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Defining Luxury by Apparel Search - Terms of Interest to the Fashion Industry

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The definition of luxury has certainly changed throughout the years. According to Merriam-Webster, luxury is "a condition of abundance or great ease and comfort: sumptuous environment;

something adding to pleasure or comfort but not absolutely necessary; an indulgence in something that provides pleasure, satisfaction, or ease." From the Anglo-French "luxorie," and from the Latin "luxuria," the word "luxury" is associated with excess. It is said that the word "luxury" also has early associations with the words "lust" and "lascivious."

Years ago, luxury goods were strictly reserved for an elite clientèle—those who belonged to the aristocracy. Since mass production did not come into existence until Henry Ford popularized it in the early 20th century, many of the products that were made in the earlier centuries were rare, difficult to obtain, or produced in very limited quantities, which is why they were classified as luxury items. Artisan in nature, these goods were deep rooted in tradition and craftsmanship.

According to last year's "Luxury" exhibit at New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology, haute couture first emerged during the era of high capitalism in the 19th century. It was then that great couturiers such as Charles Frederick Worth became recognized as "artists of luxury." The art of dressmaking soon started to transform from a small-scale craft to an international business. Mass produced imitations of fashionable luxury items proliferated, as middle-class consumers emulated the buying habits of the newly wealthy. Women's dress, in particular, started to become more ostentatious, leading author Thorstein Veblen to coin the phrase "conspicuous consumption." Veblen, who wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class, described "conspicuous consumption" as consumption undertaken to make a statement to others about one's class or accomplishments.

When industry insiders at Apparel Search hear the term "conspicuous consumption," we think of the logo craze that has been dominating the fashion industry for some time now. This newer form of luxury is style-driven and more accessible than the products of long ago, and it often reflects a contemporary design sensibility.

Many fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Coach are known for their iconic logo-centric luxury designs. Although the handbags, luggage, and other accessories marketed by these brands are well-crafted, they differ from the rare luxuries of long ago. In some cases, even the materials used such as vinyl, are certainly not considered a luxury (until it comes in the form of a $3,000 Louis Vuitton bag).

Democratic Design

In recent years, the term "democratization of design" has become quite common in fashion and design circles. Here, the concept of "luxury" is watered down and marketed so that it is affordable for the masses. This concept has brought "designer" names such as celebrated architect Michael Graves and renowned designer Isaac Mizrahi to the masses through affordable retailers such as Target. In fact, many industry insiders credit Target for pioneering this design concept. Many others have now followed suit.

This design concept has been demonstrated through many partnerships between various retailers and renowned designers. Last year, upscale designer Vera Wang introduced an affordable apparel collection at Kohl's. Retail chain H&M is also renowned for its many "designer" collections. In November '07, Italian fashion designer Roberto Cavalli debuted an affordable collection at H&M, bringing his design expertise to a new audience of fashion fans. Also at H&M, many brides said "I do" to design duo Viktor & Rolf's limited collection of inexpensive wedding gowns.

Already established in the better market, a handful of other "upstairs" brands are now partnering with mass retailers for less expensive items that play into this concept. This year, Christiane Lemieux, founder and creative director of DwellStudio, a contemporary brand that typically sells at the specialty store level, launched a DwellStudio baby and home collection at Target. At Apparel Search, we certainly believe there's more high-end designer/mass retailer partnerships to come.

By Regina Cooper

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