What is “Luxury”?

I’d like to preface this with an acknowledgement–I know this seems like a bizarre time to be writing about designer fashion, but consider it my form of escapism from the chaos of the world outside.

Luxury fashion evokes complicated feelings in me. It used to be that luxury fashion was expensive because it used expensive materials–leather, cashmere, silk, and wool. Now, thanks in large part to a variety of fashion startups, you can find high-quality materials in a variety of mid-market brands–Everlane, Cuyana, and ArrivalsNYC for example. They are still expensive, especially if you’ve been shopping at Target and Uniqlo (which I still do myself, not shaming just saying), but at least leather, cashmere, silk, and wool have become more accessible to the average consumer–a once-every-few-months sort of affordability. And these brands also include less expensive natural materials, such as cotton, in their collections, making it feasible to shop at places like Everlane semi-regularly (me, I do that). A lot of these brands also have sustainability as part of their mission or message (they are somewhere on a spectrum when it comes to how *actually* sustainable they are, but at least there’s some pressure to not be seen as hypocritical) where the Guccis and Pradas of the world do not.

So what, now, is the point of buying luxury items? Is it simply a matter of keeping up with instagram trends and influencers? I won’t pretend I haven’t been swayed once or twice by these trends, even taking a hard look at the price tag of the Gucci Marmot belt, but I hope that I have, at this point, stopped being capital-B Basic and developed my own sense of style and aesthetic values.

Rather, I believe that if you throw away the brand name, a piece should stand on its own. I believe luxury fashion now has a secondary obligation compared to its disruptive startup psuedo-competitors. If you can purchase a cashmere sweater for $100-300, why purchase a designer cashmere sweater for $700-$1,000? (Lookin at you, Loro Piana.) This also evokes a lot of uncomfortable feelings about class and status and social perception–is it even moral to spend exorbitant amounts on clothes, at that point?

The answer is that it is either noticeably and dramatically higher in quality (rare but possible, particularly with leather), or that the design of the piece truly sets it apart. It is at least less clearly amoral to spend money on art, and for this reason I find myself drawn to young or upstart designers and brands (which are often less expensive, too). It seems more morally justifiable. A big-name bag, though, a Chanel that’s almost 4 times my monthly rent and twice the cost of all my furniture, still feels like sacrilege. I legitimately wonder if people feel both exhilirated (stuntin’) and embarrassed when they walk around with those.

But we shouldn’t let this stop us from asking hard questions–even accounting for inflation, the price of big-name luxury goods has increased dramatically over the last decade. It’s also linked directly to rising income inequality. To quote this Business of Fashion article (no paywall, but free registration required):

….the most powerful driver of fast-rising luxury fashion prices is the fact that there are simply more people who are able to pay up. The number of high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) in the world increased by 9.2 percent in 2012 to 12 million people, with combined total assets of $46.2 trillion, according to a report by Capgemini, a management consultancy. North America still hosts the largest number of HNWIs (3.73 million people, up 11.5 percent year-over-year, with $12.7 trillion in assets, up 11.7 percent year-over-year), but the number of HNWIs in the Asia-Pacific region increased by 9.4 percent, during the same period, to 3.68 million, with total assets up 12.2 percent to $12 trillion.

So while I’m tempted every now and then by those logos, the luxury pieces I truly admire and find worth saving up for (with less moral trepidation) come from unique, artsy collections. They are pieces that feel like pieces, that feel like art rather than like brands. I love especially the intersection of fashion and technology–laser-cut patterns, for example, have evoked new, seamless shapes and ways to wear them (Alexander Wang and Stella McCartney have used this technique, most prevalent in athleisure). I love sculptural pieces, ones that pay close attention to silhouettes and tailoring (Pleats Please, anyone?). And I have always loved supporting newer brands and designers, from polished, well-funded fashion startups to tiny artisan shops and one-woman businesses on places like Etsy and Afrikrea. Though it’s more mid-market than luxury, I’m such a loyalist to startup Everlane that I once took photos of counterfeit T-Shirts mimicking their designs at Lord & Taylor and emailed it to them.

Here are a few examples of collections I love, though in most cases I don’t actually own any pieces (besides moral trepidation, there’s also bank account hesitation…)

Pleats Please Issey Miyake

When it comes to more established designers I tend to favor Japanese collections like Commes des Garcons, Issey Miyake, and Y-3. Sculptural, thoughtful, yet playful. The pleats have always drawn my attention, and I’ve admired the whole collection for years. My only concern is that this Japanese brand may not be as inclusively sized, but I have not actually tried any of their pieces, in truth. They tend to be more oversized and roomy, so maybe there’s hope.

Mlouye

I’ve mentioned this brand before–once again, sculptural masterpieces. I like truly all of their origami-like bags, and I have earmarked the Business Bag as one I will actually go out and get after achieving some career-related milestone or accomplishment.

Alexander Wang

Another established designer. I love his series of boots with the cut-out heels, yet another clever way of playing with shapes.

Helmut Lang

I enjoy Helmut Lang’s version of minimalism, at times playful, at times formal and serious. Often, clothes that challenge the convention of how to wear clothes don’t pull it off quite right–sometimes they look a little too weird and trendy to me. But I quite enjoy this tie-sleeve sweater and how it can transition from warm and refined to easy and casual. Two-ways-to-wear done right!

Honorary Mentions

  • Off White: at least this brand was founded by a black man. Doesn’t make The List only because its occasionally too much for my more minimalist style, but I adore the binder clip bag collection.
  • Yohji Yamamoto: Anything he touches, Y-3, Y/Project, etc. While he perfectly embodies the tailoring and structural styles I love, they’re a little bit harder to see myself wearing everyday, thus I admire these collections as true visual art–cool to look at from a distance or on others, but I haven’t found a particular piece that I am personally fixated on wearing.
  • Mansur Gavriel: This is one brand where I suspect that the price reflects quality that truly is a step up (*still* not as over-the-top as the big logos), and I’m eager to one day actually touch and feel their leather goods.

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