A daily bulletin of news & opinion

16 July 2012

Luxury is a good thing. There, I’ve said it. I know in these straightened times it gets a bad rap – who, people ask, really needs a sleek high-end car, a bag made by artisans in an Italian village or champagne at their parties?

France, the home to many of the world’s leading luxury brands, is even having its doubts. Well, at the Elysée Palace they are. President François Hollande has decreed that costs must be cut and a clear break made from the easy-with-the-euros reputation of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. So it seems the champagne will remain in the cellars and instead Muscadet is the order of the day at receptions. Ministers have been told to get smaller cars – one has even opted for a bicycle.

Now here’s a very different story. But stick with me, they are going to segway rather nicely. Affordable fashion – aka fast fashion – brands such as H&M, Uniqlo, Topshop and Zara have become so skilled at turning out clothes that look just right for a few weeks, and are cheap enough to throwaway after the same time span, that they have changed the way a whole generation shops.

In her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline says that the average American buys roughly 64 items of clothing in a year. Much of it is consigned to the bin or rag bank within weeks. Now we all like a bargain but look beyond the price and focus on the business models at play.

What’s really more acceptable: making clothes and leather goods by hand in an atelier that the buyer will treasure for years, or creating a pile of throwaway garments?

As we look at how to create new sustainable models, the world of luxury offers some surprisingly appealing snapshots. Hermès, for example, will repair any bag that you have bought from one of its stores – it doesn’t matter if you have owned it for decades. But further down the food chain the instinct to repair, or even cherish longevity, has all but vanished. Who, for example, even thinks of getting anything electronic mended when it goes on the blink?

Or how about this: 60 per cent of Porsches ever made are still on the road. Not many mainstream auto brands can compete with that. I recently took part in a panel discussion hosted by Volvo and they posited the idea that brands such as theirs were considering how you created a car that could be upgraded when new tech became available, extending the life of the chassis and body. But then Volvo is a company with an eye on the growing market for sustainable luxury.

Then there’s the way people value experiences when they involve a touch of luxury. I wonder what a visitor would value and remember more if invited to sup with President Hollande – a lone glass of champagne or a few glasses of Muscadet?

Luxury brands are also good at using skilled workers and paying them proper salaries, they don’t waste their raw materials and are increasingly scrutinised to make sure they are living up to the ideals they seem to represent.

So let’s hear it for a little luxury and a little less disposable style. I’ll raise a glass of Krug to that.


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