Thursday, November 18, 2010

Debating diffusion : the long term impact of accessibility on luxury items

It’s remarkable just how the announcement of a designer diffusion line still manages to whip everyone into a frenzy. The idea of owning a little piece of Posen or Lagerfeld is exciting to those usually restricted to reading about fashion collections on the Internet – or, for the stubbornly traditional, in the glossy pages of magazines-- and coveting from afar. But despite the fact that the idea of diffusion lines is no longer controversial, it should also be remembered that the concept as we know it now is still fairly fresh. In reality, we still have yet to see the long-term impact of luxury designers producing lower quality, affordable secondary lines on the image of high fashion.

It is no secret that for the luxury market, accessories are the largest source of profits. Particularly in the economic recession, when many luxury labels were hit hard, accessories such as handbags and cosmetics enabled the companies to survive. Unable to rely on the assumption that there will always be a strong demand for their goods, companies have had to creatively redefine the consumer’s notion of “luxury,” and have been fairly successful in doing so through the marketing of “accessible fashion.”

But, as many have pointed out, fashion draws its very appeal from the sense of exclusivity it exudes. There is an inherent contradiction of the luxury fashion’s sector to attempt to increase sales by expanding its customer base to include those restricted by financial parameters, though designers have rationalized the move towards secondary lines in a number of ways.

When Jil Sander collaborated with Uniqlo, she explained her interpretation of the shift towards lower priced lines: “To me, luxury has nothing to do with high prices, but a lot with enlightened taste and the possibility to be in step with your age, to feel at ease in your body, and to project a confident image of yourself.

Fair enough, but presumably there is a reason that luxury is more expensive beyond the prestige of its label. There is a level of quality and fit that luxury fashion is expected to meet, and these aspects inevitably suffer when the cost points are kept lower – no matter how beautiful the designs are. Derek Lam spoke last year about his skepticism of doing a diffusion line because there wasn’t yet the technology to allow for affordable pieces that maintain the integrity of his work. Fast forward a year later, and he has announced his desire to collaborate with a mass retailer like Topshop, leaving us to wonder if the technology has truly advanced that much in the months since he spoke about the shortcomings of secondary lines.

Currently, it appears that diffusion lines have actually enhanced the luxury fashion image in the eyes of the public. It has made designers household names among markets which little to no knowledge of high fashion, and has garnered attention for the seemingly admirable movement towards democratization of fashion. However, as diffusion lines begin to produce sloppy collections, the original optimism will in all likelihood begin to fade and the long-term perception of the luxury brand will lose its luster. Assuming that the economy will be in a more stable state, the luxury sector will have a new challenge in reigning in its accessibility, a laYves Saint Laurent in 1999.

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