Luxury is looking more like an industry than an elite association of craftsmen and couturiers seeking to create meticulously made objets de luxe. There is no denying that in the last few decades the luxury fashion industry has become, well, a fully-fledged business – where the focus is just as much on mass-producing, marketing and merchandising than manufacturing fine garments or accessories.
The once-gemütlich family-run, artisanal luxury masons of yore have transformed or been swallowed up by tightly managed conglomerates, where expressions such as economies of scale and vertical integration are the rallying-cry of the boardroom. The corresponding shift that ensued has seen luxury goods, once the preserve of an extraordinarily rarefied few, become akin to very expensive commodities, desired by the masses and ever more readily accessible.
Indeed, the new luxury business model is predicated largely on a dual emphasis: on desirability, as a result of harnessing the power of the luxury brand to seduce and attract new customers into the fold; and on availability, as a result of both opening up distribution channels to reach a larger population, and offering a price-point structure which allows virtually anyone to buy into a piece of the luxury magic.
Brand extensions and entry level products have added further to this dimension of accessibility in the luxury equation. Cosmetics, small leather goods, eyewear and soft accessories have brought luxury to the reach of the many. Nonetheless, the paradox which has resulted is unsustainable – surely, a $30, mass-produced, mass-distributed eau de toilette is not luxury, however fabulous the accompanying advertising campaign?
Over the years, the luxury brand has risen to become a globally-recognized guarantee, bestowing on the wearer attributes of distinction, discernment and power. Indeed, the expression “spending power” exemplifies the semantics of luxury, where consumption is inextricably linked with wealth and status. This makes for a heady and intoxicating mix – and a cynic may argue, a marketer’s dream.
While the broadening scope of luxury may be an issue to some, what is perhaps more insidious is the continued stubbornness in calling it luxury.
The word “luxury” is typically defined as describing products or services of a very high standard, which above and beyond their functional utility give pleasure or comfort, are difficult to obtain and bring the owner self-esteem. In economic terms, luxury goods are classified as Verblen goods – that is, items for which demand increases in proportion to the price.
While the economic phenomenon of masstige (or, “mass prestige” – a term intended to capture how luxury has now become a mass phenomenon) is well-documented, the linguistic aftermath of this phenomenon remains a problem. The term “luxury” has been so indiscriminately bandied around – together with its other two ugly stepsisters, “exclusive” and “limited edition” – to the point where, truly, words have lost meaning.
Recently, the municipal government of Beijing has banned all use of the word “luxury” in an effort to placate the gap between rich and poor, and discourage “hedonism and spiritual emptiness.” While I am not sure whether I can fully agree with the reasoning – after all, I doubt very much that a sharp economic gap can be defined solely by the consumption of luxury goods – I can only wryly smile at the effect, and wonder what would happen if all of us luxury marketers had to suddenly drop the word “luxury” from our vocabulary?
Several high-end fashion brands seem to have begun to corner a niche best described as “excellence” – where the focus seems distinctly on capitalizing on areas of expertise and creating a transparent value proposition – stripped of the shackles of “luxury” semantics.
Shifting the focus away from luxury may prove to strategically be a very smart choice indeed. Linguistically, “excellence” seems to require more of a qualifier – for instance, excellence in developing innovative fabric techniques, excellence in tailoring and cut, excellence in creating novel prints, excellence in providing the fresh, modern woman of today a viable work-to-evening wardrobe. In opening up the conversation to those unique identity features that differentiate the brand, fashion marketers could find themselves actually needing to dig deeper into what makes the particular brand special.
Author: Ceci Guicciardi
Copy Editor: Gina Conforti
Photo Credits: Steve Taylor