the limits of human creativity. That world is gone. Instead, we witness and partake in the long and relentless parade of logoed mediocrity that passes for luxury today.