Walking down Georgetown’s busy M Street, tourists and residents alike ogle and peruse the countless high-end stores that dot the street and purchase anything from Chanel makeup to Michael Kors handbags. These luxury stores found throughout the neighborhood encapsulate modern luxury retail culture — a lifestyle filled with decadence and glamour, but one that is affordable only to the few people with enough expendable income to indulge such expensive tastes.
Modern luxury products now go viral often, confusing fashion writers with three-digit price tags for everyday items. The summer 2017 release of new luxury products like Balenciaga’s Speed Trainers, criticized by one such writer as “a $700 sock with a sole,” raises important concerns about its practicality and wildly inaccessible price.
Despite this pushback, the way in which the Speed Trainer dominated the market and generated massive social media hype suggests these brands are selling more than a structured handbag, leather belt or sock-turned-sneaker. Their products obviously communicate a wearer’s particular preference for elastic shoes, but they also tell a story of creativity and personal expression that brands work hard to sell as a fulfilling lifestyle, despite the fact that the meaningful experiences they advertise carry hefty, unrealistic price tags.
Despite the sustained appeal of names like Balenciaga, founded in 1919, fashion lines now rely extensively on generating social media hype to target a digitally connected and image-conscious audience that forges meaning and identity from its clothing, changing the strategies and markets of brands while still maintaining an exclusive and elite vision.
All Eyes on Younger Consumers
A 2019 report by Boston Consulting Group and Altagamma that surveyed 12,000 consumers in the 10 leading countries for luxury fashion sales indicates that these opulent brands have been immensely boosted by younger generations. The report predicts that millennials, those born from 1978 to 1992, will be responsible for 50% of spending in the personal luxury market by 2025.
Social media buzz, online shopping and the effect of influencers make up some key trends that will continue to grow for at least the next six years and effectively reshape the luxury market, according to the report.
By connecting to a growing urban and digitally savvy audience, brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton have refocused their target audience to include younger people and have begun including streetwear trends and clothing into their marketing.
However, what constitutes trendiness, determining the future of the luxury fashion industry, depends largely on the work that black people do as tastemakers for popular culture, according to Larry Taylor III (COL ’20), president of the Black Student Alliance, who personally incorporates luxury brands into his wardrobe.
“You can look at Virgil [Abloh], who is the Men’s Artistic Director for Louis Vuitton, and think, ‘This man is a whole black man, and he’s putting on for the culture,’” said Taylor in an interview with The Hoya. “You have these high end brands like Louis Vuitton, Prada, Alexander McQueen and Gucci, even, shifting to urban clothing because that’s what’s hip, and that’s because, at the end of the day, black people make it hip.”
Additionally, many companies have aimed to perfect the balance between exclusivity and transparency in order to successfully convince younger audiences that their expensive products come without environmental degradation.
An industry webinar released by Nielsen, a market research firm, notes that the younger generation’s desire for sustainability and better business practices has also transformed the market. Seventy-three percent of consumers under age 34 reported being more willing to spend extra on a brand they consider to be environmentally and socially sustainable, according to Nielsen’s research.
A Story Sewed in Cloth
Brand storytelling is a potent marketing technique for encouraging a relationship between the consumer and the logo on the product rather than the product itself. Companies seek to communicate to consumers their purpose and values to humanize their releases as a way to attract customers, according to Giulia Melidoni (COL ’22), who serves on the board of the Georgetown Retail and Luxury Association.
“When a luxury brand is selling a product, it’s not all about the profit they will be making, but they are selling to their customers the story of the brand and its success. Luxury brands try to narrate the story of their origin, choice of craftsmanship, loyalty, excellence and premium quality,” Melidoni wrote in an email to The Hoya. “When GRLA invites speakers on the hilltop, these speakers share the stories of the brand they represent, bringing their vision to life.”
In one recent campaign, Gucci released a collection of short films in collaboration with students from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts as a way to market its $790 extravagant Ultrapace sneaker.
Each of the productions features young protagonists who find freedom and escape from mundane interactions through adventurous artistic and social endeavors. The four short films tap into subcultures and experiences to provide a sense of relatability and authenticity, or “brand belonging,” as the digital consulting firm Accenture Strategy terms it.
Companies cannot easily fake this sense of authenticity; they have to take active, specific steps to curate it in a campaign, according to Emilia Ferrara (COL ’10), who teaches a course on fashion journalism and serves as editor for Capitally, a fashion and lifestyle magazine focused on sustainability.
“When you look at Dolce and Gabbana’s ads, you can see that this notion of community and family is highly choreographed — it’s falsified — and it’s honestly pretty thrown together,” Ferrara said in an interview with The Hoya. “They could go even deeper, and look at the professors in that area, the bakery owners, the baristas and the people that you and I think of as our style icons because they’re in our midst and we know them”
The collaborative fashion show between pop star Zendaya and Tommy Hilfiger at 2019’s New York Fashion Week is one example of a show that gets the portrayal of authenticity right by setting the personal brand, image and persona of Tommy Hilfiger aside and celebrating a different experience and narrative in the spotlight, according to Ferrara.
The show took place at The Apollo in the New York City neighborhood Harlem, and Zendaya sought to reimagine the luxury brand to be inclusive toward women from all walks of life by booking models with diverse skin tones and body types, even though many of the line’s products range from $100 to $300, with some pieces going for over $1,000.
“Designers are seeing the need to enter a cohesive world and sphere that already exists and belongs to an indigenous community, and showing it respect and being able to put on a show that brings those values to light and highlights them as opposed to trying to recreate them or rebuild them on a set,” Ferrara said.
International Brands, Personal Meanings
For some Georgetown University students, their interactions with luxury fashion are part of larger elements of cultural identity formation.
Using clothing to represent a larger lifestyle is not limited to the brand’s own work, but the reality that people’s choices to align with certain brands has class implications remains, according to Taylor.
“There’s a class level to it, but there’s also a cultural aspect of it,” Taylor said. “I feel like that cultural aspect is supported not only by the fashion industry, but also like, hip-hop and music in general, just because I think that’s how certain people, including myself, find out about these brands.”
Luxury clothing and fashion take on different meanings when considered within certain communities, and that importance can further encourage consumers to save up to make those kinds of expensive purchases, according to Taylor.
“Within black culture in general, fashion is idolized. Most of the time it’s another form of art,” Taylor said. “When I started getting my own money, and was able to make my own purchases by myself, I think that was what allowed me to dive into what type of fashion I wanted to be a part of.”
Despite the power and allure of high-end goods, an individual’s personal style and own sense of fashion constitutes the most important aspect of self-expression through clothing, according to Taylor.
“People definitely feed into the hype of brands, but people also need to recognize that brands — no matter how high end they are — still release pieces of clothing that you could consider ugly,” Taylor said. “The brand is a bonus, but for me now, it’s more ‘So do I think this article of clothing looks cool?’ I have to think about the longevity of it and the versatility of it.”