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Transparency in Luxury, Do We Really Want It?

By Joshua Williams

15 Dec 2020

Generation Z is having a profound effect on how fashion brands engage with their customers. They prefer shopping brands that share common values. And they are demanding more transparency from brands regarding material sourcing, pricing, environmental impact and labor practices, in order to make purchase decisions.

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More and more, Gen Z customers also prefer brands that take a stand on social justice and political issues; topics which brands have typically avoided. After all, one misstep may lead to being cancelled--leading to unwanted press, boycotts and impacting sales.

However, because of its higher price point and its focus on a more mature customer demographic, luxury fashion has not had to deal with this issue as directly as more accessible brands. Sure, there have been plenty of mishaps that have led to negative press, such as the recent Dior, Gucci and Marni fiascos, but these largely blew over.

What’s more, luxury brands have always been in the business of creating an escape from the real world, creating products that are more about desire than need. Brands such as Chanel and Hermes have been carefully crafting their images for decades, carefully cultivating an aura of mystery and authenticity--myth-making at its best--and certainly the opposite of transparency and true authenticity.

Luca Marchetti, cultural analyst, semiotician and co-founder of The Prospectivists in Paris, agrees that “On a general level, yes, these concepts are in some ways contradictory with the traditional vision of luxury, in Europe at least.” He continues, “Even if, historically, this field was built on the highest quality and excellence, its desirability is culturally rooted in opacity and the aura projected around products. Transparency was not an option.”

And he points out that during the the first Covid lockdown in Paris, many brands announced they would forego large fashion week productions, and focus on more ecological, ethical and sustainable issues. Less than six months later that ethos has already changed. Luca reflects, “Now, we see that markets are still buying a lot! And they want to see the “grandeur” in real time. So, big shows are back for many of the luxury houses.”

However, this short term response may have long term effects, as luxury fashion houses cater more and more to younger customers with more affordable products and streetwear-inspired styles. The pandemic has created an inflection point. “Not so fast,” states Luca. “The market is extremely fragmented today, and so is society. Younger audiences are much more aware and flexible as for their choices, not to mention that they don't prioritize, nor do they exclude, social competition signifiers in order to express social progression.” He continues, “So yes, more and more, smaller luxury brands are playing on the grounds of transparency, inclusivity and diversity. Nonetheless, even if the larger luxury brands are more and more interested in attracting younger audiences, they can still rely on an older global consumer to grant them temporary prosperity, without having to imagine a massive system change.”

What’s more, these luxury brands operate on a global scale with myriad nuanced cultural and political issues. Stepping into a social debate centered in the U.S. could backfire in Europe, or China, especially around issues that the brand has very little connection with. And yet, as a more diverse group of consumers begin buying luxury goods, taking a stand may be unavoidable, especially in a world driven by social media and disruptors like DietPrada. Luca believes this is partly a mediatic effect, or a new code of communication. He says, “it's good to debate, it's good to show good will, etc. However, behaviors change more slowly. There is always a time gap, a delay, between the emergence of new imaginaries who represent collective values in the media and consumption behaviours.” He punctuates this with: “This is the difference between the “individual" and the ‘consumer,’ which we all are. As individuals, we don't behave in the same way we do as consumers.”

So what we can expect from luxury brands in the future? Luca replies, “Real change will come, when it will be an obligation. It will just be harsher and even more expensive.”