Why a Lack of Transparency is a Problem for Luxury Fashion
lux·u·ry / noun
1. A state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense.
1.1 An inessential, desirable item which is expensive or difficult to obtain.
1.2 A pleasure obtained only rarely.
What is the definition of luxury in the context of fashion?
Is it a label hanging on our clothes?
A logo that all can see?
A price tag?
I ask the question because I believe, firmly, that luxury is a pivotal component of the allure of fashion. Despite this, I'm befuddled by our modern conception of what constitutes 'luxury' fashion.
The latest episode of my luxury lamentations arrived courtesy of a report released last week by the organization Fashion Revolution. In it, 150 major fashion brands (those with an annual turnover of at least $500 million) were ranked according to a set of metrics designed to gauge a company's supply chain transparency, meaning what it conveys about the social and environmental aspects of its production process to its customers and the general public. Brands ranged from fast fashion to luxury and in between. The resulting Transparency Index scored brands from 0-100% on their public disclosures of supply chain-related information.
Prior to seeing the report, I expected that the faster the production and the cheaper the clothes, the less transparent a supply chain might be. On the flip side, I expected luxury brands to be more aware of the ongoings of their supply chain because, to my mind, luxury and quality are synonymous, and quality is the result of process, which necessitates a well-managed supply chain. In short, a supply chain is nothing if not the backbone of a luxury company.
Which is why I was surprised to learn this: a disproportionate share of luxury brands (in fact, some of the world's most luxurious brands) received transparency scores in the bottom half of the lowest category of the ranking. These brands all received scores between 0-5%, indicating, according to the report, that they are "disclosing nothing at all or a very limited number of policies" pertaining to their social and environmental standards: Chanel, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Carolina Herrera, Marc Jacobs and Max Mara fell into this category. (Furthermore, some of the highest ranking companies in the index were the very ones I thought would score lowest, like H&M, Old Navy, and Gap.) To be clear, this is a ranking of public disclosure of supply chain-related information, and so these companies may well be acting in a responsible fashion and just not conveying that information out, to us, for whatever reason. [As a side note, Chanel supports and showcases heritage craftsmanship through its Métiers d’Art collection, and for that the House deserves recognition.] Still, the remarkable lack of public information presents a set of challenges which matter unequivocally to whether and how the fashion industry can become more accountable writ large.
But I want to focus here on the specific issue of how these findings pertain to the question of luxury.
Here's the problem: a luxury company should willingly disclose more about its manufacturing process, and a luxury consumer should care about that manufacturing process. It's plain and simple. Without a focus on process, luxury is just a brand name, only a price tag. The Transparency Index provides further reason to believe that in the fashion of today, we've lost our sense of what real luxury is. We've settled for a watered-down definition of luxury that has us focused on logos and labels, not on process, or on quality, or on the workers who make these luxurious items, or on the way in which they're made.
The fashion industry is marketing us luxury, but not manufacturing it.
Essentially, this amounts to the commodification of luxury in fashion: the translation of a complex idea rooted in real value to a material thing we come to think we can achieve by buying it at a high price. Because these companies aren't being transparent about process, we can't correlate price to value, we don't have a real sense of what we're paying for.
So, what is luxury?
Well, I think it's a state of mind, first and foremost. It's a process second. And a product third. The product is the endpoint, not the starting point. It is the knowledge that the object in question has been created for the purpose of enhancing the world somehow. From that stems the integrity of the process. Respecting labor, working with artisans, preserving heritage, paying workers fairly, treating the environment with care, and making a product that will last, and be cherished, these are the marks of real luxury.
In a previous pieces on luxury, I quoted one of this website's patron saints, Diana Vreeland, a woman who understood luxury at its very core. This time, her words swirl around in my mind once again. She once said: "You gotta have style. It helps you get down the stairs. It helps you get up in the morning. It's a way of life. Without it, you're nobody. I'm not talking about lots of clothes."
So, what is luxury?
A way of life. I'm not talking about expensive things.