Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Landscape of Luxury: Levels of Luxe

The ultimate luxury, an Elie Saab creation (added to this post by me).

In this week's continuing exploration of luxury, I've called upon a couple of friends to tell us what they think about the subject. Today and Friday, Duchesse of the stunningly intelligent blog Passage des Perles, deconstructs luxury in, as one of my dearest friends likes to say, "value-added" pieces that I find absolutely brilliant. And, you will see, you will not leave this post with mere fluff and entertainment. No, you will have the value-added advantage of being informed and thus, if you desire, able to act on her advice and information.

Here then, is Duchesse looking into the various levels of luxury.

A blog-friend's commenter asked her:

I know if a regular piece of clothing is well made, but that's about the extent of my knowledge in this area. Perhaps you could do a series of posts explaining the various levels of luxury?

Though this wasn't asked of me, as so often happens in the blogworld, I began to think, Are there various levels of luxury? 

I'm not addressing consumption at this level today; that's a matter of individual choice and means that I'll discuss in Part Two.

I'd sort luxury clothing or accessories (products of fine quality, workmanship and design) into four categories, with some overlap. My brand examples may not resonate for you, and some brands have drifted up and down. 

1. Aspirational or LuxeLite

Though some brands borrow features of luxury, they are not generally thought of as luxury; merchants call this niche "class for mass".

J. Crew LBD
The materials may be natural fibers but are often blends, the workmanship decent, the brand recognizable and desirable (at least to its target market).

Sometimes the brand ramps up its image by introducing limited edition or designer-affiliated pieces, like Uniqlo and J. Crew do. The logo is often apparent. Clothes are not usually lined. You may see copies of higher-priced styles.

The brand may be attributed to a person, but she is rarely the actual designer.

There is some overlap with Level 2, which is exactly what the makers want. Even at this level, when quality drops, customers are bitter.

Examples: Coach (once at Level 2), J. Crew (shown, Lilabeth dress, $340); Diane von Furstenberg, Theory, Tory Burch, Kate Spade, Michael Michael Kors 

2. Entry-Level Luxe

Welcome to "Net-a-porter Land".

Preen LBD
Here you find natural fibers, good finishing, more generous hems, better quality buttons. (Though not as good as in the past. I say sternly, where are the pearl buttons?) You'll see embellishment and detail (feathers, beading, trim) but also well-cut minimalist clothes of fabrics like double-faced wool. 

This $1,625 Preen black dress should look and feel different from the $340 J. Crew black dress at Level 1 and nothing like a $75 one from Target.

Examples: Barbara Tfank, Isabel Marant, Michael Kors, Clements Ribero, Ronaldus Shamask

There's a wide range of prices at this level, from things you can buy in a top-tier department store (e.g., MaxMara) to items sold only in boutiques. The logo is nearly always apparent on shoes and accessories, and sometimes on clothes, and the designer actually designs at least some of the line.

3. Haut de gamme Luxe

Hermès black leather
Ready-to-wear of fine tailoring; details may include hand-finishing, high-quality embellishment like leather trim on a sleeve-edge; full linings, bound buttonholes.  At this level the fabric should be excellent. You will also find more fragile fabrics, such as gossamer-weight silks and laces.

You should notice a difference in the quality of dyes. In this world, you will find odd, interesting colours like a grey infused with a whiff of hyacinth, and even standard shades like navy have more depth. (You can find it at lower levels but it's rare.)

Brands in this category must work hard to balance exclusivity with growth. The houses cycle through designers, who may be relatively anonymous, or stars.

There may be a couture collection (Level 4) and sometimes a second, lower-priced label intended to scoop the Level 2 customer, as well as fragrance and sometimes make-up or accessories. Logos go low-key but there are exceptions like Vuitton, which would probably go dark if they discontinued the monogrammed bags.

Examples: Loro Piana, Stella MacCartney, Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Dries Van Noten, Bottega Veneta

4. UltraLuxe: Cult and Couture

These goods do not depend on brand recognition, and offer the highest standards of workmanship and quality. They cater to clients who do not wish the ostentation of brands, or who want bespoke. Prada was once one, before Miuccia Prada achieved worldwide saturation. The goods can be bought only at one or a few small company-owned boutiques.

Examples: Tailors and couturiers; specialty crafts like tiny Japanese denim boutiques and Italian leather-goods makers; exquisite, sometimes unmarked ateliers in world-class cities or exclusive resort locales.   

Alaia couture suit
There may be a small, subtle cipher in an inconspicuous place, but no big logos. A woman wearing a couture Alaia suit will recognize another woman in one, but we might not. We would, though, notice the perfect fit and impeccable line.

This is also the category for couture, available to very few. (See this Cathy Horyn article, "The Fine Line" which explains the allure and characteristics of current big-name couture.)

Most of the recognized houses are now global brands kept afloat by perfumes and ready-to-wear (Dior, Chanel, YSL.) While prices are astronomical, there is a good resale market for the best examples from renowned designers.

That's the landscape of luxury, a destination I have visited on occasion, but where I don't live. Is it desirable? Is it worth the very high price? I'll tackle that in Part Two: Can You Live with It?

But right now I'm wondering, do you pine for luxe? Does luxury attract, repel, or incite some other emotion in you?

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