Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Book of the Week

Today starts a new feature on this blog, the Thoughtful Dresser Book of the Week. These are new or recently published books I've been reading with I think are worth drawing to others' attention.

UK edition

The first is Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre by Dana Thomas. There are few fashion books as interesting, informative and rigorous as this one. Thomas is the Paris fashion and culture correspondent for Newsweek, I met her when she was in London in September and found her a mine of information about how high end fashion works and when it is and when it is not worth shelling out for it. I subsequently recommended the book to the PR for a major British retail chain who was as riveted by it as I was. It's shocking to discover that a Marc Jacobs bag is being produced in the same factory, on the same machines and made by the same person as a department store on brand.

I wrote a guest post on the Bag Snobs a few months ago, which I'll reproduce here:

Dana Thomas delves into the mainly European-led luxury market, the heirs to some of the world’s most famous houses: Hermes, Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton. Dana Thomas’ thesis, unsurprisingly, is that luxury goods have been democratised, that anyone prepared to max out their credit card can buy deluxe. The trend started in Japan in the 1980s, with disposable income looking for something to spend it on, and has now radiated out to the formerly Communist states - China and the Soviet Union – long starved of things to buy,. Under the direction of two or three companies controlling almost all world-wide luxury brands, once-distinguished houses have now become the window-dressing for the most ruthless forms of capitalism.

But more revealingly, Thomas shows that not only are more people buying luxury goods, but that the goods themselves are not what they once were. An overall decline in quality and the outsourcing of production (often concealed) to China means, for example, that a Prada dress purchased in 1992 is inferior to a Prada pair of pants purchased a decade later. The reason? Cheaper thread.

I have often wondered why a Hermes Birkin should cost so much, and whether the waiting list is merely part of the hype. Thomas shows that Hermes, along with Chanel, is one of the few companies left which retains its old standards of manufacture. A Hermes bag bought today is made in exactly the same way, taking the same time, as the first bag presented to Jane Birkin 40 years ago. If there is a waiting list, it only demonstrates that there are more people out there who want the few remaining real things.

The book leaves you to ponder an awkward question. When we buy luxury goods are we being ripped-off with items not much better in quality than we could buy for a fraction of the cost? I would argue, not really. A recently-purchased Armani Collezioni jacket is simply a vastly superior piece of clothing to its equivalent at Zara. It fits better, looks better and will last longer. Design is all. But if it’s design you’re looking for, why not just buy a fake, an exact copy?

Because the manufacturing, and by extension the purchasing of fakes, is a truly disgusting, immoral act. Not only is it intellectual property theft, but the conditions in which fake bags are made are terrifyingly evil – child slaves sewing until they are blinded by overwork, or in the case of a factory in Thailand, children whose legs were broken by their ‘owner’ when they begged to go out and play. And the profits from fakes are feeding back into the drugs trade, as well as financing terrorism. There seems to be links between the traffic in fakes and the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre, as well as possible connections with Hizbollah, the Lebanese organisation which fought last summer’s war with Israel.

At then end of this book, Thomas argues that the desire for beautiful, well-made things, should not be an end in itself - the greed for more - but rather that one buys something because that thing is, in itself, simply right. To save up for the one or two truly beautiful things of quality, the very best you can afford, this is the true mark of style.

You can buy this here, on on the Amazon panel on the right, from the UK or US stores


60goingon16 said...

'It's shocking to discover that a Marc Jacobs bag is being produced in the same factory, on the same machines and made by the same person as a department store on brand.'

Shocking but no longer surprising as it's been going on for years. The same is true of many, many designer wedding dresses; they're run up in vast numbers in cheap labour factories in China and only finished off in the designer's studio. My daughter was having the final fitting for her dress at the studio of a leading wedding dress designer a few years ago, when the designer's assistant inadvertently let slip the true story of the wedding dress trail. As it was, between the Chinese factory and the designer's staff, the dress had not been made to size and was a mess. It took last minute alterations by a skilled dressmaker, recommended by Brides magazine, to put things right - as far as possible. It was, she said, one of the most badly made wedding dresses she had ever had to work on. (And, yes, we got some but not all of our money back when we threatened to sue.)

Toby wollin said...

"Real things" - now, that is a very interesting thought. I'm not sure if it means "things that are really worth having" or "things that I know were not made in an unethical manner by kids chained to looms or sewing machines." We have a chest of drawers that we absolutely know was made by someone in my husband's family - either his father or his grandfather. The thing weighs a ton; it's been repaired a number of times, and it is frankly, ugly. Very, very ugly in only the way that country furniture cobbled together by people who were just making something to perform a function but who have no real design or carpentry skills can produce. Is it worth having? Absolutely - it's a family heirloom, a piece of history. If I saw it in a store, would I buy it (even new and without the patches and repairs) - no I would not.
One of the major reasons that I sew is that I know that I put into the clothing that I make aspects of construction that I feel are important - yes, I am not putting a monetary value on my labor, so adding those things are acts of conscience and sometimes love. People who manufacture clothing are concerned with producing an item with the minimum number of design features that declare it to be 'xyz' - any more than that will cost them additional money. On the other hand, however, one of my big beefs with manufactured clothing is the terrible cheapness of the linings. I don't know what percentage of the cost of a piece of clothing is the fabrics/buttons/zip, etc. but I do know that usually in manufactured stuff, labor is the largest part. From sewing I know that using cheap stuff does not pay. It's harder to work with, does not perform under the sewing machine very well and in the end does not save you money. The number of times I have bought a coat for example, the the coating itself is not bad, especially if it is wool, but the lining is this sleazy acetate garbage which is not only tatty, but cut to exactly the inside measurement of the coat(which of course, - you need at least an inch extra all around in order to get the lining to lay properly AND so that you don't end up ripping the lining out when you put it on)so that it does not last very long at all and must be replaced sometimes within the first season of wearing. And this was in reasonably made coats. The extra couple of inches of lining material and a higher quality of lining material would not have raised the cost of the coat that much but would have raised its long term value tremendously. The manufacturer would have been able to get much for for it...but they don't. They decided long ago that clothing is "throw-away" and it's not worth it to them to build value into it.

brooksie said...

Birkin bags have only been around since the early 80s at the very earliest. Perhaps the"40 years ago" refers to the Kelly? That style, is also a bit older than 40 years, but it fits. The Birkin is the baby on the Hermes block!

Anyway, I have this book and am working my way thru it among other things. I'm a bit ambivalent about it all, tbh. It feels a bit like it picked up where Teri Agins' "The End Of Fashion" left off. Something about how Thomas presents the Japanese bothers me.

Linda Grant said...

Ah, I stand corrected brooskie, thank you. I associate Jane Birkin with the 60s. My first error.