Blurring the Lines of Fashion and Luxury

Mizrahi did it…Lagerfeld, too…Wang, McCartney and more. These fashion icons are working both sides of the fashion hanger, creating low price lines for mass distribution, signing hefty contracts with stores like Kohl’s, Gap, Target, and H&M, reaching a totally different market and purported to be ringing the registers. On the other side of the hem, some designers are standing firm refusing to lend their talents to mainstream fashion fearing it will undermine their prestige among affluent shoppers.

While the idea of enabling the consumer to own a “designer” outfit, much the way designer fragrances allow the average customer to own a “designer original,” has its marketing experience upside, what is it doing to the significance of true luxury? And, are these mass designer lines a true representation of the designer’s talent and commitment to excellence. How is that possible when we’re clearly not dealing with satin piped seams and couture fabric to say the least?

Think back to genius like Madam Gres, Jean Patou, Jacques Fath, Poiret, Rochas, Schiaparelli, Poiret, Madeleine Vionnet? Can you imagine Capri pants for Target by Madam Gres? Where, oh where has true luxe and unparalleled elegance gone? Is it part of an era we have lost forever? In fashion, much like the silver screen and the world of entertainment, there are those that are truly one of a kind. The name St. Laurent comes to mind, de la Renta, Geoffrey Beene, to name only three. With the number of our one-of-a-kinds getting smaller, will we lose the real essence of luxury in fashion?

After a recent visit to the Avedon exhibit at the Museum of Photography in New York City, I was awed by the sumptuous fabrics and exquisite shapes of the designs worn by Avedon’s muses and models. It was an era of elegance, nightclubs, and balls, where pearls were worn like jeans are worn today. It was a time when luxury goods were reserved for the aristocrats, a small, elite little market.

So, with all the glamor that had such a splendid reign, why the shift to this new so-called luxury? Are designers satisfying the consumer or their revenues? What were once dubbed traditional luxury were products of exemplary quality that held up through the years and were passed on to children. That was the heirloom mentality. The new attitude appears to be that the item is “reasonable” enough not to worry about passing it on and thus, begs the question, is it luxury just because it has a designer’s name on the label? Where is the integrity that was clearly behind genuine Luxury? Have we lost it and are we willing to let it go.

This new “luxury,” if you will, is for the middle class; the ones who, several years ago, were willing to pay $2.50 to walk around with the immediately identifiable Starbucks cup or pay for bottled water that was advertised as though it were French perfume. While penetration into a market that was once affluent only opened enormous marketing opportunities, something had to give, as it always does. In this case, it’s quality that diminishes the aura of the designer’s prestige.

Yes, we’re living in the New Economy and having access to luxury-based products gives the consumer a feeling of accomplishment and happiness; deservedly so. However, call it the democratization of luxury, new luxury, or trading down; this change in position seems to have brought with it a feeling of allowable mediocrity. While this subject makes for a good debate and there are clearly two valid sides, my thinking is to hold fast to the idea of what true luxury once was. I’ll adapt to change with technology at warp speed, but my vote goes to maintaining exclusivity. Hail to Savile Row and Haute Couture!