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- 3 Feb 2014
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Rethinking Luxury's Democratic Dilemma


Lanvin for H&M

Melissa Wusaty of Brand + Commercial offers an alternative perspective regarding modern luxury. How it has and will continue to influence the entire fashion sector

There is no denying that 2013 turned luxury on its head. As brands struggle to keep up with the increasingly fluid tastes and habits of consumers on and offline, a new crop of discussions have risen to the surface, revealing polarized opinions on the ever-changing definition of luxury including how and where it’s sold.

While some have welcomed luxury’s newfangled democratic borders, there are those who question whether the industry has compromised more than it bargained for – dubbing democratic luxury a disease.

I am reminded of Victor Frankenstein, the ambitious scientist whose skewed but good intentions spawned a tragic abomination. This is a dramatic parallel to render, but it accurately captures the downward spiral of an idea and its mutation into something entirely different.

From feathery statements uttered by celebrities to fierce debates amongst industry insiders, when the principles of social equality and luxury fashion are placed side by side, it is easy to accept its obviousness (of course fashion is democratic) until your mind snags on whether the two are interchangeable.

 What is the industry really upset about? Design collaborations? The redefined borders of luxury? 

The truth is, something is wrong. When democratic luxury bled into the headlines during fashion week and beyond, the phrase picked up speed faster than we could decipher it. Early in 2013, Liroy Choufan’s Op-Ed piece for The Business of Fashion sparked such polarized opinions it became impossible to decipher the true issue at hand.

While I am the last to deny the potency of language down to a single noun, it’s odd how two words have reaked so much havoc, especially since there is a lack of consensus regarding what democratic luxury is, whether it exists at all.

So what is the industry really upset about? Design collaborations? The redefined borders of luxury? The mere accessibility of fashion in all its dimensions online? High-street brands showing at fashion week? Is the democratisation of fashion such a bad thing? Haven’t we been here before?

Stepping aside from the finger pointing, gross patronization and weeping nostalgia for a past most working in the fashion industry will fail to lament, how do we make sense of the linguistic conundrum that began as a not-so-serious sentiment but ironically became a weird actuality. Is luxury really diseased by democracy and if so, how did we go this long without noticing?

 We’re going to need fewer stores and the retail that is left is going to have to be exceptional 

Some have argued the moment Karl Lagerfeld descended the escalators of H&M in 2004, like some reverent hero to the unfashionable masses, the neatly defined borders of luxury began to deteriorate. Some have blamed the compromises brands have made across their supply-chain to cope with a challenging market.

I would like to call it all a red herring. What fashion is witnessing has nothing to do with designer collaborations and so forth, but a premature reaction to changing consumer behavior towards luxury.

As a child, I hated department stores. From the dust to the florescent lights, the moment I entered one I wanted out. I remember trekking around with my mother, trying to find a cashier, an escalator or even, wait for it, a door to exit the building. This enduring impression of department stores has influenced how and where I shop today, which involves avoiding any space that conjures these memories.

Perhaps because I consider the brand the amusement park and the product a souvenir, to quote marketer Marc Gobé, I want to recall that phenomenal experience I got in exchange for making a purchase.


Aesop Boutique, Paris

Offline shopping has become an immersive excursion that pulls at ones aesthetic preferences, intellect and values. A sentiment echoed by many, including Michael O’Keeffe, CEO of Australian skincare brand Aesop, in a recent edition of the Monocle quoted;

“We’re going to need fewer stores and the retail that is left is going to have to be exceptional at delivering a tangible, visceral human experience that people cannot get online.”

Brands that fulfill need and a unique, hedonistic experience will foster an intensely loyal tribe of followers. The fact is, not many high-street retailers offer such experiences. The unwritten notion has been cheap product, cheap experience and vice versa.

This can no longer be the case. The moment shopping morphed into a form of entertainment, our notion of what retail should or shouldn’t be has changed dramatically.

 Brands that fulfill need & a unique, hedonistic experience will foster an intensely loyal tribe of followers 

Aided by an intensified interest in the world of high-fashion, many high-street retailers have emulated the ambience high-end or niche brands typically offer. But in their attempt to draw shoppers back through their doors some made a fatal error.

Rather than improving all consumer touch points, that brands like Club Monaco have succeeded at achieving, some misinterpreted the desire for experience for accessible luxury. Enter our dilemma.

Luxury has never been inaccessible. It’s available to anyone who has the available means, patience to save or irresponsibly spend – that is personal choice. It is also omnipresent, no longer restricted to the world’s most well-heeled streets or those who can afford to wear head-to-toe designer.

A key consumer trend for 2014 is what Cormac Eubanks of Frog Design calls “Bucking the price norm . . . people are eager to purchase products at prices never before considered, provided those products deliver excellent design and user experience.”

 Luxury has never been inaccessible. It’s available to anyone who has the available means 

Although not all shoppers are motivated by experience, I would like to say most want items that reflect their price tag and offer a positive experience – this is key. Product and experience must be traded in tandem. Modern shoppers have consistently demonstrated they are taking their wallets to those that deliver both. It has little to do with making luxury accessible.

It is rather conceited and presumptuous to conclude that because a spotlight has been casted on the world of fashion, everyone wants luxury. Rather, what they are interested in is the world. The truth is, high-end fashion is not for everyone. Watering it down so it can reach the so-called thirsty masses is not the solution either – it creates more problems.

If a high-street retailer collaborates with a high-end designer, markets the product as luxury, what does that say about luxury goods? What does that say about the talent and the worth of those who spend years if not a lifetime dedicated to honing their craft? It says luxury is cheap – an ironic paradox that has compromised the health of the industry and the livelihood of thousands of workers.

Karl Lagerfeld for H&M

There is nothing enjoyable about limited edition designer collaborations that shoppers have to queue and physically fight for either. Mr. Lagerfeld was dead on when he accused H&M for producing minimal numbers of his designs, famously quoted “It is snobbery created by anti-snobbery.”

There is nothing more insulting than tolerating poor customer service or a nightmarish store environment and still being expected to make a purchase.

It is time to reassess the problem. Perhaps what is really diseasing the industry is its own presumptions. In the process of trying to be everything to everyone, the industry has missed what is really desired – an experience. An interaction that feels rare and personal.

To feel engaged with a brand that backs its product integrity, that feels human and translates this into everything it does. Brands that expose what really goes into their product rather than disguising itself under a sickening sweet veil of glamour. The product story that informs not miseducates. This is the future. It might not be for everyone, but that is okay.

To further investigate the luxury paradigm on Luxury Society, we invite your to explore the related materials as follows:

- Could ‘Luxury for Less’ Threaten Market Share for ‘True’ Luxury?
- The New Luxury is Luxury For All, Suggests Jean-Noël Kapferer
- How Premiumisation Has Made The Impossible Dream of Luxury Possible


Brand + Commercial is a niche, online publication, tasked with opening up the conversation on the commercial side of fashion, targeted to business owners and commercial decision makers, drawn transversally from industry best practices.