“Fashion is not luxury” the renowned author and luxury expert Jean-Noel Kapferer said to me over lunch one day in Monaco. He would know, Monsier Kapferer has written multiple books on the luxury industry, including “Kapferer on Luxury: How Luxury Brands Can Grow Yet Remain Rare” (KoganPage). He also leads seminars on luxury at HEC Paris, Tsinghua University in Beijing and the Seoul Luxury Business Institute.
This statement has stayed with me over the years as I’ve written about and explored the many ways that luxury experiences, products and services have permeated the marketplace. He points out that there is a big difference between luxury and fashion. He speaks about fashion as a business model where what you sell is very ephemeral. In fact, what you sell is the ability to be always fashionable in a renewed way; whereas the business model of luxury is more about cash-cows that provide you long-term sources of cash, and this is why luxury loves iconic products.
So if we are speaking about always being renewed, it seems fitting then that LVMH recently announced that Stella McCartney, the venerable fashion designer and daughter of Paul McCartney, has joined their ranks to advise on…renewal. Or to use the current industry buzzword, sustainability. If ever there was a perfect marriage of fashion and luxury, this is it.
Fashion is big business. Luxury is big business. Together now they are an even bigger business. And like all business, the expansion of products and services requires resources. A recent study by the Ellen McArthur Foundation found that one garbage truck of textiles is wasted every second. And the Copenhagen Fashion Summit reported that fashion is responsible for 92 million tons of solid waste dumped in landfills each year.
The fashion industry is also the second-biggest consumer of water, producing 20 percent of wastewater while also generating more greenhouse gas emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
When I lived in L.A., pre-HGTV.com days, I worked as a fashion stylist and production assistant for a series of high-end sample sales. We’d phone our carefully-culled list of independent designers and rescue their leftover garments from end-of-season demise, then rent out a boutique hotel ballroom to display the gathered merchandise over the course of an evening. The original pop-up shop, you could call it, or something of the sort.
Every year, eight times a year, I’d swing open the doors and watch women trample women to score a silk blouse they saw at Saks just a month ago, now at 70% off.
Every year, eight times a year, I’d survey the aftermath of an empty room and stuff the excess, unsold merchandise into oversized trash bags, deliver them to Goodwill.
Every year, eight times a year, I’d feel a bit ill.
Now multiply this story, stylist by stylist, in every developed city and country around the world. Add to that every individual shopper, in every Macy’s and Winner’s and H&M and Zara, consisting of multiple floors and racks of clothing. It’s easy to see the toll that the textile industry takes on the environment. Every year. Eight times a year.
There is a growing call for greater awareness, not only about Fast Fashion, but about Consumerism in general, and the social and economic order that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. This notion of wearing one outfit, never to be seen in it again, or buying clothing items whose lifespan is limited thanks to the quality of materials and manufacturing methods, has created an outcry for the tastemakers of the world and the leaders in the fashion industry, to take a more conscientious approach to sustainability and the importance of its place in our world.
So let’s return for a moment to Stella McCartney’s partnership with LVMH and why this is a powerful shift in the fashion industry’s approach to consumption. If you follow fashion, you know that the trends begin on the runways of Europe, and gradually trickle down to department stores and fast fashion franchises. There are many players in the industry, and savvy consumers have started to take note of the less than savoury practices of fashion brands that deliberately manufacture poorly made clothing items. For those on a budget, these types of outlets are accessible and allow for that consistent renewal of being fashionable and on trend. And of course this matters. How we look, especially in the era of Instagram and social media, matters. For those who understand this, but want to start consciously making a choice about what kind of investments they are making in everything from food to beauty or to fashion and beyond, a seismic shift like the one made by LVMH and Stella McCartney matters because it’s sending a clear signal: change is coming. Stella was brought on board with the specific purpose of advising LVMH on long term growth with an emphasis on conservation and employing ethical fashion standards. The luxury industry recognizes that it needs to lead the charge, to put pressure on the textile industry to emphasize the importance, not only of the conservation of the environment, but other issues that stem from the industry, including human rights abuses, gender equality, living wages, material wastage and fair trade.
Course correcting in this way is similar to steering the Titanic out of the way of the coming (melting) iceberg. The biggest shift in consciousness and effectiveness will come from the consumer. It is, after all, the power of consumer spending that determines the revenue generation of any brand or product being sold online or in stores. The growing divide is not between competing brands, it’s between consumers who are educated and aware of their power, and consumers who are indifferent and simply purchasing with the intention of paying the least amount possible and discarding it shortly thereafter, only to repeat this cycle.
In Part 2, we will explore what we as individuals collectively can do to support the initiatives currently underway in the luxury and fashion industries.