Friday, March 2, 2012

The Landscape of Luxe: Can You Live With It?

Dior coat
Duchesse, creator of the superb blog Passage des Perles, is back today with the second installment of her examination of luxury. I think you'll find it fascinating.

For some this is a simple, end-of-story decision: Are you kidding?

But if you have ever stroked a featherweight mohair Dior coat in a consignment store and wondered if it was worth the still-hefty price tag, read on.

I imagine some luxury-goods customers don't fret if the things don't return value, but I've known some mighty wealthy folks who refuse to pay the freight for an item they consider substandard, overpriced or ugly. And why shouldn't they? 

Whether you are buying a coat in a couture salon or Christie's Consignment, here are things to consider:

Is the quality really there, or just the label?

Anne Klein ca. 1980
In one of my university textiles classes, we took apart high-end ready-to-wear clothes and learned a lesson I'll never forget: bias cuts that weren't, misaligned pants, badly-bound seams. (Yes, possums, seams used to be bound.)

Quality can slip; brands are sold, orders are filled by offshore jobbers, and the accountants decide the margins aren't high enough, so decree cheaper zippers.

For all the talk about "brand equity", a 30-year-old Anne Klein jacket was infinitely better quality than today's.

Do I value this?

A $600 pair of designer pants is thrilling to one woman and an egregious display of mindless consumption to her sister.  

Value is a subjective assessment derived from various factors:

Label: Does the brand have any worth to you, as a display of your image, status or taste? Does the brand have meaning to you because of emotional or symbolic  connection? Barbara loves her Bulgari bracelet because her mother wore a similar one.

Durability: Can you use and enjoy the purchase for a long time, because it is well-designed and made? Alice's mother first wore her Pucci dress in the '60s and it still looks striking. 
McQueen iPad case

Innovation: Is the style so cutting-edge that you derive satisfaction from having something fresh, new and unlikely to be replicated in cheaper versions? An iPad sleeve is not unique but a McQueen skull-buttoned one offers a bit more devil in the detail. Is it worth $250?
Cardin coat

Provenance: A 1960 Cardin wool coat; (price $2,500 from 1st Dibs seller Jennifer Kobrin), is a stellar example of a late master's work.

Beauty: AKA the Purr Factor
Does it sing? Is the piece a high expression of the craft and aesthetic? Is it 'just right'? Jill said she cried the first time she tried on the ruby Beene dress that was a graduation gift from her father.

Does it fit in my life?

I recently saw a 50ish woman in a Prada coat, rundown flats and cheap vinyl bag. We all know that the head-to-toe designer is a bore, and you can mix high and low, but luxury clothing demands a certain respect for the piece.

You are also helped by attitude. Don't make my mistake (years ago): buy something so costly that it scares you silly to wear it, so it sits in your closet, an effing museum piece. I'm thinking of the Lanvin suit I gave to my sister-in-law, which I hope she wore more than I did– five times will do.

At the same time, I wouldn't forgo the pleasure of a beautifully-made object by making a knee-jerk judgment that it "must be overpriced".  Just because I can't afford it doesn't mean it's overpriced, and the inverse is also true: what I can afford is not always fairly priced either!

You'll stand out
Then there's the Daphne Guinness Effect: You may attract certain assumptions and projections when people see you in the thing, or be conspicuous among your colleagues– should, for example, your officemates wear Banana Republic and you collect vintage Galliano. I applaud your verve, but you will stand out, and have to deal with it.

In the end, your attraction to luxury goods comes down to your values and priorities.  Some commenters said in the previous post that they want to upgrade and experiment with better quality than before, while others say they will admire, but not own. 

The luxury brands hope many will buy, either because they don't have to worry about price, or because they desire it and will sacrifice. I'd only say, be wary about things perceived as trophies. (What exactly do we win?)

Also, some of us have a luxe Achilles' Heel. For some that's accessories, for me, coats. I melt before a swath of cashmere with horn buttons or an immaculately-tailored topper.

Does luxury boost happiness? 

I can't get a crisp correlation, maybe because I buy at the highest levels so rarely. A MaxMara coat delighted for nearly a decade, but for the move, I shed bags of Level 3 without a twinge.

I know women who can afford yet reject the finest and others who will exist on toast and tea to save for something special. Most of us inhabit a comfortable mid-ground, with a few "bests" and many basics.

Should you choose a luxury object, even as the rarest indulgence, I hope you are happy and serene with your choice. Clearly, I've been conflicted and intimidated by some of my own purchases. (Never pearls, though.)

Your comments on Part One fascinated me, and I would love to hear more.

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