Luxury used to be a synonym for quality. Fashion’s most storied brands built their brands on the best materials and the most skilled craftspeople, then charged customers a premium for both. But at some point over the last 15 years, things changed.
“I love fashion and I used to able to justify spending money on it because I could tell people that luxury was so much better quality,” says Eugene Rabkin, founder of StyleZeitgeist and a columnist for Business of Fashion. “But I can’t do that any more. And that makes me quite sad.”
Fashion labels have always traded on their most intangible quality – brand. Though there’s a thousand ways to slice precisely what ‘brand’ means, a large part of it is the feeling you get when you purchase something: buy a Volvo and you feel safe; wear a Rolex and you feel like a baller. Since we equate cost and quality, luxury brands keep their prices high so that, when you pick up a Saint Laurent leather jacket, you assume you’ve invested in something crafted by artisans, from the best materials. Even if it’s not said explicitly.
According to Rabkin, over the last decade brands have increasingly exploited this assumption for profit. “Prices have gone up, but the quality has come down,” he says.
The 20 biggest companies in fashion gobble up 97 per cent of the profit, which gives them a stranglehold on the market. To hit their punchy growth targets, they need to either slash quality or increase prices. “They’ve done both,” says Rabkin. To sell worse worse clothes at higher prices, they’ve doubled down on their runway shows, ad campaigns and influencer relationships, which ups the visibility – and lustability – of what they make, rather than the quality.
The result is that clothes have become merch. “So you have the graphics, the big logos,” says Rabkin. Gucci, a brand originally built on high-end leather goods, now makes more than half its revenue from millennials. This is not a demographic with the spending power for five-piece trunk sets. But it buys T-shirts, sweats, trainers and phone cases in coffer-swelling numbers. Like band tees, they’re a way rep your love of the brand in a (comparatively) accessible way. But all this plastic and jersey is a world removed from what ‘luxury’ once meant.