Monday, 25 October 2010

How Luxury Lost It's Lustre:

"Possessions, outward success, publicity, luxury--to me these have always been contemptible. I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for every one, best for both the body and the mind.” - Albert Einstein

A diamond: The ultimate luxury item, an age old symbol of wealth, beauty,
perfection, love...The traditional engagement gift, excepted as a token of a promise to spend eternity with someone.

A diamond takes over a billion years to form, they are impossibly rare and difficult to obtain These qualities mirror the enormity of the commitment of marriage, the rarity of true love.

What makes one diamond better than another? the clarity? the cut? the number of carats?

All of these things, but actually I would argue that it goes much deeper than that...Where did it come from?
You can now buy man made diamonds that are manufactured in laboratories and all over Africa diamonds are being illegally traded to fund conflict in war torn areas.
Is a diamond still a symbol of wealth, beauty, perfection, love... if it has been synthetically produced in a matter of days instead of naturally evolving over billions of years? Can you still wear it with pride knowing that it’s sale has funded weapons which have killed innocent people?

To me a diamond the size of agrain of sand which is a naturally formed conflict free miracle of nature would be of far more value than a huge rock of a blood diamond or a man made impostor stone.

I believe that the defining features of a true luxury product are all about where it has come from and how it was made.

In Edwardian times hand made lace was valued as much as rare and expensive gem stones and precious metals. It can take a skilled worker up to a day to make a daisy the size of a postage stamp.
On a recent visit to a lace museum I was lucky enough to hold in my hands a piece of lace that would have taken a collective of several workers many years to make.
This particular piece of lace was produced some time in the late 1800‘s, a wealthy merchant had offered to pay £500 for it and was turned down. At the time £500 would have bought 10 houses.
I studied the stitch work carefully and remember remarking that, to me, the creation of that lace flounce, (about a meter wide and maybe ten meters long) was as much a feat of human achievement as building a beautiful cathedral.

The very idea that a team of women would sit and painstakingly weave hundreds of bobbins into minute knots for years and years to produce a flounce for a skirt is almost as ridiculous as it is awe inspiring, but there it is. Luxury is rarely practical.
In the 1920’s when a Couture house wanted a perfume designed they would arrange to meet a ‘nose’ for a decadent lunch often accompanied by fine wine. During this meeting the house would discuss the mood of the perfume with the
‘nose’ as well as what the scent should evoke, who it should represent and how it should relate to their brand.
Sometimes design and packaging may also be discussed.
A few weeks later The parties would arrange a second meeting and the house would hand pick a scent to represent their brand. The scent would be made up of flowers, spices and a base of orange water or rose water.
Chanel No 5 was the 5th scent presented to Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel by her ‘nose’

Most luxury brands today do not own, create, manufacture or distribute their perfumes,
Now a days laboratories make generic chemical bases infused with mostly synthetic scents and keep them in storage until a designer picks one, there is no longer the tailor made process to achieve just the right scent and essence. It’s now just a matter of choosing something that hasn’t already been chosen by someone else.

I agree that these processes by todays standards seem almost ludicrously labour intensive but that is the very essence of what makes them luxury.
We have so much available to us now that we forget how little it is really worth, and more importantly, what the real cost in terms of humanity is.

Our clothes are made in sweat shops our food is farmed and unethical, we waste unthinkable amounts of everything every day when the people working in appalling conditions to produce it all for us have nothing.

The truth is, few of us understand quality artisan craftsmanship nowadays because few of us ever experience it. How can we see an eau du toilet as substandard to an eau du parfume if eau du toilet is all we have ever smelt, how can we appreciate the skill and hours it takes to french seam bias cut silk chiffon by hand when we have bought a vaguely similar looking garment from Primark for less than £30?
It takes just 8 minutes to make a pair of Levis 501’s from cloth on a roll to garment labeled and ready to ship. By contrast it takes me around 18 hours to make a bespoke pair of jeans, I can not even argue that mine will last longer or be better finished, they wont, I don’t have industrial machines that ensure perfect lock stitching and super strong rivets, I make by hand and my product is fragile but it is also unique and that is what makes it valuable.

Luxury products are not practical, or necessary, or utility.

They are fragile, rare treasures, little pieces of history, pieces that have an extraordinary back ground, that only exist because someone cared enough to produce them for the sheer joy of making something beautiful.

True luxury items have no real use other than to seduce, but they can inspire absolute joy.

Boutique businesses are kept alive by those who understand, appreciate and can afford the best that money can buy.

Our high street is saturated with fake luxury products that are designed to kid us into thinking we are living the high life but buying home made bread from a bakery where you can see the flour on the apron of the person who baked it, where
you can feel the heat from the oven it came from, where you can hear tales of secret family recipes handed down through generations. That is far more satisfying than buying a ‘luxury’ loaf from Tesco’s finest or Sainsbury’s taste the difference range.

If it’s not artisan produced, it’s not true lux, if it is available in abundance, it’s not artisan produced, it stands to reason. You can’t buy luxury from a chain store.
Why is there a waiting list for Hermes and no other handbag maker?
Because Hemes still use artisan workmanship exclusively. Without exception every Hermes bag is made to individual customer spec by one person by hand, the only thing machine stitched is the inside pocket and sometimes the zip.
The top stitching on an Hermes bag is done by hand, using a traditional saddle stitch and two extra long pieces of thread so that there are never any knots or joins visible in the stitching.
Hermes is such a famous brand name that they could buy a factory in China begin mass production and increase sales (and profits) phenomenally over night. But they don't, because Hermes understands the value of what it is to be a true Luxury brand producing true Luxury products.

Status should always be a by product of quality and not the other way around.
A companies success should always be down to product initially, not marketing.

I realise that this post is romantic and perhaps a little nostalgic, please don't misunderstand it.
Our modern high street offers affordability, choice and convenience in abundance and that's great, I embrace it, but it is harder to find the really special things nowadays and perhaps, harder still, to appreciate them.

Next time you treat your self something special just have a think about where it may have come from first. You never know, that 'special treat' may just lose it's lustre right before your eyes.


  1. I have to have one small disagreement with you Miss Woo, when you say "Luxury products are not practical, or necessary, or utility." I personally find that a Bespoke Gilly Woo wonderful creation, is totally necessary and I could not possibly live with out you being part of my wardrobe, just from the wonderful comments I know I will get whilst wearing one of those fabulous creations next week, my confidence grows. A must for all women.