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What's the Emperor Wearing?

By Dian Vujovich

When Dana Thomas, author of “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster”, spoke to The Luxury Marketing Council earlier this month, the coverage of her speech ruffled some local feathers.

Thomas, you see, has written a book that’s basically about how branding has upped the price tag while at the same time taken quality out of many of the luxury names people either already have in their wardrobes or one day aspire to adorn their bodies with. Names like Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton and Prada come to mind.

According to Thomas, a culture and fashion writer for Newsweek who lives in Paris, many of the centuries-long traditions of master craftsmen who created only the highest of quality goods—be they perfumes, handbags, luggage, or clothing—for an elite few started to go up in smoke when Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of the LVMH conglomerate, democratized luxury. Sometime around the 1990s, he realized it was a brand’s name that drew buyers more than an item’s meticulously handcrafted quality.

Nothing new with that story. Particularly when global economies are spitting out multimillionaires by the tens of millions and billionaires by the hundreds of thousands—-many with more money to spend than they know what to do with and few with little common sense.

Nothing new with that story, either. Think Hans Christian Andersen’s, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Written in 1837, this children’s tale is about a couple of tailors the emperor hires who promise to make him a wonderful set of new clothes. They don’t. But that doesn’t stop the emperor from thinking they have and he wanders around proud as a peacock wearing nothing at all. It takes a child to shout to others that the ruler has no clothes on.

Gotta love Andersen for reminding everyone about the beauty of a child’s honestly.

I’m not part of the money police and really don’t give a hoot how anyone spends his or her money: If it’s yours, do with it what you want. But I do think people need to be aware. And that’s where Thomas’ book informs and provides a service.

It’s clear that the quality of products many of us purchase today—be they luxury items or not—aren’t the best we’ve seen or even owned. Remember some of the first telephones? When I was a kid, the one in my home was big and boxy, only came in the color black, had a short fabric cord, weighed I-don’t- know-how-many-pounds and if I could have pitched it at someone —and hit them—they no doubt would have been hospitalized.

Today our phones are disposable and new ones purchased almost every year. Are they made any better? Hardly. Can they do more things? Absolutely. Do we need all that they can do? Doubtful. Are they sold to us on gotta-have brand appeal? Without a doubt.

If luxury buying is your thing, I say go for it and buy until you’re blue in the face. But make sure to realize that that Prada bag may have a tag in it that reads “Italy” but dig a little deeper into it and you’re likely to find out it was actually made in China. And there’s nothing wrong with that unless you believe otherwise and go out and do that emperor thing… show off an Italian-made bag that really isn’t.

What I took away from Thomas’s presentation, however, wasn’t about the factories in China where workers assemble all sorts of luxury goods we believe are made in other countries or her comment that “bling is dead”. Bling, from my perspective, will never die—it will just go in and out of fashion like everything else does. Nope, I heard opportunity.

Opportunity for new designers at home and abroad to make a name for themselves; opportunity for U.S and world travelers to seek out hand-made luxury goods not sold in airport malls but in the small shops similar to those of 200 years ago where cobblers made shoes to fit only you, jewelers created one-of-a-kind brooches, bracelets and rings for you and you alone, and local designers’ couture was perfectly fit for you—-the luxury shopper.

Read the rest of the story at
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/02/20/business/0222-pay-graphic.html?ref=business and weep.

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