A look at "Deluxe"

Last Updated Jan 18, 2008 9:10 AM EST

Knowledge@Wharton's latest Off the Shelf, posted today, reviews Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster (published in August 2007). In a review titled Illusion, Not Quality: The Transformation of the Luxury Niche into a Global Mass Market, Off the Shelf gives an extensive recap of the rise of luxury goods makers, and contrasts what they were with what they are -- mass market retailers that charge premium prices. It says the theme of Deluxe, by Dana Thomas,
is not that we ought to return to the days when few people could afford nice things, but that we must be alert to marketing techniques that attempt to exploit our appetite for an impossibility: a luxury market that is at once truly democratic and truly exclusive.
In sum, the review says that
All in all, Thomas argues, we have been sold an overpriced, badly made bill of goods -- regardless of whether our designer possessions are real or fake. And, ultimately, she suggests, it's because we have sold our souls for an impossible dream. In the brave new world of democratized exclusivity, one's identity is confirmed and even enhanced by the branding of one's clothes.
Based on the review, marketers should eat this book up -- it will show them how an entire industry used branding to remake consumer psychology. Though the review notes at the end that in strained economic times like ours, mass (that is, fake) luxury like Starbucks and its $3.50 cup of coffee won't hold up. Only real luxury will hold up, because only the actual rich can afford it. Keep an eye on the mass luxury retailers and see if they do better than the brands at Wal-Mart.
  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.