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Luxury or Fashion? Say What You Mean And Mean What You Say!

Sep 20 2012

Frustration

Increasingly, one of my pet peeves is language. For instance, I have a longstanding issue with the intentional misuse of terms by marketeers for the purposes of sweet talking consumers into parting with their cash. The oxymoron "affordable luxury" comes to mind as does "Size 0". Then there are terms that bear only a passing or coincidental association with one another and yet get used interchangeably by people who should know better, less the result of intention than of sheer sloppiness.

Forbes recently published a brief article entitled "Does the Internet Spell the End of Luxury, or the Birth of New Luxury?" Catchy title. As it turns out, the corresponding article has little or nothing to do with the impact of the internet on the luxury industry but rather chronicles the ways in which the Internet and social media are revolutionising the fashion industry. Although fashion at its very best can properly be considered a luxury good (haute couture and a handful of fashion and accessories brands would probably qualify), the term "fashion" is not and never has been a synonym for "luxury". Yet, time and again, I read magazine articles and blog posts that confuse the two terms.

The confusion is to some extent understandable. It doesn't help for instance that luxury brands themselves routinely market products that are not luxury at all (lipstick, fragrance, sunglasses, etc) or that traditional luxury brands have, for better or for worst, entered the lucrative fashion fray. Also, luxury department stores like Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman sell both luxury fashion brands and plenty of other fashion brands that are clearly not luxury (just because you buy an item of clothing or an accessory at Bergdorf's doesn't necessarily make it a luxury item even though the experience of shopping at Bergdorf's may very well be quite luxurious). So, I fully concede that the distinction is not always clear, especially to consumers.

Having said all of this, one would think that a professional journalist writing for a reputable business publication such as Forbes would know the difference or at least, know to research the term. The fact that the author cites Topshop Unique to illustrate an article ostensibly about luxury dispelled any illusions I may have had in this respect. If consumers cannot rely on a publication such as Forbes to make the necessary distinctions between "fashion" and "luxury", who can they rely on?

Sincerely,

The Luxe Chronicles

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Thank you all for your comments. It's such a relief for me to see that I'm not alone to be bothered by the sloppy use of language in relation to the luxury and fashion industries.

John Agee Paris: There is nothing snobbish about decrying the misuse of language and the exploitation of consumers by brands and marketeers. I would add that consumers owe it to themselves to inform themselves about the products they buy. We live in the information age. There is little excuse for remaining ignorent.

Lure of Luxe: No apologies necessary. I love a good, honest debate of ideas.

Mr. T: So glad you enjoyed the post. I share your pet peeve about the term "haute couture". I would add to the list of much maligned terms "bespoke", "art" and "curation".

Please keep the comments (both public & private) coming! It's what keeps me on my toes!

Helene

I LOVE THIS POST!!!..thank you Helene!
I currently work in the french fashion industry, and my BIGGEST pet peeve everytime I visit home(Cali, USA) is the Americans commandeering the words-Haute couture.OMG STOP using it! I have seen haute couture everything from low-end stuff with "couture" details(gag) to Haute couture doggie treats(WTF?) and the fashion/lifestyle rags there don't help, with every designer/wannabe claiming that they are using "kootore" techniques to "elevate" their work.....lol so thanks again; yes journalists should be more responsible with their understanding and usage!...personally? I think the word should be banned in all English speaking countries...lol

"Sadly, consumers are not always sufficiently informed or don't think to question the brand message." That about sums it up.

How can I say this without coming off as a snob? There is a lack of cultivation in our time that might have existed in more abundant quantities in a previous era. Naturally certain luxury/fashion players can take advantage of that.

As a designer, I've always said that the inherent problem with luxury in our time is that you can't have real luxury "fast". Real luxury takes time. But some of the big players don't have time because they have to hit the forecasted target for their quarterly stock price. (One could say this kind of short-sightedness is a large reason why the world is in its present crisis).

My misunderstanding, Helene. Thank you for clarifying! I seem to get unnecessarily sensitive about the division of luxury and fashion after my years in France. Anyhow, you are completely right, and I enjoy your thoughts on the issue. Your blog has definitely elevated the luxury industry discussion.

Jordan

Thank you for your comment lure of luxe but perhaps you misread my post?

Nowhere do I state that fashion cannot be considered luxury. In fact, I expressly wrote that at its very best, fashion can indeed be considered luxury. Also, nowhere do I state that to qualify as luxury, a brand is required to have heritage. In fact, I don't discuss heritage at all in my post. Incidentally, that view is one put forward most prominently by Jean-Noel Kapferer and Vincent Bastien and I don't personally subscribe to it. Finally, nowhere in my post do I state that a luxury brand cannot introduce fashion and still be considered luxury. What I do state is that not all products marketed by a luxury brand or sold in a luxury department store constitute a luxury good per se.

Europeans separate "luxury" and "fashion" for the very good reason that the two are indeed distinct industries that operate under different constraints and conditions. Slapping a bloated price on a garment or accessory and calling it "luxury" doesn't make it so. Neither does mass-producing a mid-range fashion accessory and calling it "affordable luxury". Sadly, consumers are not always sufficiently informed or don't think to question the brand message. Sloppy writing and analysis by a reputable magazine such as the Forbes article in question don't exactly help.

Personally, I consider this first and foremost a consumer issue (caveat emptor). It is also a matter of transparency and trust between a brand and its customers. I'm not certain that casting it as a "New World" vs "Old World" or European debate really helps move the conversation forward.

Helene

Europeans tend to separate "luxury" and "fashion" brands into two distinct categories, whereas in many other regions, the two can be intertwined. In the "New World" view, a fashion brand can also be a luxury brand, just as a house of luxury can also introduce fashion into their offer.

Many prominent French marketers also say that to be counted as luxury, a brand must have heritage. They claim that if a brand does not have a long history of selling luxe products or services, then it cannot be called luxury. However, there are many new brands without heritage that certainly qualify, and they don't necessarily need to be haute couture ones.

Didier Grumbach has said that luxury is what remains when fashion has moved on. I disagree. Fashion does move quickly, but luxury brands, products, and services can fall out of style and be subject to trends as well. As long as a fashion brand upholds the principles of very high quality and limited accessibility, it can simultaneously be considered luxury and fashion.

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Welcome to The Luxe Chronicles.

The Luxe Chronicles is a collection of interviews, profiles and musings on various aspects of the luxury industry and occasionally, a rant on our celebrity obsessed culture and the dumbing down of our collective sense of style and esthetic.

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