Opinion | 'Luxury' doesn't define legitimacy — here's why

A lack of authenticity erodes trust, and you can't sell anything discretionary or at a premium without it.

Opinion | 'Luxury' doesn't define legitimacy — here's why

You're reading this because I was on Twitter when I should have been asleep. I was actually on Instagram first. I don't remember what brand account it recommended that first set off this thought, but I do remember that they sold a range of polished sweats — matching unisex tops and bottoms with the tiny type, pristine neutrals and clean edge pockets popularised by brands like Fear of God.

I also remember the word 'luxury' in their bio. Between the poor quality of the photos, the simplistic phrases on the sweats, and the close ups that revealed an underweight fabric and subpar stitching, a gap emerged between what the brand said and what I saw. I thought about how long and how often I'd observed the same thing, tweeted about it, and went to sleep.

My random and apparently spicy midnight thought picked up enough steam to be spotted by 5fm's Leah Jazz, who wanted to talk about it on her show, 5 After Hours. We said a lot more than the final edit's 20 minute exchange, which focused more on general ideas about luxury in South Africa inside and outside the fashion industry, and I thought the conversation about luxury positioning as a legitimacy stand-in could do with some added support.

What I'd like to get across is that while luxury is complex and subjective, that doesn't mean calling anything and everything luxury when it doesn't apply is a good idea for a fashion business. The term is widely misused to drive aspiration without a product and/or experience that delivers on its promise, to conjure extra credibility from nothing — saying it without doing it or being it.

Below is my take on why that's damaging, why declaring something luxury does not make it so and what opportunities lie beyond the myth.

The limits of luxury's subjectivity

The last decade in fashion has permanently shifted, fractured and expanded definitions of luxury fashion. We now accept that they're set by culture, not marketers or brands. What comes with that is an endless world of messages delivered by culture's endless pool of perspectives. There are enough conflicting and contradicting messages to drive anyone to conclude that nothing means anything anymore. At least for now, that's not true.

As long as you can offer people an idea about your brand and they can reject, ignore or misunderstand it, language still has some fixed characteristics and definitions we generally agree on. They lead us to accept or reject messages based on how well they align with what we understand to be true. They were put there at the origin point of the words, changed over time but not removed, and are incredibly difficult to get rid of. So 'luxury' can't be whatever you say it is — it has to be whatever WE say it is — culture, industry, and consumer in agreement.

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Check out Ana Andjelic's Sociology of Business newsletter for further reading on luxury, culture and consumer thinking. She's a market-leading mind who understands better than most how global luxury shopping is changing, and what brands should be doing about it.

There are ways to use and manipulate the limited flexibility of luxury's definition. As a labelling term and a market positioning tool, use is pretty straightforward — it's a way to stamp something as unique (implying scarcity) and defend the higher price tag associated with unique manufacturing, materials, marketing, experiences and more.

In less direct executions, it's become a license to experiment creatively, interrogating those boundaries while keeping intact the agreed-upon core characteristics, like rare applications of creativity, exclusive access, best-in-class materials and/or superior quality craftsmanship. Alone or combined, it's these and other hallmarks that form luxury's repeated, recognisable themes, defining it en masse and placing limits its subjectivity.

If you can offer something compelling that breaks with tradition but doesn't appear to break those rules, the market may validate your subjective take. If you break them but get a compelling message across, your illusion might drive early sales, but won't support repeat purchases over time. If you ignore them and your message is unconvincing, you're going to have a tough time with any fashion consumer, luxury spender or not.

Damaging beliefs

Now that we're on the same page about luxury having limits, let's talk about why brands refer to themselves as operating within those limits when the view and experience of the culture, industry and consumer say otherwise.

Because of how it's marketed, the global luxury sector is among fashion's loudest. Because of how luxury signals wealth, our society has taught itself to aspire to it, endlessly. Together, these two factors form the core of a false idea: That being the creative leader of a luxury brand is the only legitimate way to be a fashion designer, and any other roles are pitstops on the way to this ultimate destination.

On that road, some designers ignore the opportunities open to the identity and position their brands already have, all to achieve an 'ideal.' Others, truly intending to build a luxury brand, operate under its banner sooner than they should, hoping to close the gap between their limited resources and their positioning faster than any reputation damage may happen — a risk that isn't likely to pay off.

It doesn't help that so many people depend on luxury brands to feel successful by signalling wealth, purchases betraying this truth even as they say otherwise. It's always been strange to me that in South Africa, people seem to protest every hint of exclusivity, gatekeeping or elitism, while a national fascination with status symbols thrives. Symbols that, in Thango Ntwasa's words, 'run the fashion psyche of this country.' It's a human issue that takes other forms (i.e. the counterfeit market), and in South Africa, contains echoes of a discriminatory political past and deeply unequal present.

Another reason I think designers convince themselves to do this and other similarly damaging things comes from the fraught mental terrain of identifying very closely with what you do (as a fashion design graduate and now a writer, I am intimately familiar). There is the work creative professionals do, and then there is their other job: Defending their right and choice to do that work against a near constant assault of uncertainty, feelings of inadequacy and fair or unfair critique. The idea that a luxury offering auto-legitimises you, insulating you from some of that, is a tempting illusion to reach for.

Whatever the origin, if it's inauthentic, it's a mistake. Luxury positioning in your marketing that isn't matched by your product & brand experience is not lending you the sector's impressions of legitimacy. It's calling whatever credibility you already have into question. Perhaps irrevocably, you are denting something even more important than your value proposition: people's willingness to trust it.

The closer I looked at that Instagram account, the more the word 'luxury' felt like a lie I was being sold, somewhat lazily, as if they didn't think I could tell the difference. Don't make the mistake of assuming the average consumer just isn't that discerning. They don't need to be able to point out what cotton grade or knit weight qualifies as premium; they just need to know what feels like a good, resonant brand experience and what doesn't.

Solutions thinking

Because I'm not here to wag my finger from the backseat while offering nothing:

  • Embrace the natural identity of your product offering, and build your brand position wherever that is. Grass is greenest wherever you water it — in elevated casuals, recycled plastic accessories or well-made t-shirts — if it resonates with a group of people, there's your legitimacy. Focus on that, and don't get distracted by marketing messages that can make you feel like the luxury category is home to all the money and validation fashion offers. It's not true.
  • Get solvent, because few things will make you feel more legitimate (or make you feel legitimate faster) than turning a healthy profit.
  • Instead of trying to leverage luxury's aspirant cravings, what if designers banded together to strategically push the idea that African fashion is better than people think it is? [I talk more about this in the 5fm recording.] Marketing made oranges the global face of vitamin C; what could it do for designers when an estimated 92% of South African consumers believe that locally designed and made equals inferior? What role can recent global successes of African fashion play in rewriting this story?
  • Outside luxury, think variety, not volume. That's what the missing middle needs more of, at least in South Africa: Thoughtful designs for marginalised populations, a definitive contemporary tier, better diversity of styles in affordable, slow fashion. There are gaps; how can your work fill them? How can you find legitimacy through a unique solution to a consumer problem?

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