Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Landscape of Luxury: Levels of Luxe

The ultimate luxury, an Elie Saab creation (added to this post by me).

In this week's continuing exploration of luxury, I've called upon a couple of friends to tell us what they think about the subject. Today and Friday, Duchesse of the stunningly intelligent blog Passage des Perles, deconstructs luxury in, as one of my dearest friends likes to say, "value-added" pieces that I find absolutely brilliant. And, you will see, you will not leave this post with mere fluff and entertainment. No, you will have the value-added advantage of being informed and thus, if you desire, able to act on her advice and information.

Here then, is Duchesse looking into the various levels of luxury.

A blog-friend's commenter asked her:

I know if a regular piece of clothing is well made, but that's about the extent of my knowledge in this area. Perhaps you could do a series of posts explaining the various levels of luxury?

Though this wasn't asked of me, as so often happens in the blogworld, I began to think, Are there various levels of luxury? 

I'm not addressing consumption at this level today; that's a matter of individual choice and means that I'll discuss in Part Two.

I'd sort luxury clothing or accessories (products of fine quality, workmanship and design) into four categories, with some overlap. My brand examples may not resonate for you, and some brands have drifted up and down. 

1. Aspirational or LuxeLite

Though some brands borrow features of luxury, they are not generally thought of as luxury; merchants call this niche "class for mass".

J. Crew LBD
The materials may be natural fibers but are often blends, the workmanship decent, the brand recognizable and desirable (at least to its target market).

Sometimes the brand ramps up its image by introducing limited edition or designer-affiliated pieces, like Uniqlo and J. Crew do. The logo is often apparent. Clothes are not usually lined. You may see copies of higher-priced styles.

The brand may be attributed to a person, but she is rarely the actual designer.

There is some overlap with Level 2, which is exactly what the makers want. Even at this level, when quality drops, customers are bitter.

Examples: Coach (once at Level 2), J. Crew (shown, Lilabeth dress, $340); Diane von Furstenberg, Theory, Tory Burch, Kate Spade, Michael Michael Kors 

2. Entry-Level Luxe

Welcome to "Net-a-porter Land".

Preen LBD
Here you find natural fibers, good finishing, more generous hems, better quality buttons. (Though not as good as in the past. I say sternly, where are the pearl buttons?) You'll see embellishment and detail (feathers, beading, trim) but also well-cut minimalist clothes of fabrics like double-faced wool. 

This $1,625 Preen black dress should look and feel different from the $340 J. Crew black dress at Level 1 and nothing like a $75 one from Target.

Examples: Barbara Tfank, Isabel Marant, Michael Kors, Clements Ribero, Ronaldus Shamask

There's a wide range of prices at this level, from things you can buy in a top-tier department store (e.g., MaxMara) to items sold only in boutiques. The logo is nearly always apparent on shoes and accessories, and sometimes on clothes, and the designer actually designs at least some of the line.

3. Haut de gamme Luxe

Hermès black leather
Ready-to-wear of fine tailoring; details may include hand-finishing, high-quality embellishment like leather trim on a sleeve-edge; full linings, bound buttonholes.  At this level the fabric should be excellent. You will also find more fragile fabrics, such as gossamer-weight silks and laces.

You should notice a difference in the quality of dyes. In this world, you will find odd, interesting colours like a grey infused with a whiff of hyacinth, and even standard shades like navy have more depth. (You can find it at lower levels but it's rare.)

Brands in this category must work hard to balance exclusivity with growth. The houses cycle through designers, who may be relatively anonymous, or stars.

There may be a couture collection (Level 4) and sometimes a second, lower-priced label intended to scoop the Level 2 customer, as well as fragrance and sometimes make-up or accessories. Logos go low-key but there are exceptions like Vuitton, which would probably go dark if they discontinued the monogrammed bags.

Examples: Loro Piana, Stella MacCartney, Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Dries Van Noten, Bottega Veneta

4. UltraLuxe: Cult and Couture

These goods do not depend on brand recognition, and offer the highest standards of workmanship and quality. They cater to clients who do not wish the ostentation of brands, or who want bespoke. Prada was once one, before Miuccia Prada achieved worldwide saturation. The goods can be bought only at one or a few small company-owned boutiques.

Examples: Tailors and couturiers; specialty crafts like tiny Japanese denim boutiques and Italian leather-goods makers; exquisite, sometimes unmarked ateliers in world-class cities or exclusive resort locales.   

Alaia couture suit
There may be a small, subtle cipher in an inconspicuous place, but no big logos. A woman wearing a couture Alaia suit will recognize another woman in one, but we might not. We would, though, notice the perfect fit and impeccable line.

This is also the category for couture, available to very few. (See this Cathy Horyn article, "The Fine Line" which explains the allure and characteristics of current big-name couture.)

Most of the recognized houses are now global brands kept afloat by perfumes and ready-to-wear (Dior, Chanel, YSL.) While prices are astronomical, there is a good resale market for the best examples from renowned designers.

That's the landscape of luxury, a destination I have visited on occasion, but where I don't live. Is it desirable? Is it worth the very high price? I'll tackle that in Part Two: Can You Live with It?

But right now I'm wondering, do you pine for luxe? Does luxury attract, repel, or incite some other emotion in you?


déjà pseu said...

This has really helped me understand the levels and pricing of luxury clothing and accessories. I'm more likely to splurge on shoes or a bag that will have staying power.

sanda said...

It IS a very helpful explanation! And has helped me understand where I am, which is "below Level 1." I'm a Talbots and Ralph Lauren fan and accept that. It suits me. I like it. I can afford it. While I can see and appreciate luxury, I don't feel that I must own it. I'm content in the space I occupy. :)

Caryl said...

The Dutchess is indeed astute and articulate. I appreciate luxury and if my means were more
accommmodating I would enjoy owning a few
pieces. Unfortunately, I have to weigh such
expenditures again education (my daughters)
and travel (myself). I find those item have even
longer lasting value.

the golddigger said...

I prefer high quality, well-made items. I used to sew almost all my own clothes, so I know what well-made clothing looks like. For a white t-shirt that will be stained by the end of the summer, quality doesn't matter so much, but for a dress or a sweater (I also used to knit), I want something that's not a piece of junk.

I hate brand labels. I think they're tacky. If someone wants me to advertise her wares, she can pay me.

I have discovered that the best way to satisfy my champagne tastes on my beer budget is to buy at consignment stores. I have no problems wearing someone else's castoffs, especially if means I wear high quality clothes at a bargain price.

kathy peck said...

Great article - I think I feel most comfortable in Level 1 and 2. Level 1 for tee shirts, etc. I wear jeans daily, and not sure where a $200 pair of jeans falls in category? I don't have much interest in Level 4, it doesn't fit my lifestyle or budget.

kathy peck said...

Actually I just thought of a question. Taking the example of a tee shirt, which I mentioned I wear frequently with jeans - Where would you put Petit Bateau or Three Dots - the brands I wear most often. I guess they're not really Level 1 as there certainly are less expensive tee shirts around, but because they're around $40 per tee, I'm sort of curious, with specific items, how you would categorize them.

Duchesse said...

pseu: Me too, especially since many Level 2 and 3 clothes stop at size 10, or are cut too short.

sanda: I'd say Talbot's is below Level 1 but Lauren is 1 (and his Black Label is 2). Lauren made his fortune providing "class for mass" approach, and we are all the better for it. Talbot's quality has slipped.

Caryl: I hardly anyone with an unlimited budget and each is juggling priorities like yours (including me). Such lives are the reason why I wrote this post, especially Part Two on value.

the golddigger: I too am a fan-and often write about-the joys of consignment or secondhand. They vary, though, in quality and price, and one has to enjoy the hunt. I buy Gap tees but also have some by ça va de soie @ $100 or more that are fantastic- do notice the difference. And those are never white, I drop stuff on them.

kathy peck: Level 1; they are like Tory Burch- "better" quality but not the fine Egyptian cotton you should find at Level 2. And my system leaves lots of room for guessing and estimating.

Duchesse said...

Caryl: Oops, that should be "I know hardly anyone". Did have to make an exception for my friend Iris, but other than that, know no one with unlimited means.

knitpurl said...

Never thought about level-izing luxury, but it was very interesting, including responses. I've hung around Level 1 with forays into L 2. Dipping below L l comes when I get budget conscious. (Realization comes quickly about poor quality when that happens.) Agree with you on Talbot's. Right now, I find travel means more and more to me. I would rather travel First Class, stay at the Five Star Plus hotel, drive that Prestige rental car and return home with some amazing memories. Eventually finances and age will end this. Don't get me wrong, I love clothes and shoes. I just decided being classic in those areas enables me to travel more.

BigLittleWolf said...

"Luxe Lite" - I like it!

The levels of luxury make perfect sense. Personally, I've always preferred a few high quality classic pieces, which can be mixed up with others at lower price (and quality) points.

It's practical for my lifestyle.

Even in shoes (dare I admit?), I've bought well and wisely (and usually on sale) - and much as I adore Louboutin, I doubt I could ever bring myself to accept the associated price tag. That said, I thoroughly enjoy pining for certain of his shoes, and appreciating them at a distance as art, as much as anything else.

Villette said...

An enlightening post -- thank you.

Karena said...

Very interesting discussion. I love luxe, cashmere, classics. I have a few nice pieces I and I keep them forever. Overall my life is more casual now and other things in life take priority over a Valentino for example.

I have found brand new items at resale boutiques for say $20!

Art by Karena

Duchesse said...

knitpurl: Most of us make these decisions about use of our resources, and it is wise to know why we consume as we do.

BigLittleWolf: Many of us have a particular item we'll splash out on; shoes is one for many women. For me, it's a coat.

Vilette: Thanks; I've written a Part Two but am not sure when Tish will post it. (You can also find it on my blog.)

Karena: Some women seem to turn their wardrobes over annually-if not seasonally-and if they are regular donors to a certain resale boutique, you are in luck.

Anonymous said...

Deat Tish

Many thanks for this interesting article. Afraid I have a taste for luxury though not the budget. But over the years I buy very carefully, accessories from the great designers, things that I can keep and wear throughout life and pass on to my grand-daughters, eg I have a wonderful silk scarf collection, from Hermes, Chanel, Dior, Versace etc etc. Some bought brand new with the detaxe in France, some vintage, some from Op.Shops. I have a surprising number of genuine beautiful perfect condition scarves, including Hermes, Jacques Fath etc that came from Op Shops and cost $5.00 each. I avoid any product with a large logo (was horrified when a friend gave me an LV silk scarf with the logo all over it - so not me). Mine all have small logos/marques. I also buy handbags the same way. Many designers make things that they call show-off bags with huge logos that I wouldn't be seen dead with, but the same designers also have smarter more subtle designs where you wouldn't know unless you examined the bag closely. My grand-daughters love my accessories (they're only 7 and 5 and beautiful) and they love being photographed trying them on. They're taking after their Nonna.

tinyjunco said...

Thank you Duchesse for two very informative and thought provoking posts! And i tip my hat to our lovely hostess for providing the venue :)

your points in this post are spot on. I bought an incredibly well made mountain hardware goretex shell recently. everything is beautiful and the workmanship/technology is impeccable. and yet - it holds a lot of heat. for hiking and camping at altitude it will excel. but mostly i just walk around in the rain here in the SF Bay Area, and boy do i sweat in that thing! at those moments a thinner windbreaker would feel more luxe.

re: white tees. my take on luxe for these is quite particular. egyptian cotton would be nice, if it was opaque enough and had nice drape. but even for a short lived tee, nasty seams and pieces cut off grain drive me mad - i won't buy them. i do find that if i don't let quality dip below a certain level that i get that satisfied feeling which is associated with luxe, even in such mundane items.

maybe it's just in comparison to all the junk out there these days! and being an amateur seamstress contributes, i'm sure. Thank you again, steph

Elizabeth said...

Fascinating post, I love it. I would probably say I go between 1 and 2 (assuming Ferragamo/Prada shoes are 2s). My sub-1s would be Talbots, Ann Taylor, and Banana Republic but given that they bore me to tears I'm hitting the 1s much more often.

I've decided this is the year for the classic Burberry trench. Two questions: where would that trench land - in the 2? 3? and, I'm definitely getting the khaki trench, but which is the "classic" - long, short, heavier weight, etc? They have so many styles right now and it's clear to me which ones aren't classic (too embellished) but with the variety it isn't clear exactly which ones aren't "the classic".

Hope that made sense!

Organic Fashion Designers They were the bad girls of cinema, who added much pizazz to the script doing cabarets in smoky nightclubs, brandishing guns and dancing provocatively to tunes of erotic songs in the hero's lap. Here is the portrayal, power, violence, sexuality, and fringe femininity of the femme fatale in films. said...

They were the bad girls of cinema, who added much pizazz to the script doing cabarets in smoky nightclubs, brandishing guns and dancing provocatively to tunes of erotic songs in the hero's lap. Here is the portrayal, power, violence, sexuality, and fringe femininity of the femme fatale in films.

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