The concept of luxury fashion has many dimensions that coincide with one’s own perceptions, which may refer to high price, exclusivity of access, uniqueness and originality of design or high-quality materials. Because of these associations and the assumption that the social demand for luxury goods is lower than for mass-market items, luxury fashion can appear as inherently conscious. But is it?
Beyond selling products, luxury designers sell highly desirable identity. For most, prestige, and related labels represent an attractive value that can be bought (at least at first glance) with clothing, footwear and accessories. However, the desire for exclusivity can often override the actual quality of so-called luxury products. For many, the label “Made in Italy” or “Made in Europe” is synonymous with high ethical standards that have been recently called into question. For example, a series of investigative reports by the Clean Clothes Campaign reported on the huge gap between the legal minimum wage and the estimated minimum subsistence income in European countries where prominent names of the fashion industry, including Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Armani, produce their collections. In other words, these brands have been paying workers less than they need to live a decent life. Research has revealed that this wage gap may be even wider in European countries with cheap labour, such as Turkey, Georgia, Bulgaria and Romania, than in Asia.
Higher pay for clothes, shoes and fashion accessories is not an indicator of higher wages for workers on assembly lines and in the cotton fields, as has been revealed by many documentaries (we particularly recommend watching The True Cost, which reveals the background to both fast and luxury fashion) and high-profile incidents linked to the guarantee of workers’ rights. In Italy, for example, in 2019, the head of a company was arrested on charges of allegedly employing “dozens” of undocumented workers to produce garments for luxury brands including Armani, Saint Laurent and Fendi. The New York Times’ reporting also exposed Italy’s luxury sector, which commissioned seamstresses to make fashion garments for local factories right from their homes, without a contract or insurance, and paid in cash. “Although they are not exposed to what most people would consider sweatshop conditions, domestic workers are paid what appears to be close to sweatshop wages,” wrote the New York Times. There is no legal minimum wage in Italy, but around 5-7 EUR per hour is considered a reasonable standard. “In extremely rare cases, a highly skilled worker can earn as much as 8-10 EUR an hour, but domestic workers earn considerably less, whether they are engaged in leatherwork, embroidery or other artisanal tasks.”
In many cases, luxury goods are no different from mass-market goods. Some luxury goods are expensive because of the true rarity of the material and the complexity of the workmanship (think, for example, of Loro Piana’s vicuña sweaters), while for others it is the name that pays for the purchase. As HighSnobiety reported, a 15 EUR t-shirt isn’t so different from a 300 EUR one with a luxury logo — same materials but wildly different price.
We are wondering: is it possible to buy clothes that are both luxurious and responsible? Of course!
More and more consumers are demanding that brands take responsibility for their environmental impact, seeing brands as an extension of their values and identity. As a result, recognized high-end brands are increasingly turning towards ethical and sustainable production practices, setting new benchmarks for a transformed fashion industry. Among them, Dior, Moncler, Acne Studios and the pioneer of sustainable luxury fashion, Stella McCartney, are worth highlighting.
So, what are the characteristics of truly sustainable (and ethical) fashion?
- Transparent sourcing that upholds tradition
Does the brand produce its products responsibly? Does it strive to preserve traditional traditions such as embroidery, dressmaking, leatherwork, jewelry making, weaving, block printing and dyeing techniques? Is it committed to safeguarding the welfare of its workforce? Check how openly the brand communicates about its supply chain and its production. You can review how much of the information available is backed up with third-party certifications such as Nest.
- Use of natural materials
The production of natural materials such as silk, alpaca, vicuña, cashmere, camel, wool, yaks, khadi cotton and others are a fundamental source of income for smallholder farmers in many countries, and one of the many ways in which luxury brands can offer quality to their customers and demonstrate their awareness of their social responsibility.
- Hands-on service
Luxury fashion is more than just making and selling a well-cut piece of clothing. The world’s fashion houses work to create a unique customer experience, with a range of accompanying services such as advice, help choosing and finding the right product, after-sales care and the possibility of repairs. This more holistic approach to sales reduces consumption, the number of returns and the number of discarded items, and ensures that you keep every purchase for a decade or more.
- Sustainable packaging
Pay attention to the quality and environmental integrity of the materials in which you receive the product you buy. It is well known that glossy paper cannot be recycled, nor can packaging made of mixed materials. Look for brands that use natural materials and non-toxic dyes in their packaging.
- Inclusivity and accessibility
Many luxury brands have come under scrutiny for insensitive messages that offend and exclude different social and ethnic groups. For example, Prada committed to increasing its diversity after being warned about culturally insensitive product presentation, while Dolce & Gabbana was widely criticized and abandoned by many consumers for its racist marketing messages. Pay attention to brand communications, and also to employment practices – does the company employ people from different racial and gender groups and treat its customers equally, regardless of color, race or financial status?
In conclusion, the judgement of what constitutes a luxury product depends on your values and beliefs. A high price is often not an argument for sustainable, fair or ethical fashion that rejects profiteering, the exploitation of workers and the use of environmentally harmful substances. As consumers, we therefore have many rights, but also a duty to ensure that our purchases are guided by awareness and good information about the aspects of the fashion industry that determine our (and your) future.