Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster by Dana Thomas

Book: Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster by Dana Thomas Read Free Book Online
Authors: Dana Thomas
Tags: Social Science, Popular Culture
because he doesn’t want the clothes to retain the odors. The only thing in his refrigerator is eyedrops. “When he gets thirsty,” Tsuzuki said, “he goes to a convenience shop and drinks there then goes back home. He does not want to put any kind of trash in the room.”
    Tsuzuki’s subjects seem extreme. But in fact they are representative of the Japanese preoccupation with luxury goods. Analysts estimate that 20 percent of all luxury goods are sold in Japan and another 30 percent to Japanese traveling abroad—meaning Japanese buy half of all luxury goods. Today, approximately 40 percent of all Japanese own a Vuitton product. They claim in market studies that they buy luxury goods for a logical reason: durability. Experts believe, however, there is a far deeper sociological meaning. According to polls, the Japanese consider themselves to be a classless society—in one study, 85 percent stated they were middle class. At the same time, in Japan, conformity is prized. By wearing and carrying luxury goods covered with logos, the Japanese are able to identify themselves in socioeconomic terms as well as conform to social mores. It’s as if they are branding themselves.
    Their impact on the business is immeasurable. Their tastes influence product and store design. Their travel habits dictate where brands expand, and their exigencies affect how stores are run. “We never make any decision on our worldwide strategy without asking our Japanese colleagues what Japan would think of it,” said Louis Vuitton CEO Yves Carcelle. The Japanese, in other words, homogenized luxury. And by doing so, they prepared it for globalization, which effectively is the homogenization of the world.
    T HE J APANESE LOVE of Western luxury goods is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the 1960 s and 70 s, the Japanese economy flourished, giving birth to a newly flush middle class that wanted to live a more ostentatious life. Grand homes or vast real estate holdings—generally the most blatant way to enjoy as well as exhibit one’s riches—was a near impossibility in the densely populated island-nation of Japan. Instead, the Japanese chose to show their wealth by dressing richly, and for the postwar generation, Western luxury items such as leather goods, silk scarves, furs, and jewels were the ultimate status symbols.
    Unfortunately, there was little to be had in Japan; distribution was extremely limited. To satisfy the surge in demand, entrepreneurial Japanese merchants traveled to Europe, bought items at full retail price, shipped them back to Japan, and sold them for three to four times more in shops around Tokyo, creating what is known as a parallel market. The parallel market confounded luxury executives back in Europe: their flagship stores were getting cleaned out of stock, and they had no control over how the product was being sold overseas.
    In February 1976 , Louis Vuitton’s great-grandson Henry-Louis invited Kyojiro Hata, consultant for the international accounting and consulting firm Peat Marwick, to his office at the avenue Marceau store to discuss the problem. Hata, in Paris on unrelated business, knew nothing of the luxury industry and had never heard of Louis Vuitton. But he was impressed by Henry-Louis Vuitton’s manner—“He was a very shy, sincere person and extremely discreet,” Hata told me—and by the genuine refinement of the store and its products. “The serenity and the high ceilings of Henry Vuitton’s office were worlds away from my experience,” Hata later wrote in his memoir, Louis Vuitton Japan: The Building of Luxury . “The long room had a small window from which to view the sales floor, and the walls were embedded with antique trunks. I felt the long history of Louis Vuitton and the depth of French tradition through my body for the first time. It was an awakening for me.”
    Vuitton explained to Hata his exasperation: the Japanese were buying so much that Vuitton had placed a limit on the number of

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