Returning to Luxury: why luxury brands are just another form of fast fashion, and how to fix it
Posted by : Ashley Southard /
Luxury has lost its luxe.
The term luxury fashion probably calls to mind haute couture runways, designer labels, and red-bottomed shoes… but where did it all start?
What was originally a status symbol of the wearer’s access to foreign treasure (as only high-society could afford such travels) has become a mere dollar-value symbol in the rat race of fast fashion, contributing, in most cases, just as much harm to the environment as mass-produced bargain brands.
Before luxury was classy, it was taboo…
Luxury is derived from the Latin words luxus (meaning excess) and luxuria (meaning rankness or offensiveness); in Elizabethan times, luxury was associated with adultery, but if we go even further back, we find that prior to the Romans adopting the Greek’s amicable attitude toward extravagance, they had formal legislation to regulate spending on luxury.
Luxury fashion’s first moment, if we were to pin it down historically, was via the Silk Road in the second century. In AD 166, the first Roman envoy (sent by Marcus Aurelius) arrived in China to bring back the luxurious silk garments that would sell for as much as 300 denarrii each, which was equal to a Roman soldier’s entire annual salary. Ancient Rome was home to the world’s first “shopping mall,” too – the Trajan Market, constructed between 107-110 AD – interestingly enough, aristocrats were not allowed to exchange money or be in markets; only their servants could do their bidding.
So when did “luxury” rebrand from offensive and excessive to commendable and rewarding?
When the aristocratic and affluent recognized its use as a social segregation tool. Where morals, education, and physical experiences were previously the markers for affluence, expensive garments could now create the uniform that distinguished the upper classes from the lower.
Since ancient times, humans have used markers to segregate social castes – it’s inevitable, no matter the geographical location or the culture – and fashion has been (and likely always will be) one of those markers.
“Fashion on the one hand signifies union with those in the same class, the uniformity of a circle characterized by it, and, uno actu, the exclusion of all other groups. Union and segregation are the two fundamental functions which are here inseparably united, and one of which, although or because it forms a logical contrast to the other, becomes the condition of its realization. Fashion is merely a product of social demands.” (Sociologist George Simmel)
According to Simmel, the only motivations with which fashion is concerned are formal and social; it’s a reflection of the class-driven society where the affluent use fashion to define themselves as the upper class, segregating themselves from the others. As the “others” try to imitate them, the affluent will abandon those current fashions and replace them with newer ones – sounds a lot like the driving force of fast fashion, right?
“We often observe that the more nearly one set has approached another, the more frantic becomes the desire for imitation from below and the seeking for the new from above. The increase of wealth is bound to hasten the process considerably and render it visible, because the objects of fashion, embracing as they do the externals of life, are most accessible to the mere call of money.” (Sociologist George Simmel)
Similar to the Romans’ response to the Silk Road, the European and English adopted a more positive view toward luxury in the 17th century when the Spice Trade Route (est. 16th century) expanded from just spices to all worldly wonders, welcoming routes such as the Dutch East India Company and the East India Company. The bourgeois adopted an admiration for lavishness, easily witnessed today by the many hotels built in the time period that have survived since then.
And why did these opulent buildings survive?
Because luxury was equated with fine workmanship and quality. It was the furthest thing from a mass market production; it was produced in small quantities, usually made to order, and only for limited clientele who could afford the services of the person(s) taking the time to measure, detail, and produce the bespoke items.
We see this in some of the oldest luxury fashion brands today:
Chanel: in 1910, Gabrielle Coco Chanel revolutionized women’s wear. Originally only a hat company, she realized women needed comfortable luxury, not just fashionable luxury.
These fashion houses (among others such as YSL, Dior, Prada, and Gucci) originally produced their goods through meticulous, skilled, well-paid labor. Such labor was a marker of quality and craftsmanship, which is why the garments and goods were valued so highly.
If that’s the case, at what point did the luxury fashion industry evolve (or rather, devolve) from a “proudly diverse array of family-owned houses into a $157-billion-a-year mass market whose products now lack exclusivity – and in many cases the quality craftsmanship” that formed the basis for its prestige?
The Industrial Revolution.
The first Industrial Revolution (Britain, mid-17th to 18th centuries) introduced the world to steam, coal, and water as sources of power, mechanizing processes such as iron production and textile weaving that previously were only done by hand and/or by clunky, inefficient spinning frames.
At this point, however, British cloth still could not compete with Indian cloth, spun from cotton and costing 1/5th to produce in India than it did in Britain. As a result, the British government passed the Calico Acts to protect the domestic wool and linen industry, limiting the quantity of cotton that could be imported from India.
The second Industrial Revolution (America, mid-18th to 19th centuries) built upon Britain’s innovations to continue mechanizing processes. The cotton gin revolutionized the cotton industry – but at what cost? Slavery. Sure, machines made the process of separating cotton from its seeds markedly faster, but who were the people forced to pick the cotton and operate these machines and mills in cruel conditions and lifetime bondage to their masters?
We see it in the sweatshops and environmentally unfriendly factories today: perhaps it’s not legally slavery, but minimum wage, long hours, and harsh conditions is its own version of modern enslavement.
At the turn of the 20th century, the modern-day assembly line was created by Henry Ford, setting the example for all mass-production factories to come, and setting the tone for World War I, which became less a war of soldiers’ skill, but more a war of industrial production: winning the war was dependent upon having a large industrial base to support weapon and vehicle production, which inherently contributed to a mass increase in power production and use.
In Britain, total power consumption doubled from 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours in 1913 to 4.9 billion in 1918, while Italy also doubled from 2 billion to 4 billion, and Germany jumped from 8 billion to 13 billion over the same period. (Sass)
This industrial attitude toward the War took no consideration of the environment from which power and resources were drawn, or for how hazardous waste was disposed from these factories, an attitude that unfortunately persists still today.
After WWI ended, the roaring 20’s welcomed “affordable” luxury: movies displayed opulent luxury that consumers would flock to purchase with the new Buy Now, Pay Later option that retailers offered – now, anyone could purchase luxury items to gain status… this overconfidence led to the Stock Market Crash of 1929, leading to the Great Depression, which led straight into WWII (1939-1945).
For a few years following the Depression, everything was utilitarian; textile rationing was still in effect. It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 70’s that fashion picked back up, thanks to Hollywood starlets like Audrey Hepburn. As everyone slowly recovered from the war, mass-production factories were able to shift back to their old ways of consumer goods production. More freedom of expression in the era contributed to a desire to portray such expression in dress, continuing today.
But, at what cost?
The Cost of Luxury Fashion on Humanity
The corporate quest to reduce cost and increase production to meet the popular demand for monogrammed bags and branded garments has created harsh environments for the workers producing the goods, and deleterious environmental conditions. The ability for anyone to swipe a credit card (which in many cases, never gets paid) for a luxurious shopping trip has caused “luxury” to lose its luster – if anyone can get it, is it even luxurious?
In addition, with the high demand for luxury goods comes a constant desire to keep up with the Joneses, breeding an entire illegal fraudulent good market. Being illegal and operating at much lower sales points, the labor conditions equate to modern-day slavery with zero regulation.
The Cost of Luxury Fashion on the Environment
Luxury bag production relies heavily on leather; cattle ranching consumes massive amounts of natural resources, while leather tanning uses heavy metals and toxins that run off into the environment. PVC is a favored component in luxury bags as well, whose production, use, and disposal results in the release of toxic, chlorine-based chemicals that continue to build up in the water, air and food chain.
Luxury fashion has literally become fast fashion, just with a higher price tag completely available to anyone, whether they’ve got the money in their bank account or a credit card to max out.
Redefining (and returning) to True Luxury: skilled labor, quality craftsmanship
We hope to see a reversion back to what true luxury was – integrity in production and quality that preserves both the labor and environment it draws from.
“Luxury wasn’t simply a product; it denoted a history of tradition, superior quality, and often a pampered buying experience.” (Thomas, How Luxury Lost Its Luster)
We do see some brands today making minor changes:
So how do we implement real change?
2 ways – top-down, and bottom-up.
Bottom-up: as consumers, we vote with our wallets. If we stop buying from the producers that employ non-livable wages and environmental toxicity, demand decreases… but trying converting Hollywood’s stars and music moguls to ditch the brands. Instead, a top-down approach may be the answer that will shift the mass consumer perspective (rather than just the few, conscious ones!)…
Top-down: luxury fashion brands must share a continued dedication to responsible sourcing and manufacturing; if top-tier brands buffed, glossed and shared the story of how they responsibly manufacture products, they could even make eco-friendly as covetable as a designer logo — and transform the culture’s entire view of manufacturing that is good for the environment and the people working in the production.
At Seam Siren, we value this definition of luxury: quality material sourced sustainably, handwoven by skilled workers in their trade to create a garment that’s not only healing to the wearer, but beneficial from start to finish of its lifecycle.
If you share our view of true luxury, we invite you to take a look at our Nettle collection, made from Wild Himalayan Nettle: the purest fiber available on the market. It’s both antimicrobial and hypoallergenic, and it during its growth, it sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and places it into long-term soil storage making it a truly eco-friendly fiber. Our nettle is never processed with toxic chemicals, so everything is truly biodegradable, and 10% of every purchase is returned to the Women's Nettle Collective in Nepal, where our nettle is harvested.