The landscape of luxe, Part Two: Can you live with it?

Dior coat
For some this is a simple, end-of-story decision: Are you kidding?

But if you have ever stroked a featherweight mohair Dior coat in a consignment store and wondered if it was worth the still-hefty price tag, read on.

I imagine some luxury-goods customers don't fret if the things don't return value, but I've known some mighty wealthy folks who refuse to pay the freight for an item they consider substandard, overpriced or ugly. And why shouldn't they? 

Whether you are buying a coat in a couture salon or Christie's Consignment, here are things to consider:

Is the quality really there, or just the label?

Anne Klein ca. 1980
In one of my university textiles classes, we took apart high-end ready-to-wear clothes and learned a lesson I'll never forget: bias cuts that weren't, misaligned pants, badly-bound seams. (Yes, possums, seams used to be bound.)

Quality can slip; brands are sold, orders are filled by offshore jobbers, and the accountants decide the margins aren't high enough, so decree cheaper zippers.

For all talk about "brand equity", a 30-year-old Anne Klein jacket was infinitely better quality than today's.

Do I value this?

A $600 pair of designer pants is thrilling to one woman and an egregious display of mindless consumption to her sister.  

Value is a subjective assessment derived from various factors:

Label: Does the brand have any worth to you, as a display of your image, status or taste? Does the brand have meaning to you because of emotional or symbolic  connection? Barbara loves her Bulgari bracelet because her mother wore a similar one.

Durability: Can you use and enjoy the purchase for a long time, because it is well-designed and made? Alice has a Pucci dress her mother wore in the '60s and it still looks striking. 
McQueen iPad case

Innovation: Is the style so cutting-edge that you derive satisfaction from having something fresh, new and unlikely to be replicated in cheaper versions? An iPad sleeve is not unique but a McQueen skull-buttoned one offers a bit more devil in the detail. Is it worth $250?
Cardin coat

Provenance: A 1960 Cardin wool coat; (price $2,500 from 1st Dibs seller Jennifer Kobrin), is a stellar example of a late master's work.

Beauty: AKA the Purr Factor
Does it sing? Is the piece a high expression of the craft and aesthetic? Is it 'just right'? Jill said she cried the first time she tried on the ruby Beene dress that was a graduation gift from her father.

Does it fit in my life?

I recently saw a 50ish woman in a Prada coat, rundown flats and cheap vinyl bag. We all know that the head-to-toe designer is a bore, and you can mix high and low, but luxury clothing demands a certain respect for the piece.

You are also helped by attitude. Don't make my mistake (years ago): buy something so costly that it scares you silly to wear it, so it sits in your closet, an effing museum piece. Dear Sylvie, if you're reading, I'm thinking of the Lanvin suit I gave to you, which I hope you wore more than I did– five times will do.

At the same time, I wouldn't forgo the pleasure of a beautifully-made object by making a knee-jerk judgment that it "must be overpriced".  Just because I can't afford it doesn't mean it's overpriced, and the inverse is also true: what I can afford is not always fairly priced either! 

You'll stand out
Then there's the Daphne Guinness Effect: You may attract certain assumptions and projections when people see you in the thing, or be conspicuous among your colleagues– should, for example, your officemates wear Banana Republic and you collect vintage Galliano. I applaud your verve, but you will stand out, and have to deal with it.

In the end, your attraction to luxury goods comes down to your values and priorities.  Some commenters said in the previous post that they want to upgrade and experiment with better quality than before, while others say they will admire, but not own. 

The luxury brands hope many will buy, either because they don't have to worry about price, or because they desire it and will sacrifice. I'd only say, be wary about things perceived as trophies. (What exactly do we win?)

Also, some of us have a luxe Achilles' Heel. For some that's accessories, for me, coats. I melt before a swath of cashmere with horn buttons or an immaculately-tailored topper.

Does luxury boost happiness? 

I can't get a crisp correlation, maybe because I buy at the highest levels so rarely. A MaxMara coat delighted for nearly a decade, but for the move, I shed bags of Level 3 without a twinge.

I know women who can afford the finest but reject it and others who will exist on toast and tea to save for something special. Most of us inhabit a comfortable mid-ground, with a few "bests" and many basics.

Should you choose a luxury object, even as the rarest indulgence, I hope you are happy and serene with your choice. Clearly, I've been conflicted and intimidated by some of my own purchases. (Never pearls, though.)

Your comments on the first part of the series fascinated me, and I would love to hear more.


Mardel said…
I will spend more than most people I know on something I love, but a large part of my wardrobe pulls from the middle ground. Of course my idea of middle may be above many others'.

Although I think J Crews quality has always varied, I still have pieces from the early 90s that are better quality than anything they make today and better than many more expensive brands.

When I was younger I bought things I was afraid to wear. I hope I have outgrown that and I shall probably shop more across lines.

In my previous location there were few stores that even carried Level 1 lines and the women who wore those clothes or higher all were able to travel to shop (at least an hour and a half) either shopping on vacations or traveling to NYC or the more upscale suburbs. Here there is a broad selection of Level 1 and I have seen a broader swath of clothing choices, including a few 3's at Christmas parties when I first arrived.

And yet, my everyday bag is Loro Piano and I love and wear their luxuriously light scarves even with my jeans and Level 1 basics.

I have made peace with myself over the idea that I tend to be far happier with a good piece that lasts a long time, even in a basic, than in cheaper pieces that wear out and need replacing more frequently. Granted I could sometimes spend less than I do and get quality (see above purse) but I am happy with my choices.
Susan said…
At this point in my life I could afford designer clothing, but I never look at it, much less consider buying it. I do NOT judge those who do---and even admire them. The bottom line for me is probably a bit of guilt. I feel so blessed and fortunate to live in very comfortable circumstances when most people do not. Maybe i am like the women you describe who spend on their houses (I have three). It's really about priorities I think.

I like to be nicely dressed, but a Lafayette, Worth, Carmen Marc Valvo, or Eileen Fisher ensemble will do it for me, worn with my Weitzman shoes.

For me, fashion is a form of indolence and money spent only on myself--and I always feel that should be done judiciously.
Susan said…
Indulgence, not indolence. I am on an iPad.
see you there! said…
Enjoyed this and the previous post so much, thank you.

I'm not brand conscious and don't really shop a lot. Luxury to me these days is the best cashmere sweater I can buy. You've done some great posts about that. A cashmere v-neck long sleeved pullover is all purpose for me and even gets worn in our often foggy cool summer's here by the SF Bay. I'll be satisfied when I own said sweater in every color :-)

Anonymous said…
And the award goes to... your last comment has had me laughing uproariously, so so funny!

I'm just about to send a Chanel jacket to Ebay, it's too small and doesn't fit my life anymore,I no longer care that " I own a Chanel jacket" big deal.
Duchesse said…
Mardel: Shame on J. Crew, who now mix acrylic into so many sweaters and bury that info in a separate tab. You raise an important point: sometimes choice is driven by what is available near you.

Susa: "Designer" does not necessarily equal true luxury anymore, but it might. Now that so many celebrities are calling themselves "designers" and sticking their names on clothes, the term is somewhat suspect. But true designer clothes are usually at least Level 2.

I could easily upgrade my closet into van Noten and maybe a bit of Hermes, given the means. (Oh, and furs, I could get into furs.) While fashion is indulgence, buying quality is smart.

Darla: So, would you be willing to tell us whose sweater you're buying?

Tabitha: Oh, that is such a sharp-jawed, sneaky little monster, the "I own a (whatever)".
Susan said…
I used the word designer when I should have used the word you were using---which is what I was thinking. Sorry for the confusion. I really was on topic, but used wrong term!
Susan said…
I used the word designer when I should have used the word you were using---which is what I was thinking. Sorry for the confusion. I really was on topic, but used wrong term!
Caroline said…
Hi, I bought my first "luxe" piece 3 years ago - an Armani suit. It's more casual than a lot of his suits, with stretchy fabric & a short, shaped blazer style jacket. It has completely changed how I think about my clothes. This is now the standard of fit, fabric & colour that everything must come close to - or I don't buy. My workplace is casual so I don't need any other suits but I now have 4 pairs of jeans that fit well, suit my body & work for most of my life. BS (before suit) I had dresses, skirts, pants & jeans none of which made me feel fantastic & I always had trouble putting things together. Who knew Armani could make me a picky minimalist?
Duchesse said…
Caroline: That's what trading up can do in the best instances, and I'm glad that your investment has delivered great wear and pleasure. Your suit sounds very special.

Susan: This is what marketers want to do, to have us conflate "designer" with quality. It is a deliberate advertising tactic.
déjà pseu said…
I rarely purchase luxury *clothing* items, but over the years have collected a few Chanel bags (and sold some along the way that didn't suit my needs). The bags I've kept are the really iconic, simple ones. Clothing...I'm hard to fit, and a lot of the kind of design details that really make a piece stand out are often too much for my small frame. I've tried a few MaxMara coats that made me swoon, but in our climate, it's not a purchase that makes any sense. Honestly, I've been absolutely delighted with so many of my Eileen Fisher pieces. The quality is quite good (usually...I have had some clunkers that didn't hold up) and they have the kind of simple elegance that I probably would seek out and pay a lot more for in a designer piece. If I'm going to splurge on something "designer" it will almost always be an accessory, one that's clean in design and well made.
Anonymous said…
The column "Simply Refined" addresses this very point today...a man's point of view!
Duchesse said…
pseu: Like EF very much on others. Not cut for my body, try as I might, As for Level 2 and 3 accessories, one can mix them "down" but this seems to work most successfully if the non-luxury clothes are classics like jeans, boots and a white shirt or mariniere.

Anonymous: This article made me crabby. Men have so many more options. What would it take for these tailors to serve women, too, or for someone to import this model to womens'wear?
Anonymous said…
At this point in my life, I'm most, but not completely, driven by what fits into my lifestyle.
I don't buy any dressy clothes, unless it's for something specific, like a wedding.
I live a very casual life, and dress for it. I will splurge on a great handbag, shoes, probably pay more for jeans than most, but I wear them ALL the time.
And thanks to you Duchesse, I've found Brora. I don't have to wear J.Crew (which I no longer like) but I don't have to buy Loro Piano, or Bruno Cuccinelli cashmere sweaters either - I actually like the casual feel and fit of Brora better.
Duchesse said…
kathy peck: Thank you; I love Brora (and also Eric Bompard), it's probably 85% of my fall through spring wardrobe.

A casual lifestyle does not preclude the temptations of luxury, though, as I found recently when petting a jacket at Hermes that would certainly go with jeans. And would not spend at Level 3 (or even 2 if I can get away with it) for a piece I would wear only a few times.
Kat said…
Have read your last two posts with great interest and enjoyed them very much.

I bought my first Level 2 bag, a simple black Anya Hindmarch tote, about 4 years ago and haven't looked back since. The beautiful leather and hardware are far beyond anything I could buy from a Level 1 shop. Same with shoes - my first Pradas were simple black Mary Janes with a chunky heel, purchased on sale from I wore them every single weekday to work for 3 years. I don't buy for names or status - for me, the pleasure is less in the name and more about the small details that distinguish many designer items from their high-street counterparts, things that only I can usually see, like the perfect stitching on a strap, the solidness and weight of hardware on bags or perfectly glossy leather. And I've found that the prices of Level 1 bags and shoes here in Australia are the same as the prices of their Level 2 equivalents purchased online on sale from the UK or US, so it makes sense to buy them.

Clothes are a different matter though - I like to look for natural fibres, lining and good cuts, but in my experience, unlike bags and shoes, Level 1 clothes are often just as good quality as Level 2 clothes. A wool dress from UK high street retailer Hobbs, purchased for $150 in post-Christmas sales, wears just as well as the originally-$3500 Carolina Herrera purchased on sale from theOutnet last week - and the Herrera was a cotton-poly mix (albeit with a heavy silk lining).
Duchesse said…
kat: You have given an articulate explanation of the rewards of quality bags and shoes.

However, I would like to suggest that you not wear any pair of leather shoes, no matter how sturdily-made, for five days in a row (even if not walking in them much.) Leather shoes needs time to rest between wearings and dry from the moisture of your foot. Put them on trees (wooden are best) on their day off. This is not my personal philosophy; it's just good shoe care.

Also you will sometimes find synthetics in Level 2 and 3, as in your Herrera dress and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Synthetics strengthen a fabric like a very fine cotton or silk that would otherwise be fragile or too insubstantial for good drape.
Duchesse said…
kat: Gah! I was replying in early am. after a late night. So it should be "Leather shoes need..."
Lin said…
The example you gave, Duchesse, "your officemates wear Banana Republic and you collect vintage Galliano... you will stand out" made me chuckle, as I'm in the kind of office where I stand out for wearing BR... all depends on context, doesn't it?

I agree with most commenters that I'd be more inclined to buy luxe shoes and bags, rather than clothes. And coats, definitely. I suppose it's because I feel they'll "last" longer?
Duchesse said…
Lin: Yes, it does. And I was thinking of a specific office where I had worked, too. Your sense of indulging in better things if they are durable makes sense to me, and if I also think I can wear them a lot, then able to justify that extra price.
Katherine said…
What a fabulous post! We must be thinking along similar lines because I've also been struggling about finding items that truly fit in my life. I love your thoughts around true value in luxury.
Duchesse said…
Katherine: Thanks; I'm quite consumed by the notion of value, and it affects me in that my choices are safer than they might be otherwise. But that's the tradeoff.
Joanne said…
This is the first time I have read Passage des perles. I like your comment that you will stand out if you wear something different so be prepared. I think that is the problem with so many now - people want to blend in - I don't understand why. Just because something is "in style" does not make you stylish - you do that yourself. As I approach 60 I am still enjoying compliments on the way I dress - nothing outrageous, just good quality with updated touches and some fun pieces - and not mutton dressed as lamb. Here's to standing out, not blending in!
Duchesse said…
Joanne: *How much* to stand out is a matter of choice, and some workplaces respect more diversity of dress than others. Both standing out and blending in have distinct advantages.
Diane said…
Such a great post. I hear you on the Lanvin suit. I have an absolutely beautiful Henry Beguelin bag that I don't use because I'm afraid to get ink stains on it. I do take it out of its bag and look at it once in awhile.
Duchesse said…
Diane; You're ahead of me in that you will not "outgrow" your bag :)

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