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The Rise of Mass Luxury

By Joshua Williams


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Joshua Williams

Ask an average consumer what luxury fashion is, and they’ll likely respond with well-known brand names such as Gucci, Yves St. Laurent and Louis Vuitton. But what makes these brands luxury? Well, that question is a bit harder to answer and elicits a wider range of responses: quality, craftsmanship, high price, exclusive, made in France, made in Italy, heritage…and the list goes on. In fact, fashion luxury isn’t any one thing, and often lives more as a fluid concept in the abstract, than something that can be quantified or formalized.

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However, if we shift the context from adjective to noun, we find some additional clarity. A luxury is something that a customer doesn’t need, but chooses to buy nonetheless, to enjoy and find pleasure in. And while that may no longer be purchasing fine silver that requires polishing, or cashmere that necessitates brushing (especially when we don’t have a wait staff to do these things for us anymore), it certainly can be applied to purchasing clothing that we don’t need, but want. This might be purchasing a $20 black tee at Zara to add to an overflowing closet, or buying a $750 black Balenciaga logo tee-shirt simply because we can afford it. The latter is certainly not defined by its quality, craftsmanship, exclusivity, etc.—rather it’s brand name and high price. And thus, it stands out as something a bit different than our traditional understanding of luxury fashion. Perhaps a more apt term for it is mass luxury, or even fast luxury, more connected to its fast fashion counterpart in terms of mass production and marketing, than not. And it’s an approach that is gaining traction, the more digitized and globalized we’ve become, and the more growth traditional luxury brands seek, especially in Asia.

Gucci has employed a version of this mass luxury approach in the past five years with great financial success at the time—shifting its core customer from a mature, affluent customer to an aspiring Millennial and Gen Z customer. Balenciaga and Balmain have followed suit, shifting their core offering to styles that are more streetwear inspired and every-day wear, focused less on the ballroom and boardroom. Some of Louis Vuitton’s biggest successes of late have been collaborations with non-traditional brands, such as Supreme. And its employment of two Americans as creative directors, first Marc Jacobs and then Virgil Abloh, was a calculated risk to engage younger, hipper audiences with a large array of mass produced luxury products.

These shifts have buoyed the luxury fashion industry financially in recent years, despite the pandemic, and proven to be new models of selling luxury in a shifting market that’s driven more by Tok Tok than Vogue. However, some brands have chosen to eschew this altogether. Chanel’s recent move to raise their prices on bags and accessories, and it’s continued hesitation to sell online, are both strategies to distance themselves from mass luxury. Hermes and Bottega Veneta have also chosen to keep their distance, keeping prices especially high, focusing on traditional luxury values of artisanship and quality materials.

While the inclination may be to declare that one way is wrong, and the other is right, it’s perhaps more fruitful to simply consider that the concept of luxury fashion has become more expansive, that brands have more tools than ever to engage audiences and build their brands—far beyond the limitations of a particular place or specific customer. But no matter the strategy, there will be implications. For Gucci, it’s having to be more part of the fashion “spin cycle” than ever before—wherein being on trend also means being off-trend more often than not. At the other end of the spectrum, Chanel’s approach may limit engagement, potential profit and growth, but may protect it from market whims.

What’s clear is that luxury fashion will need to continue to find a balance between the traditional values and exclusivity that customers desire, while still meeting the ever-changing demand of these same customers and their fast-changing lifestyles and relationships to luxury.

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