OPINION: SHOULD LUXURY STILL EXIST?
“The luxury industry has …sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history, and hoodwinked its customers. In order to make luxury “accessible,” tycoons have stripped away all that has made it special.”
-Dana Thomas, from “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost It’s Luster”-
“If you really think that the environment is less important than the economy, try holding your breath while you count your money.”
Earth and its oceans are rapidly warming. Fires, floods, diseases, pollution: the prophetic end-times are starting to feel eerily real. The other day I read yet another article where yet another scientist explained that it’s “more urgent than ever to proceed with mitigation” (Fountain, H. 2019). But then I immediately switched to an Instagram feed with highlights from fashion week, where a stream of Hadid’s were strutting elegantly in ever more mesmerizing outfits. And I got the sense that we, as a humanity, ain’t doing this right.
There is more and more focus on “responsibility” in fashion than ever. But what does responsibility in the fashion business even mean? Over the past decade, “sustainable” brands with “ethical” approaches have popped up everywhere. But the fashion industry must rely on constant demand to exist. Form and function are arbitrary. You probably only need one winter jacket, but the fashion industry needs consumers to buy one for every shade of the season, and then some more if their businesses are to thrive. The reliance on the urge to express oneself through clothing is, if it isn’t obvious, not essential for human survival. So why do we keep buying?
Well, fashion is fun and feels good. It helps define our sense of self, who we believe we are, and where we fit in in our communities (P. Murray, 2016). Besides, if everyone who had all the clothes they “needed” stopped shopping at once, entire economies would collapse. Logically, one way to be responsible in fashion is to just stop. Stop making. Stop buying. Stop strutting down the runway. Full-on fashion suicide. Or at least a major shrinking of the industry. It would be for the good for the earth! World markets collapsing is still better than all of humanity drowning in its own trash, right? Maybe getting a “fit off” is not as important as the survival of the human race?
I’m being dramatic, but not crazy.
So the question has to be asked: should luxury still exist?
Accessible, affordable, quality clothing made in harmless ways should exist. If those clothes happen to look good and make us feel good, even better. But “luxury” implies more than this. As Coco Chanel famously said, “luxury is a necessity that begins where necessity ends.” But what if what is necessary now is being content? What if what is necessary is living only off our basic necessities?
In “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost It’s Luster,” Dana Thomas explains how luxury fashion was originally determined by craftsmanship, artisanry, detail, and quality. The exclusivity of the product wasn’t falsely manufactured to keep demand high; it was a byproduct of its inception. It required skilled labor and was extremely expensive. The European aristocracy were the only ones who could afford it. They determined manners, taste, and extravagance for the Western World. The early fashionistas practiced a kind of performance art, pushing craft and art to their extremes. They walked around in great discomfort in insanely articulated one-off outfits like genuine demigods.
As the middle-classes began to emerge, they wanted to dress like demi-gods too. Who could blame them? But they could not afford or attain the same special elements that the higher aristocracy could. So, per usual, the capitalists caught wind, and shit hit the fan. Talented businesspeople recognized they could leverage the reputation of luxury fashion houses and mass produce cheaper products at slightly more affordable price points, so that the middle and lower class could (barely) afford them. They were selling off the brand mystique while maintaining reputations of authenticity and truth through savvy marketing. This is known as the democratization of luxury. Instead of expertly crafted custom couture gowns with a thousand gems sewn on a lace train by a well-trained tailor, you have assembly line cellphone cases plugged by robots with cubic zirconium. You have five-hundred-dollar “luxury” belt buckles sold next to a McDonald’s.
Conspicuous consumption is a term developed by the sociologist Thorstein Veblen, in the nineteenth century to describe the public consumption of expensive goods as a way to maintain social status and power. Invidious consumption, a subcategory of conspicuous consumption, is the public display of expensive goods explicitly to provoke envy. Both categories were originally thought to exist primarily in the upper classes of society. Specifically, the nouveau-riche class, or people with new wealth. But more research indicated that conspicuous and invidious consumption were rampant in lower-class economies. The purchasing of luxury items, even if you could barely afford them, acted as a psychological combatant to the trauma of poverty. Buying the five-hundred-dollar belt buckle taps into a deep hedonic feeling of self-worth i.e. “I am worth something because I own this.” (“Conspicuous Consumption,” 1.)
Whether intentionally or not, the democratization of luxury has not only led to a culture of conspicuous and invidious consumption, but of hyper-consumption, exacerbating class anxieties that unwittingly (or wittingly, or at least negligently) keep a vulnerable public down.This is bad on all possible fronts. More useless goods are produced using finite planetary resources and loads of fossil fuels, and are marketed indirectly as “necessities” to an oppressed frenetic public, further crippling them psychologically and financially. It’s bad for humanity. It’s bad for society. It’s bad for the earth. If this is luxury, humanity doesn’t need it.
So, does luxury need to exist? No. At least not in its current form. We need art. We need quality. We need responsible businesses. If luxury turned back to craftsmanship and innovation instead of hype-driven consumption, we could maybe argue for its continued existence.
Or maybe we could redefine luxury altogether. If luxury is the necessity that begins at the end of necessity, and what we need is an entirely new way of doing business, then maybe a new luxury is one that solves problems instead of focusing on endless profits. “Sustainable” and “responsible” fashion will ultimately fail if it doesn’t commit to its values completely. This is extremely hard. It means not everyone can be a billionaire and a demi-god. But what if new luxury is one of restraint, of knowing when you have all you need? What if there was a luxury of contentedness, the luxury of giving back? The luxury of the pursuit of solutions? That can be an art too. Maybe that can even create a strong economy.
Fountain, Henry. “Climate Change Is Accelerating, Bringing World ‘Dangerously Close’ to Irreversible Change.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Dec. 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/04/climate/climate-change-acceleration.html“>www.nytimes.com/2019/12/04/climate/climate-change-acceleration.html.
Murray, Peter Noel. “The Emotions of Luxury.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, Oct. 2016, http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/inside-the-consumer-mind/201610/the-emotions-luxury“>www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/inside-the-consumer-mind/201610/the-emotions-luxury.
Thomas, Dana. Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre. Penguin, 2015.
“Conspicuous Consumption.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Jan. 2020, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspicuous_consumption“>en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspicuous_consumption.