Dana Thomas is stuffing envelopes with copies of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre and writing notes to go with them. What to say to Bernard Arnault, chairman of Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, one of the world’s biggest producers of luxury goods? "Oh, I dunno. 'I hope you enjoy my book'," she says. Arnault will have a fit.
The French mogul is fingered as a fiendish money-making former property developer with no artistic sensibility and Louis Vuitton is characterised as the McDonald’s of the luxury industry. "A million served," says Thomas drily. The logo is as recognisable as the golden arches. "It really is. I would certainly put it in the top 10, along with Nike, Coca-Cola."
How has this come about? Thomas says it’s because of greedy designers wanting to cash in on rising disposable incomes and new Asian markets. "Luxury goods are the only area in which it is possible to make luxury margins," as Arnault puts it. Many cut corners and use inferior materials; many outsource to developing nations where labour is cheap and goods are made mostly on machines. So what are consumers paying for when quality has given way to quantity? That’s the big question.
"It sure is," Thomas says. "We are paying more for marketing hype and profits for shareholders than we are for craftsmanship. That’s proven when you look at handbags."
She visited a factory in China where luxury handbags were turned out for $US100 ($122) and sold at Harvey Nichols, Hong Kong, for 12 times that amount.
"And where is that money going? Not to middlemen. To the factory owners and paying for gigantic ad campaigns that make you want to buy these things."
Everyone swoons over glossy magazine advertisements, yet, unless you are size 0, the goodies are more and more impractical.
Especially gross is the generic "It" bag of which former Gucci designer Tom Ford yodelled, "It’s like you gotta have it or you’ll die." Now self-employed, he says, "All those handbags make me sick. It’s so formula."
And yet, we swoon on. The book’s blurb, says Thomas, Newsweek’s Paris cultural and fashion writer, digs deep into the dark side of the luxury industry to uncover the secrets that Prada, Gucci, Burberry and others don’t want us to know. She shrugs off impending retribution. "Maybe they won’t return telephone calls, or I’ll be banned from fashion shows. So what?"
Thomas interviewed corporate heads, factory workers, old-money clients and new middle-class consumers to reveal a horrendous picture of new luxury today.
By last year, hundreds of thousands of luxury items were churned out in developing countries and, unbeknown to customers, adorned with a "Made in Italy/France/England" label.
Thomas says that a new twist has emerged. "Many now stamp on the back 'Designed in Italy/England/France’. Then ‘Made in China’, or wherever, is hidden in a little place you would never look." Few own up to this practice, but Thomas names two: Celine and Prada. "They do now (own up)," she says.
"Miuccia Prada was producing leather goods in China by May 2005." But when they met and Thomas asked how she justified this, the designer’s attitude was, "Well, I don’t have to".
It’s the Big Cultural Difference, Thomas says. "I go home and tell my French husband, Herve, and he laughs, 'You’ll never get it. That’s the way we are.' "
At this point the urge to examine one’s labels is irresistible. How genuine is that "Made in Italy" Emporio Armani suit, or the Gucci shoes? When I go shopping, who can I trust? And how do I know?
Thomas says several brands are cut and partially assembled in China then finished in Italy. "Shoes for example. They do all the assembling, put the soles on, the embroidery is done in Italy and it becomes a 'Made in Italy' shoe. Another way brands get around the cost of labour is to import Chinese workers to Italy. "It’s like a Chinatown between Rome and Florence. Labour costs are far less and that way they can still say it's 'Made in Italy'. It's a real trick."
How on earth did she persuade the manufacturers to reveal their secrets? "Oh, I had to sniff around, do lots of snooping." The only designer she heard openly embracing manufacturing in China was Giorgio Armani on a visit in 2004. "The 'Made in Italy’ is important for the top line because it suggests a certain specialisation," he said, "but to manufacture some of our other lines in China - as long as we control the quality - why not?"
And why not fake it? Thomas heard one rich woman ask a five-star hotel concierge where was the nearest place to buy a fake Rolex watch and was it any good?
Faking is easy, according to Miuccia Prada. "Take some details from the brand's past, add a little bit of gold and that's it. I can't bear it. Real luxurious people hate status. You don’t look rich because you have (an expensive) dress." Going mass-market has its problems, the most obvious being theft (otherwise known as "shrinkage"). And the wrong people wear luxury brands. British working class "chavs" (think bogans in bling) roam the streets wearing Burberry clobber — "People the executives aren’t so keen on," Thomas says.
Once-chic shopping streets are now tourist attractions. Has Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive had it? "You go and see it: you don’t go shopping," Thomas says. In 2001, 14 million people visited and spent about $US1 million ($1.2 million) a day. Not good enough for Mario Grauso, president of the Puig Fashion Group, which includes Nina Ricci and Paco Rabanne. "It’s not the shopping experience any more. You don’t want a bus-load of tourists out front taking pictures."Luxury has gone pear-shaped, that’s obvious.
Tom Ford doesn’t mince words. "Everything is too uniform, too pedestrian. It’s like McDonald’s, you get the same hamburger experience at every outlet. Same with Vuitton. We helped create that at Gucci. It’s not what I am interested in now," he moans.
As for Thomas, she admits her inspiration for Deluxe was a book about the fast food industry "and I never want to eat fast food again". Maybe that’s her goal: to kill luxury-addiction stone dead.
"It’s to be like Toto in The Wizard of Oz. Toto pulls back the curtain and shows the wizard is a man with a bunch of whistles and thick smoke. There’s no magic: it’s what you believe. But here’s what’s going on behind the curtain. Just a man in a suit with smoke and whistles."
Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre, by Dana Thomas, is published by Allen Lane, $32.95.