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Dana Thomas, lady luxeDana Thomas, lady luxe

Sylvia Giles interviews Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, who uncovers some of the negative sides of globalization and the fashion business
From issue 26 of Lucire



HAVING DEVOURED Dana Thomas’ book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, I waited to interview her at the bar in the Hilton. A fitting venue considering the content of the book, which is a page-turner dissection of the industry of luxury goods. In fact, a little too fitting, I realized, when I was charged $5 for a flat white. But, if anything, it did underpin the point that you don’t make lots of money without a high profile and inflated prices. I found Dana tucked up in the corner, over a cup of Earl Grey, almost oblivious to her setting. She had just finished filming for Campbell Live, looking smart yet very much at ease, and very down to earth.
   Dana Thomas’s book makes New Zealand’s fashion industry look like a well-mannered vegan. For anyone unfamiliar with the amounts of money that pass through this industry, ‘luxury’ sales are at $157 billion dollars a year. The first thing Dana points out when I check this fact with her (just to make sure I had read it correctly) is that Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, announced that this figure is expected to double, in five short years.
   It is these conglomerates that form the epicentre of her book, brands that were once owned by the families that started them, and pieces were assembled by hand. For those who aren’t familiar with the state of play, most fashion brands are now owned by umbrella companies, the greatest of which is LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. The accruing of these fashion houses by tycoons such as Arnault have all the elements for good drama; intrigue, deception, corporate takeovers, ex-lovers, and of course, monstrous amounts of money at stake. The main protagonist as she weaves her narrative throughout the book, in fact, tends to be the staggering numbers.
   It’s important to recognize that she has not written about the fashion industry at as a whole, but the high-end market. And customers of the ‘luxury industry’ have recently found themselves in a monogrammed nirvana—interlinking LVs, double Cs and Gs being the biggest culprits. The houses that were once exclusive have systematically gone about mass-producing and mass marketing their "dream", often in developing nations. So why are the prices so inflated? And have we lost the elements that justified those prices to begin with?
   Over the last 15 years, a formulaic equation has been developed to market luxury goods to the carnivorous consumer. Handbags and perfumes act as gateway drugs to the hard stuff, the “A-class drug” being ready-to-wear or even couture. In the hands of Thomas all this makes for very interesting reading. Over the course of almost 400 pp., Dana effectively deconstructs the notions of haute couture surviving in this consumerist world. The theme of art’s bickering with business resurfaces time and time again, which has seen the book procure fans from outside fashion devotees. ‘I had a luncheon in Los Angeles,’ she remembers, ‘and a woman came up to me and said, “I loved your book, I loved your book. But more importantly, my husband loved your book!” [He was] an executive at General Motors. And he said, “It’s not a book about fashion, it’s a book about commerce.” And he ordered it for all his executives in Detroit and made them read it.’
   There is an entire chapter dedicated to the exposure of the counterfeit handbag, debunking any notion of it being a “victimless crime”. And such reporting is not done from the safety of a desk, in conjuncture with the omnipotent Google, but in the field. She dons a bulletproof vest as she follows a bust in the Chinese district of Guangzhou.
   It is with tales such as these that Thomas incorporates a large amount of objection into her work. Was this a protest book for the writer, after 15 years of living in Paris covering the fashion industry? ‘Yeah, maybe. I’ve always been politically aware, and I wanted to be a political reporter. Maybe I am a political reporter, and I didn’t realize it.’
   I asked Thomas what she found to be the most surprising in researching the piece. She replied, ‘I knew a lot of companies produced their goods overseas and in developing nations, but I didn’t realize how many companies, and how much they produce overseas. I was shocked. When I walked onto factory floors in China, and saw brands where executives had had told me to their face that they did not produce in China, being made there on the factory floor, my mouth just fell open.’
   Dana resides permanently in Paris with her husband, and is almost globalization personified. The book, if anything, emphasizes how much smaller our world is becoming with globalization, how lines of class, geography and culture are increasingly out of focus. And as globalization takes its hold, there doesn’t seem to be much room for patriotism, the kind of patriotism that Americans of course, are famous for. With a freshly launched Made in New Zealand campaign gracing our own screen and bus stops, I had to wonder if this has played a role in the fashion industry in the current global climate—the prime example being President Bush asking the American public to buy American-made straight after 9-11.
    ‘Oh my God,’ she says in her American drawl. ‘My husband turned to me and said, “Do you realize your president just told the country to go shopping?” And actually when I started working on the book, I had this idea: “Oh my God, how to save the world from terrorism: go shopping!”’
   However, there are aspects that deliver for those who might prefer their handbag without a dose of politics. ‘One of the first things I did was go to Florence, and visit the old silk factory.’ She recounts, ‘The oldest working silk factory in Europe. Spending a whole day to produce one inch of the most sumptuous fabric.’
   To be sure, this is a book you may live precariously through. And I had every intention of living precariously through my interview. I swooned quietly as she refers to ‘Karl’ and ‘Marc’ on a first-name basis, and her interview list reads as a Who’s Who of the fashion industry. Her interview with Muiccia Prada is a fascinating read, to which she comments, ‘It was like a really intense chess game, where she was trying to outmanśuvre me. And wasn’t really talking to me, but messing with me. We staggered out, we both staggered and I was like, “I’m not sure who won—was it was a draw?”’ But after a moment she adds, ‘Actually I won. I won because in the end, she lied to me, and I knew she lied to me. And she knew I knew. And she realized. I won. Check!’
   Her most intimidating interview? ‘Karl. Karl Lagerfeld is always intimidating. Mostly because he speaks so fast. So fast. He is so smart. And it was just after the couture show. But he was so lovely and accommodating.’
   The thoroughness of her research is one of the most satisfying aspects of the book and, thankfully, it is not only uncovering doom and gloom, but providing uplifting passages for those of us that still harbour romantic notions of the fashion industry. Thomas maybe a cynic, but she is also a connoisseur. Shoe designer Christian Louboutin, who Thomas refers to as a ‘luxury refugee’, is quoted elegantly as saying, ‘If you do luxury, you have to treat people in a human way and you have to be elegant. You can’t ask poor people in bad conditions to make beautiful things.’
   The tale of Coco Chanel’s No. 5 takes her to the flower farms of Grasse, that Chanel insists on using despite many other companies turning to alternatives in either developing nations such as Egypt, or even a test tube for synthetic ingredients. ‘One of the most magical moments was when I went down to the rose fields in Grasse. Real farmers. Growing these roses for decades.’
   I had to ask (although I made sure it was sandwiched in nicely between intelligent questions surrounding the economy and globalization), ‘How many handbags do you own?’ Well, the answer is one, but it’s a terribly nice one, a Hermès Kelly bag, that she has owned for no less than 15 years. Hermès is another company she holds up as an example of enduring craft, and she proudly shows me the stamp of the craftsman discreetly tucked away behind the buckle.
   ‘And what scent do you wear?’ I pressed. She has always worn Chanel No. 5, since she was 18. This woman not only does thorough research, in the field, but she also practises what she preaches.
   The media, however, did go unscathed—whether this has anything to do with a journalistic bias is unclear. Perhaps it’s because it would constitute a book in itself, but I would have expected at least a passing mention to its role. Additionally, the most interesting questions surrounding the movement of the rich to buy (excellent) fakes, and the middle class pinching pennies for the real deal, went relatively unanswered. Certainly, this is a luxury world in full upheaval—but while there was plenty of mention as to how people are buying, sustaining, or even faking glamour and luxury, the why was left begging for inclusion. There are many cleverly selected anecdotes surrounding fashion victims and their complete seizure on a logo of choice (the best of which being in Japan) but why these brands become like a religion to many people could perhaps be the topic of a sequel.
   However, Deluxe was easily one of the most thorough books I have read in a long time. I thought carefully about my final question, what to ask the author who has seen it all? I decided on: ‘If you could change one thing about the luxury industry, what would it be?’
   After some thought she replied, ‘Take it off the stock market. The people who are making the decisions for the wrong reasons—for short-term profit gains. My husband is a trader—so we clash there,’ she says with a laugh. ‘It changes your raison d’être, your focus, and what you want to achieve. I think for luxury, definitely, it’s just killed it.’ •


Sylvia Giles is a senior writer for Lucire.


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Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, by Dana Thomas

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre

Top: Dana Thomas. Centre and above: The US and New Zealand covers for Thomas’s book, with Luster spelt the British way in the New Zealand copies.



There is an entire chapter dedicated to the exposure of the counterfeit handbag, debunking any notion of it being a “victimless crime”. And such reporting is not done from the safety of a desk, in conjuncture with the omnipotent Google, but in the field. She dons a bulletproof vest as she follows a bust in the Chinese district of Guangzhou

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