Monday, August 27, 2007

Designer Quality

Dana Thomas has investigated something I long suspected in her new book, reviewed by Caroline Weber this week in the NYTimes Sunday Book Review, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster -- that all that money people spend on Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton is just an overpriced version of other goods that are poor quality. Thomas talks about how luxury goods used to be the premium in craftsmanship, but now what consumers are paying for is the brand, not the quality:
Insofar as luxury has gone corporate, relentlessly focused on the bottom line, quality has disappeared. In order to keep margins high (in 2005, LVMH [Mo√ęt Hennessy Louis Vuitton] recorded more than $17 billion in sales and a net profit of almost $1.8 billion), Arnault and his competitors have cut costs wherever and whenever possible. The most obvious strategies involve using cheaper materials, replacing skilled artisans with computers and machines and outsourcing labor to less expensive markets like China. Sneakier tactics include “cutting sleeves a half an inch shorter” (“when you get to 1,000, you see the savings,” one employee told the author), replacing finished seams with raw edges and eliminating linings on the grounds that “women don’t really need” them.
Yes, ladies and gentleman, those fancy schmancy things you paid a month's salary for are poor quality. I used to make my own clothes, and I understand that that really top-notch clothing is supposed to look good -- inside and out. Now, since I generally steer clear of designer stores because I'm making a pittance as a writer, I'm not exactly sure what these really expensive clothes look like. But, check the seams. Are they straight? Are the stripes lined up in the seams? Are the seams finished? Is there lining? Increasingly, Thomas says, probably not.

On the other hand, Weber notes, the high days of luxury goods come with uncomfortable baggage -- a division of class:
Without quite coming right out and saying it, Thomas seems nostalgic for the good old days when “a middle-market suburban housewife,” say, couldn’t be confused with her betters. The author is shocked to overhear a woman “in a designer pantsuit, good jewelry and Chanel sunglasses” expressing interest in a fake Rolex. Spotting a couple loading shopping bags into a $380,000 car, she is surprised to learn that their loot came from an outlet store. In a discussion of the booming, underground market for counterfeit luxury goods, she compares “folks with a craving for the goods but not enough dough for the genuine thing” to petty teenage drug users — eager “to buy a couple of joints with their allowance or baby-sitting money.”

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