Democratic luxury

2013-04-07 10:00

I like the pendulum swing of life, especially when the pendulum reaches its zenith and then swings back.

This is when extremes are corrected, and this is where the world finds itself right now.

Take the concept of ‘luxury’.

The luxury industries are in this phase of rebalance and it’s all thanks to a protracted global recession.

Since 2009, we’ve started reassessing what’s important in life and what we consider really precious.

The impact of the financial crisis served as a wet slap in the face, and sometimes you need an abrupt wake-up call to bring things back into perspective. Unpleasant as it was, it was much needed.

In fashion, the concept of the seasonal “must-have” handbag was feeding the frenzy, particularly handbags produced by luxury fashion brands.

Forget heritage, provenance and artisanal skill, these fashionable handbags were reduced to logo-splattered commodities, pimped to label junkies who were too busy worshipping at the altar of bling to realise that, like most mass-produced products, their precious status symbols were made in China, and not by French or Italian artisans.

The concept of ‘luxury’ had been boiled down to obscene price tags and one-upmanship.

Fast forward to 2013 and a decidedly different picture emerges.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal identified a new breed of consumer: the forever-frugal customer.

Their research found that inthe aftermath of the initial financial meltdown, many consumers started trading down, and even when the economy began recovering, these customers were not bouncing back up.

They had found a whole new world on a lower rung on the ladder, a world where lower prices did not compromise style or quality, and a world where value was fast becoming an alternative status symbol.

The fashion world was quick to change tack.

Swedish multinational retailer H&M, known for its affordable (read cheap) fast-fashion, had already started to blur the boundaries between high street and couture by collaborating with fashion’s elite.

Before the financial crisis, they had persuaded Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld to design a limited diffusion range for the chain, which unsurprisingly sold out within hours.

H&M embraced this trend and have since collaborated with the heavyweights of fashion: Viktor & Rolf; Stella McCartney; Jimmy Choo; Roberto Cavalli; Versace; Lanvin; and more recently, Martin Margiela, a design label that couldn’t be more inaccessible.

The overarching message here was that good design need not be expensive.

Over in the food industry, a similar revolution was taking place.

The gastronome castle was being stormed.

Molecular gastronomist Heston Blumenthal is to a foodie what a fashion couturier is to a fashionista.

He has concocted ingenious concepts like egg and bacon-flavoured ice cream, which he serves in his three-star Michelin restaurant, The Fat Duck.

The restaurant has been hailed as the best in the world and, as a result, there is a two-month waiting list for a reservation. This despite the tasting menu costing about R2 700 a head – excluding wine.

Fast food chain Burger King decided to democratise this gourmet experience and introduced their own version of a “bacon-sundae” dessert.

Not to be outdone, Wendy’s (another American fast food chain) took a leaf out of Californian celebrity chef Thomas Keller’s recipe book.

Keller had built entire dishes around a particular sea salt, so Wendy’s served up their own gourmet French fries sprinkled with a variety of exotic sea salts.

But while there was a trickle-down effect in the fast-food world, a surprising reversal was taking place from the bottom up.

Over in Hong Kong, a tiny dim sum canteen called One Dim Sum, which offers dishes ranging from R15 to R50, was awarded a rare Michelin star and became the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant.

But, like affordable designer fashion, it has proven excellent food need not cost a fortune.

Like outrageous bonuses paid to chief executives, profit margins in the retail world are also being questioned.

Today, consumers expect better value for money without having to compromise on design or quality.

There is no longer any justification for obscene price tags, just for a brand name.

However, just as there are “early adopters” of a new trend, so too are there the stragglers.

In an upmarket shopping mall in Joburg, a designer car brand, which has diversified into fashionable goods, recently unveiled a handbag with a starting price of R12 000.

The ostrich-skin version, however, sells for a “mere” R99 000.

And for the woman who has everything, there is a crocodile version costing R249 000.

Before the launch, they already sold six ostrich-skin bags.

So while these big spenders may feel smug about their new status symbols, many others will sport an equally wry smile and think to themselves, “there’s one born every minute”.

» Chang is the founder of Flux Trends:

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