By Lina Goelzer
A Hermès Birkin bag can cost upwards of $70,000. A Valentino haute couture gown can set you back millions. But why would anyone spend such massive sums on designer clothing?
The most tangible component of a luxury item is the material. Crocodile skin, leather, lace, silk, pearls, cashmere: picky customers look for the finest. Not only are the raw materials pricey, but they must be handled with extreme care. The atelier, or artisan workshop, is at the heart of high fashion. More than a decade ago, Chanel bought six of the most respected ateliers in Paris, including a master embroiderer, a feather specialist, a goldsmith, and a creator of fabric flowers.
Workers with such specialized skills are hard to find, and require significant compensation. However, they don’t always receive it. While fast fashion brands are often criticized for the terrible wages and working conditions at their factories in Asia and Latin America, high-end brands such as Prada and Hugo Boss have also been heavily criticized for underpaying their workers in textile hubs in Eastern Europe and Turkey. The “Made in Europe” label is often assumed to signify better quality and more ethical pay for workers, but this cannot be taken for granted1.
Karl Lagerfeld, fashion icon and creative director of Chanel, puts into perspective the amount of labor that goes into producing haute couture: “there’s a coat with no sleeves that took 3,000 hours to make”1, he explains, “Couture has to be something nobody can do… it’s embroidery, all done by hand. “It is like having a baby. Sometimes you suffer, but later you forget the pain,” expresses Eric Charles-Donatien, design director of the Lemarié atelier, whose artisans spend hours hand crafting masterpieces for Chanel2.
When asked about the enormous price tags of Lanvin’s beautiful gowns, lead designer Alber Elbaz describes the time and effort that goes into each creation: “It took me six or seven dresses to make this one...Doing a collection for me is almost like creating a vaccine. Once you create the one vaccine, then you can duplicate it for nine dollars and ninety-nine cents. But see if you can create it for nine dollars and ninety-nine cents, and the answer is no.” In other words, the customer is not merely paying for the materials of the gown, but for the work behind it. Glamour Magazine explains: “You’re funding the research, essentially.”
Exclusivity is another intangible influence on the value of luxury. British brand Burberry admitted to raising prices in order to appear more appealing to wealthier customers. It also theoretically means that only a lucky few get to be on the cutting edge of fashion, setting trends for the masses. However, Reed Krakoff, president and creative director of Coach, disagrees with this idea; he says: “Accessible luxury in no way means that it’s less luxurious.” Rather, it lies in “ things you can quantify—quality, workmanship, [and] materials”. 4
Though its value is not always visible, buying high fashion is making an investment.. Some of it lies in the minds of the designers, the skilled hands of the ateliers, and the thrill of owning something exceptional. However, never assume that the high price you pay benefits everyone involved in the process of bringing your newest luxury purchase to life.