Beautiful products to beautiful profits — how luxury lost its lustre

Dana Thomas, author of 'Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre', gives us a unique insight into the past, present and future of the luxury industry

dana thomas profit luxury industry

"In the old days, luxury houses strived to make beautiful product. Now they strive to make beautiful profits." — Dana Thomas

In her 2007 exposé of the dubious workings and inflated profit margins of the multibillion-pound luxury fashion industry, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre, Dana Thomas documented a stark shift away from exclusivity, expert craftsmanship and superior quality and towards ruthless cost-cutting and assembly-line manufacturing.

A decade has passed since the author’s bestselling book was first published, so we were thrilled to have the chance to talk to Thomas about how she believes the luxury industry has changed in recent years, and why she has decided to now investigate what she describes as the "Luxury Refugee" movement — fronted by uncompromising producers committed to upholding and reviving traditional values of authenticity and integrity.

dana thomas Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre

Dana Thomas, author of New York Times bestseller 'Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre' (photo by Michael Roberts/Maconochie Photography).

We recently mentioned your book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre in our article  How the luxury industry makes a fortune through deceptionCould you tell us about what prompted you to write the piece? Did you have a particular reader profile in mind?
When I joined Newsweek in Paris in the mid-1990s, fashion was quickly evolving from small, family-owned and run companies to brands in major luxury groups, and I found myself writing stories about mergers and acquisitions and global expansion, rather than the creative side of the business.

I was writing about how much money luxury companies were making at the same time as I remarked how the quality of their products was dropping significantly. I put on my reporter’s hat with a consumer’s point of view to find out why, and that became Deluxe.

I did have a reader in mind: my mother. She was still under the impression that these brands did things the old-fashioned way. And I thought: If she does, then a lot of other folks do too.

I was writing about how much money luxury companies were making at the same time as the quality of their products was dropping significantly.

In the book, you talk about the fact that in the luxury industry, products are now the means to the end, not the end itself. Could you explain this idea?
The end — the raison d’être — is money. In the old days — back when Louis Vuitton, Thierry Hermès and Guccio Gucci were making luxury projects — luxury houses strived to make beautiful products. Now they strive to make beautiful profits.

In Deluxe, you also discuss how standards in the production of luxury products had been diminishing in the decade prior to the book’s publication in 2007. How would you say the luxury industry has changed since the book was published?
It’s gotten much, much bigger. Toward the end of the book I predicted that there would be a splitting of the industry: the megabrands would get huge, and then there would be second tier made up of what I call “Luxury Refugees”, who wanted to return to the core values of the industry, namely craftsmanship. I think that has happened, and that second movement is one I am now exploring in Bring It Home: Authenticity, Integrity and the Future of Fashion, to be published by The Penguin Press in 2019.

Bring It Home: Authenticity, Integrity and the Future of Fashion craftsmanship

For her upcoming book, 'Bring It Home: Authenticity, Integrity and the Future of Fashion', Thomas is investigating a movement of producers striving to maintain their integrity and standards of expert craftsmanship.

You have carried out extensive research into how luxury brands cut corners using inferior materials and quietly outsourcing production to developing nations. From your experience, are consumers becoming more aware of these practices?
Yes, without question.

In that case, why do you think it is that so many continue to buy into the luxury industry?
Because marketing and spin works. And it trumps books like Deluxe.

In Deluxe, you spoke about some of the legal loopholes which allow luxury brands to qualify for sought-after 'made in' tags. Recent reports show that this is still happening, with Louis Vuitton outsourcing the production of all but the soles of their footwear to factories in Romania. Do you foresee laws changing in the near future to ensure transparency from fashion retailers — in materials, production location, social impact, and even profit margins?
No. There will be more smoke and mirrors and more loopholes and more spin. The corporate titans will always find a way to squeeze out more profits and hoodwink consumers.

louis vuitton corporate profits luxury

"There will be more smoke and mirrors and more loopholes and more spin. The corporate titans will always find a way to squeeze out more profits and hoodwink consumers." — Dana Thomas

I try to buy good, timeless pieces that are made to last.

Having reported on the fashion industry for so many years, you must have a very clear idea about how to discern genuine quality. Could you tell us some of the characteristics that you look for when you are shopping?
Basic things: Are the seams straight? Is it lined? Is it sewed together or is it glued? Is it overpriced? I try to buy good, timeless pieces that are made to last.

And honestly, I don’t shop much: right now, I’m wearing a pair of Issey Miyake navy pants I bought in the mid-1990s, and a grey cashmere pullover I picked up in Connelly in London last winter. I think that visit to Connelly was the last time I went shopping. And I probably won’t go again until the New Year.

Lastly, in Deluxe, you say that only a handful of brands strive to maintain and achieve “true luxury”. How would you describe an item of “true luxury”?
Something that is special and unique, made and sold with respect and integrity, and maybe a bit of love.

 

Dana Thomas

Having begun her longstanding career in journalism writing for the Style section of The Washington Post, in 1987, Dana Thomas received the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation Scholarship and the Ellis Haller Award for Outstanding Achievement in Journalism.  In 2016, the Minister of Culture of France made her a Chevalier of the Order of Arts & Letters.

From 1995 to 2011, Thomas served as a cultural and fashion correspondent for Newsweek in Paris. Since then, she has written extensively for Architectural Digest, the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, WSJ, the Financial Times, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Elle Décor, to name but a few.

She is the author of the double-biography Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano and the New York Times bestseller, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre, both published by The Penguin Press. Bring It Home: Authenticity, Integrity and the Future of Fashion, will also be published by The Penguin Press in 2019.