what is luxury fashion & what does it mean today?

In a personal reflection on a fashion world in evolution, Rebecca Lowthorpe says luxury now isn’t about selling the dream but about creating an emotional response and the feel-good factor it generates.

by Rebecca Lowthorpe
05 April 2016, 1:50pm

It must have been 2004 when I lifted the orange lid on the orange box and peeled back the white tissue paper. A Kelly bag. Polished black leather, blackened-silver hardware: a whole world of heritage in one discreet status symbol. The waiting list had been long -- a year, maybe two? Embarrassed to wear it, it lived in its box under my bed. A bag like that didn't belong on a woman like me; the only thing I could afford in an Hermès store at the time was the perfumed oxygen. How I came to have it doesn't matter -- and I did eventually use it, the more scuffed and knocked about it got the more comfortable I was carrying it -- but here's the point: back then, an Hermès bag was the pinnacle of luxury. These days it's not so simple.

What is luxury?

Luxury is… a very complex thing. It's no longer a straightforward arms race of craftsmanship between the likes of Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Chanel, even if authenticity and heritage are still highly prized by the world's luxury consumers. And it's not simply a question of how to excite our imagination with stupendous shows (Chanel, I'm thinking of you -- turning the Grand Palais into a supermarket, brasserie, airport or casino) in order to excite our imagination to the degree that we will fulfill our out-of-the-price-range lust for a couture bomber jacket with an $90 perfume, or $40 mascara -- even if that still oils the wheels of the big fashion corporations.

How has luxury changed in fashion?

Our relationship with luxury has become far more multi-faceted, subtly nuanced and laced with cryptic messages. Luxury is as wrapped up in the personal identity of much of the world as it ever was, but where it used to be I buy luxury goods; therefore I am it is now I buy luxury goods because I am special, unusual, interesting, in fact I'm so interesting that you should be interested in me, too. Today, the luxury item in question could be a one-off or something churned out by the hundreds-a-day -- if it has the right label stitched into it. It could be a gown crafted with breathtaking skill that took 4,200 hours to make in the Valentino ateliers in Rome, or it could be a white t-shirt stamped with the words 'YOU FUCK'N ASSHOLE' by the new messiah-brand, Vetements. This is luxury's greatest shift: it's not about how much, it's about who -- and who is constantly shifting.

At the fall/winter 16 shows in Paris, the intellectual capital of fashion, we witnessed the rise of fashion's new anti-establishment spirit. Chief troublemaker? Demna Gvasalia, the man behind the aforementioned t-shirt, head honcho of the Vetements collective and now Artistic Director of Balenciaga, where he made his debut this season. I wasn't at the show in the soundproof room where a soundtrack of air raid sirens played, and I didn't see the models stride out on intentional inward-angled heels, so I had no adrenaline-rush of emotional attachment to the brand before I saw the collection hanging on sterile rails in the Balenciaga showroom -- but still the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. There were tailored jackets with squarish shoulders set slightly forward and hips gently padded to mimic the way couture models once posed; puffa jackets designed to hug shoulders like a grand opera coat; gabardine macs you could wear a number of ways by buttoning its skirt to the back or front; a black blazer with gold buttons; outsized shirts, ski pants and dizzy patchworks of floral prints cut into big loose dresses. Gvasalia called them 'jetté dresses,' as in when all your clothes are tipped out onto your bed and you just want to 'throw' something on. It's a neat metaphor for what Gvasalia has achieved: he has quite literally tipped out the traditional rules of luxury and replaced them with clothes that speak the language of our times. He makes everyday clothes precious; he makes avant-garde wearable. It's simple but powerful. Clever him. He is now the fashion world's number one luxury influencer.

Last season, that title belonged to Gucci's Alessandro Michele. In just twelve months, Michele re-established Gucci as a brand of vision, brought new customers through its doors, witnessed a steep rise in sales and changed the fashion landscape. The much-copied Gucci formula boils down to merchandise—tons of it: a different shoe and bag with every look, all wrapped up in a familiar-ish, retro-vintage, skewed lady package that can flip from genderless trouser-suit to rainbow-hued gown. The consumer is just getting to know, and like, this new Gucci. She can see a bit of herself in the brand's wonky heroine and she just bought a monogrammed bag decorated with crystal lightening bolts and pink lips. She knows the new Gucci via the Glen Luchford-shot print ads and the film campaign featuring a Gucci glam squad running riot through a derilict Berlin shopping center. She watched the video of the fall/winter 16 show on Vogue.com minutes after it actually took place and then she scrolled through all the blurry pictures of said show on Instagram. She watched all the Gucci-clad celebrities on the red carpets. Here's the thing: Gucci's brand reincarnation is eighteen months old—still a baby. And yet it is everywhere, we know it intimately and it feels -- what? Familiar. In Milan this season, some were already calling for more change at Gucci.

Preserving Luxury in Today’s Fashion World

Standing around for a show to start in Paris, an influential American buyer told me: "We were too quick to lift our skirt and show our knickers. We need to put the skirt down -- and quickly." He was talking about the loss of high fashion's exclusivity, the velvet ropes removed from what was once an elitist club. Fashion now saturates social media and it's affecting consumers' appetite for instant gratification. He said: "She gets hugely excited about a show on Instagram and we have to tell her she can't buy it for another six months. But by then, she's seen the dress on a celebrity and the bag in the ad campaigns and she's bored to death of it." So what's the answer, I asked the buyer? How do you prevent luxury ennui? "You do what Hedi did," he said, referring to Saint Laurent's Hedi Slimane and his latest collection -- his last for the house, which made it all the more pointed. Slimane presented his collection in the manner of an old-fashioned couture show to a tiny number of press and buyers. "But it was still all over Instagram," I pointed out, to which he replied, "So ask everyone in the audience to respect the house's privacy -- they'd do that. Why don't they put goddamn stickers on our phones?"

It's lifestyle, cars, houses, holidays, restaurants, art, fashion, toilet paper. Luxury -- the word -- is labelled on everything from bedding to washing up gloves; it's ubiquitous and oh so easy to access. So how should the fashion business preserve the essence of luxury? Put stickers on our phones every time we enter a show space? Rely on the integrity of its audience not to post a single picture? Or should it embrace the consumers' cravings with 'see-now-buy-now' collections -- as Burberry intends to do? Come September the British powerhouse will have fused its men's and womenswear collections together in one almighty brand-boosting runway event enabling its customers to buy the collections the instant it hits the catwalk. A luxury brand selling directly to its audience, cutting out the middlemen -- the glossy magazines and the department stores -- how very dare it? The Burberry news continues to divide the industry. New York is mostly in favor of it, Milan and Paris mostly aren't. But what about the dream of luxury, they cry? Doesn't the six-month wait create desire?

No. What creates desire is the same thing that creates true luxury -- uniqueness and our emotional response to it. Real luxury is about finding new ways to articulate beauty, power and status -- which is at the heart of why we buy anything at all. Creating real luxury requires knowledge of what went before, intuition for what's to come and delivering it in a way that feels right for now, be it rebellious or classic, freakish or fun. Only fashion that can do that can be considered true luxury. And if it feels good enough, it doesn't matter how long you have to wait to buy it.

Rebecca Lowthorpe is the Fashion Director of Grazia UK.


Text Rebecca Lowthorpe
Photography Jason Lloyd Evans

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