by Dana Thomas
Published in 2007
Published by Penguin Books
This book is about a topic that is entirely foreign to me. I am indifferent to luxury goods, and I am equally indifferent to what is fashionable and what is not. I'm not saying this because I'm proud of it; I'm just objectively reporting on what my brain finds interesting and what it does not. My brain still insists on misreading 'Louis Vuitton' as 'Louis Mutton'. If handbags were a unisex item, it wouldn't occur to me to see them as anything but practical and utilitarian.
However, I find business case studies interesting (probably a relic of my years teaching business English), so I was interested to read Dana Thomas' account of how the great luxury houses got their start in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, often as the creation of a lone genius, such as Coco Chanel or Louis Vuitton. The latter focused on making trunks for the travelling upper classes during his lifetime; his namesake company still continues to make old-style trunks today at the workshop in Paris, not that you'd know it by walking through a modern LV store.
The major luxury brands went into a decline in the 1960s and 1970s, but experienced a resurgence in the 1980s as the nouveau riche in Europe, North America, and most importantly Japan took to them to show off their wealth. Now mass-produced, mass-marketed items (with declining standards of quality, purists grumble), the luxury groups are no different from any other multinational.
Am I fooling myself about my supposed indifference to luxury brands? Thomas' book focuses on clothes, perfume, and handbags, which I (happy to smell like cheap aftershave) barely notice in my everyday life. But my wife and I chose to shell out the money for a new MacBook rather than a much cheaper alternative to replace our aging machine (another MacBook). Isn't Apple just another luxury brand?
Maybe in some ways, but it'll take a lot of convincing to make me believe I bought an Apple just to be seen with an Apple. Maybe my impression is skewed by the sort of cafes I hang out in, but Apple computers aren't nearly uncommon enough in this city for me to perceive them as a luxury item. And if I was under the impression that someone thought I owned a MacBook to be seen with a MacBook, I would be embarrassed more than anything. Am I fooling myself?