Book Smarts

Recommended Reading: Deluxe by Dana Thomas.

“In 2004, nearly half of the U.K. population claimed to have purchased at least one luxury product in the last twelve months,” writes Dana Thomas in Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, a critique on mass market luxury practices. “This made the luxury tycoons giddy with glee…they could roll out their stores across the United States and Europe, fill them with affordable, logo covered products targeted to this new, shop happy middle market, and watch their sales — and profits — mount.”

This passage says it all. If there’s another book that more perfectly encapsulates the driving force behind Lean Luxe, I have yet to find it. Inside these pages, Ms. Thomas uncovers the deep-rooted strategies luxury conglomerates use in their quest towards ever-increasing profits. Published in 2007, it offers a snapshot of the luxury world as it was before e-commerce and direct-to-consumer brands began dragging the market kicking and screaming into our current consumer-centric era.

One element that’s been a point of contention with me whenever we analyze how the concept of luxury is evolving today, is that the dialogue is often reduced to how LVMH, Richemont, and Kering are adapting to the changes in the marketplace. These conglomerates still matter, of course (if by their market size alone), but framing the ongoing conversation around their responses and struggles doesn’t tell the whole story.

That narrative overshadows the fact that in many cases, LVMH, Richemont, and Kering — when they become more discreet with their branding, for instance, or introduce a new ‘niche’ line of fragrances, say — are simply mirroring what modern luxury brands have been doing — and excelling at — for nearly a decade. In other words, the standard dialogue around how luxury is evolving rarely acknowledges what’s actually happening: Emerging luxury brands are largely dictating the flow and the behavior of the luxury industry. As we’ve previously argued, this redefining of luxury starts with them, not with LVMH, Richemont, or Kering.

That’s why Deluxe is so important. While she doesn’t overtly articulate this notion in the book, Ms. Thomas’ work helped me consider the possibility that perhaps people have been going about discussing luxury’s shift the wrong way. Prior to the 1980s, standardized, mass-market luxury simply did not exist to the degree that it does today. Ironically, when brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci debuted in the 1800s and early 1900s, they embodied the principles that modern luxury brands do today. It wasn’t until the 1980s that LVMH and PPR (now Kering) began plastering logos and monograms on every product, and opening massive, flagships, that commodification and mass production standards in luxury began to take hold.

So if conglomerates have distorted our notion of what true luxury should (and used to) mean, and now find themselves mimicking what new luxury brands are doing (in an effort to revert back to their original ways), then it’s pretty clear that when talking about luxury, we should be focusing our attention, first and foremost, to the new leaders of the industry: modern luxury ventures.

We should be talking about what strategies these enterprises are using, how and why they’re using them, and why these ventures are important for the luxury industry moving forward.

Old world luxury brands existed to serve the elites of society. It was not an industry for the people, nor did it have any intention to be. But the branding was discreet, with logos hidden on the inside. And products were judged first by the quality of its materials and craftsmanship, not by the brand name that produced it. These items were more about luxurious practicality, and far less about showy status. Luxury products during those days were always personalized as much as possible, and they were made to last for decades. A luxury customer expected to the product to be robust, to age gracefully, with the intention of passing it on to loved ones.

What’s clear, based on reading Deluxe, is that the original principles of luxury are what’s currently being revived by emerging luxury companies — not the legacies.

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