Do contemporary luxury brands adhere to historical paradigms of luxury?
Luxury is a single category that is demonstrably unstable and it is manifested in the changing landscape of the luxury brand market which is considered as part of the fashion cycle. Luxury brands continue to extend their product offer to satisfy a continually growing consumer market. Branding has become increasingly important and as a result the proposed taxonomy of the luxury and luxury brands market contributes to a better understanding of the sector. Existing definitions of luxury are unstable due to an ever changing cyclical market and are exacerbated by marketing, branding, advertising and mass production. It is important to remove the façade of marketing and branding, despite, or because, of them being powerful forms of communication, in order to provide a perspective that acknowledges the change and importance of fashion business methodologies to ensure business growth. At the same time it is also important to recognize the fundamental significance of luxury brand heritage and the convenient message this sends to the consumer. It is evident that concepts of luxury will continue to be defined as part of a complex structure of understanding and interpretation. In light of this, one must not lose sight of the importance of the knowledge of the craftsmen and women and their ability to communicate the intricacies of their skills in order to provoke and challenge the perpetuating luxury debate. A significant part of the current luxury brands market is predominantly made up of companies that were founded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this period, materials and craftsmanship were prioritized. My paper traces a shift in in the luxury paradigm. ‘Worldwide luxury goods market revenues were forecast to grow by seven percent in the final three months of 2012 versus the same period in 2011, culminating in full year growth in 2012 to 10 percent, and pushing total luxury goods revenues to an estimated €212 billion.’ (Bain, 2012) As the luxury brands market continues to grow, its products are made available to an increasingly wide and diverse consumer group. I intend to set out to explore the changes in definitions of luxury and luxury branded products, and the meanings attached to them. It is important to understand the ways in which international conglomerates promote their products in order to add value to them in what has become an increasingly saturated market. Christopher Berry suggests that ’luxury can without hesitation be tacked on to almost any article of merchandise from pizzas to handbags, from a fountain pen to a dressing gown and done so presumably to make it more desirable and the more likely to be bought.’ (Berry, 1999: 10) Berry’s argument that luxury can be attached to anything not only challenges, but also questions the value the term has when used in conjunction with goods and or services. One of the challenges faced in an analysis of luxury is addressing the lack of transparency and willingness to disclose the kinds of information that could be seen to question the notion of exclusivity, something that all luxury brands promote in order to increase sales of their products. It is, I believe, the benefits, linked to a growth in industry, and the recognition that luxury products are in fact inextricably linked to economic gain and growth. It is also apposite to consider the differentiation between mass produced products, those that could be considered luxury brands, and goods that are made by highly skilled craftsmen in limited numbers. What may be needed is a clear market segregation to maintain differentiation between luxury and luxury brands. I suggest that craftsmanship is inextricably linked to luxury. Examples of luxury products could be an haute couture dress or bespoke piece of luggage which may be made to order by a highly skilled craftsman or woman using the finest materials. Scarcity, quality and innovation are also characteristics that define a luxury product. To define luxury in this way makes explicit the characteristics of a luxury product as opposed to a luxury branded product that is mass produced. Defining luxury addresses the misrepresentation of luxury brands that do not adopt the characteristics found in a luxury product but are nevertheless marketed and sold as luxury. I contend that the historical notions of luxury were clearly articulated through notions of craftsmanship, but that although the term is applied to contemporary products they do not carry the same inherent principles of make. A shortcoming of the existing literature is that it takes a partial view and primarily considers marketing and branding in today’s luxury brands market at the expense of other considerations such as skill, craftsmanship and materials. Increasingly the number of texts including Let Them Eat Cake: Marketing Luxury to the Masses - As Well as the Classes by Pamela N. Danziger (Danziger: 2005), and The Luxury Strategy: Break the Rules of Marketing to Build Luxury Brands by Jean-Noël Kapferer and Vincent Bastien (Kapferer, et al., 2009), address luxury in step with branding but fail to create a distinction between luxury and luxury branded products. Within this recent literature there is a distinct absence of analysis of the contemporary designer and luxury markets and their impact on notions of luxury. These texts are predominantly located within the field of marketing and as such focus on strategic sales techniques rather than detailing the material conditions of the luxury market.
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