How Luxury Sparks a Conversation Dana Thomas

  • It was before Raf Simons’ highly anticipated debut at Christian Dior that Dana Thomas and I agreed to meet at her Parisian apartment which is only a stone throw away from the show venue. To be honest, I was surprised that she was invited to the show considering her somewhat rocky relationship with luxury goods conglomerates like LVMH.

    As the author of controversial book, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre, Thomas sent shockwaves through the industry when she first wrote an exposé about the “dark side” of the luxury business in 2007.

    “Luxury is simply a product packaged and sold by multibillion-dollar global corporations focused on growth, visibility, brand awareness, advertising, and, above all, profits,” she wrote.

    “For me, a luxury item is not an everyday life item, which is why it’s special.”

    Despite her mincing words, it comes as a surprise that Thomas still plays an active role in an industry that she readily criticised a few years earlier.

    “Actually, I was surprised how fabulously embraced the book was. I got notes, emails and phone calls, particularly from CEOs thanking me for writing this book and inspiring them to re-evaluate the business and bring integrity back. Some brands even invited me to give talks to their staff. I still like going to shows because I’m interested in seeing what people are doing with what they have, particularly for Raf at Dior,” she says.

    It is rather refreshing to talk about the fashion business with an insider who is incredibly knowledgeable and well connected, but without the superiority complex.

    “It is because I’m a writer who writes about fashion, alongside arts, culture, lifestyle etc. I’m not a fashion writer. It’s because I live in Paris. If I lived in Hong Kong, I will probably write about real estate,” she jokes.

    Thomas wasn’t always a writer. She began her career as an American model living in Paris and Milan. At 21 she returned to Washington D.C to study journalism and politics, in hopes of becoming a white house correspondent. Her fashion and French background eventually got the better of her and she landed an assistant role at the fashion department of Washington Post. After getting married she moved to Paris with her husband and became their Paris correspondent.

    While in Paris, Thomas would write stories on arts, food, fashion and lifestyle. One of her groundbreaking fashion features was about John Galliano, who was then taking over the helm of Givenchy. It was 1995, and a time when the fashion world was changing dramatically: LVMH acquired Fendi, traditional family owned luxury businesses fell into the hands of global corporations and the “it-bag” war officially began. Fashion became a hot news topic. Since then Thomas has contributed to Newsweek, New York Times magazine and Harpers Bazaar.

    It wasn’t until 1997 that Thomas was inspired to write her book when she came across sculptures by artist Tom Sachs, including a Prada “happy meal”, which later became her book cover.

    “I thought to myself, ‘Yes, that’s what luxury has become, it’s just a wrapper. Inside are mass produced products that fill you temporarily but a few hours later you’re hungry again!’” she says

    And so began an adventure which would take her from the ateliers of Paris to the factories of China. She dug deep, posing questions like ‘what has luxury become?’ while examining consumers habits. The book was published in 2007, one year before the global economic crash.

    “No, I did not predict the crash,” she says. “For me, a luxury item is not an everyday life item, which is why it’s special. Goods were produced and advertised at such a pace, so that it became a weird sense of addiction. I thought it was completely unsustainable, hence the fast food reference.”

    Five years on and the luxury business continues to evolve. The “it” bag has become passé, while consumers are once again interested in classic designs and high quality products rather than goods that are plastered with logos. At the same time, we are witnessing the demise and death of talented designers and the on-going debate of fashion moving too fast. So what are Thomas’ views on the luxury business today?

    “What I write about does not only happen in fashion- it’s about commerce. There are always people sacrificing integrity for the sake of quality. You’re not going to change the whole business with a book, but companies now do think and try to be more correct. One thing that I’m glad to see is that there is a slow down in counterfeit products. It’s the most important thing to me because I have been to the sweatshops, I’ve seen the children. They work like the dickens. Campaigning against human rights violations became my mission.”

    And despite the fact that some label her as a cynic and skeptic, there are many fashion personalities whom she respects and admires.

    “I’m sad to see Jean Paul Gaultier leave Hermès. I thought what he did there was very clever. In fact, I’m wearing a five year-old Hermes jacket by him. I recently wrote a piece on Dries Van Noten, who is such a fashion puritan. He explores arts, photography, and is a true renaissance person. His designs are very creative and interesting yet he makes his clothes very wearable and they don’t cost an arm and a leg! I’m just a writer and a working mum, I can’t afford to shop so much!” she laughs.

    Once the interview was finished, we headed to the Dior show together. As we approached the venue we were faced with a different side of the fashion business – the one full of glamour, street bloggers and celebrities. We bid farewell to each other and I watched her disappear anonymously into the fashion crowd. That’s fashion for you.

    Interview by Lucienne Leung-DaviesPhotos by Filep Motwary