Luxury. Beware the Lure of Luxury Branding. Dana Thomas’ Holiday Shopping Warning. Second City Style Fashion Blog

November 26, 2007 • Fashion

Illustration: Jillian Tamaki

For those of you who missed the Dana Thomas’ editorial in this Saturday’s NYT please do yourself a favor and take the time to read it and remember every word. The grand dame of fashion journalism (see her volume: Deluxe: How Luxury Lost It’s Luster) shares her two cents about the real scoop about luxury brands and the composition of the goods they market to people searching for quality…. be warned, you may have to rethink how much you’re paying for the labels that don’t come through on promises of craftmanship… — Joanne Molina, Senior Editor

Made in China on the Sly


Published: November 23, 2007

Jillian Tamaki



AMERICA’S holiday shopping
season, which officially opens today, is expected to yield sales 4
percent higher than last year. This growth is not likely to be seen at
discount stores; their customers are feeling the credit crunch. But a
big increase is predicted in sales of luxury-brand products like
Burberry handbags, Prada scarves and Gucci ties, with prices high
enough to make a difference.

Those prices are worth it, we are
told, because these goods are handmade in Europe by artisans. In fact,
that is not always the case — as we learned from the recent news
reports on the activities of Norman Hsu,
the Democratic political fund-raiser indicted on charges of investment
fraud. Mr. Hsu told potential clients that he would use their money to
finance the manufacturing of Gucci and Prada items in China — and
promised a 40 percent return on the investment.

This was
surprising, given that both brands have long maintained that they do
not produce their wares there. A Prada spokesman reiterated it when the
Hsu news broke, telling Women’s Wear Daily that Prada does not
manufacture its products in China — though if you look inside one of
Prada’s popular nylon toiletry cases, you’ll sometimes find a small tag
that states otherwise.

For more than a century, the luxury
fashion business was made up of small family companies that produced
beautiful items of the finest materials. It was a niche business for a
niche clientele. But in the late 1980s, business tycoons began to buy
up these companies and turn them into billion-dollar global brands
producing millions of logo-covered items for the middle market. The
executives labeled this rollout the “democratization” of luxury, which
is now a $157-billion-a-year industry.

To help these newly
titanic brands retain an air of old-world luxury, marketing executives
played up the companies’ heritage and claimed that the items were still
made in Europe by hand — like Geppetto hammering in his workshop by
candlelight. But this sort of labor is wildly expensive, the executives
routinely explain, which is why the retail prices for luxury goods keep
going up and up.

In fact, many luxury-brand items today are made
on assembly lines in developing nations, where labor is vastly cheaper.
I saw this firsthand when I visited a leather-goods factory in China,
where women 18 to 26 years old earn $120 a month sewing and gluing
together luxury-brand leather handbags, knapsacks, wallets and toiletry
cases. One bag I watched them put together — for a brand whose owners
insist is manufactured only in Italy — cost $120 apiece to produce.
That evening, I saw the same bag at a Hong Kong department store with a
price tag of $1,200 — a typical markup.

How do the brands get
away with this? Some hide the “Made in China” label in the bottom of an
inside pocket or stamped black on black on the back side of a tiny logo
flap. Some bypass the “provenance” laws requiring labels that tell
where goods are produced by having 90 percent of the bag, sweater, suit
or shoes made in China and then attaching the final bits — the handle,
the buttons, the lifts — in Italy, thus earning a “Made in Italy”
label. Or some simply replace the original label with one stating it
was made in Western Europe.


Not all luxury brands do
the bait and switch. The chief executive of the French luxury brand
Hermès readily told me that some of its silk scarves are hemmed by hand
in Mauritius, where labor costs less. And Louis Vuitton, which boasts
that it churns out its $3 billion worth of leather goods each year in
its company-owned factories in France, Spain and Southern California,
announced in September that it plans to build a factory in India to
produce shoes.

But most brands aren’t so straightforward. To
please customers looking for the “Made in Italy” label, several luxury
companies now have their goods made in Italy by illegal Chinese
laborers. Today, the Tuscan town of Prato, just outside of Florence and
long the center for leather-goods production for brands like Gucci and
Prada, has the second-largest population of Chinese in Europe, after
Paris. More than half of the 4,200 factories in Prato are owned by
Chinese entrepreneurs, some of whom pay their Chinese workers as little
as two Euros ($3) an hour.

Luxury brand executives who declare
that their items can be made only in Western Europe because Western
European artisans are the only people who know what true luxury is are
being not only hypocritical but also xenophobic. They are not selling
“dreams,” as they like to suggest; they are hawking low-cost,
high-profit items wrapped in logos. Consumers should keep in mind that
luxury brands are capable of producing real quality at a reasonable
price. They know better, and so should we.

Dana Thomas, Newsweek’s European cultural correspondent, is the author of “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster.”

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3 Responses to Luxury. Beware the Lure of Luxury Branding. Dana Thomas’ Holiday Shopping Warning. Second City Style Fashion Blog

  1. car says:

    I understand that we should be concerned about these companies not paying laborers what they should and moving production to countries that do not have minimum wage and other workers-rights safeguards. However, I am not quite sure why we should assume that just because a bag is made by Chinese immigrants and not some little old Italian lady that they are automatically a lower quality. I mean I know Western Europeans are the best race and all that, but just because a bag is made by a brown person doesn’t mean it’s bad…

  2. Joanne-SCCS says:

    That is EXACTLY what she says in the article! She agrees with you and says that the assumption is completely xenophobic… that’s why I wanted people to read her article.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think it’s not a good idea buying imitated products made by other countries instead of buying the original. it’s destroying the Brand’s quality and it’s causing much trouble to the imitators. I’m not saying that we should only buy genuine products what I’m trying to say is if we can’t buy the original let’s not support the fake ones.

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