I always have a love and hate relationship with Chanel - I'm obsessed with vintage Chanel, especially rare novelty items from micro sized coin purse, umbrella with quilted handle, to logo suspenders and chain-link headbands, but I could not conceal my disappointment whenever I step into a Chanel boutique these days. It breaks my heart just to look at its latest merchandise - including the much hyped Gabrielle bags.
A month ago, I attended a week long leather handbag making class in NYC taught by a master Italian pattern maker and was deeply inspired. I came with the question that why luxury handbags are no longer luxurious but left with more questions and dismay.
One of the key takeaways from the class is that the quality of luxury leather goods has been declining since the start of the new century as advanced manufacturing machines have taken over, true craftsmanship on the verge of die-out - factory shutdowns and decline in apprenticeship, driven by factors such as price competitions from Asia and other East European countries, continous cost cut by luxury groups, as well as new workforce's reluctance to join the traditional industry. However, consumers are made to believe that the quality of luxury goods has been improved with technology enabled refinement.
"In the past, most products were good quality and it was very easy to spot the sub-standard ones," according to the master, "now most luxury goods are made poorly but customers couldn't tell the difference between the good and the bad. "
Fewer consumers are making sensible decisions, largely due to the dominance of social media, which takes away independent and ingenuous thinking and trains its users the way a circus trains its animal performers. Luxury brands are making safe bets on formulaic, trend-driven design, a mere positive reinforcement that results in even faster fatigue to fashion cycles. Innovation is missing even amongst the world's biggest ateliers. Look at the following recent Chanel collections replicating its own vintage styles, almost without modification except the quality. I would rather believe they were simply lazy than they ran out of creativity.
Luxury now is conveniently justifiable by who are wearing them and how much they cost. Gabrielle is Chanel's featured 2017 collection and massively campaigned with faces like William Pharrell and Kristin Stewart. As merchants though we look at products by their inherent attributes. Here is what we really think about the Gabrielle. It doesn't even look so good on runway and without the CC charm, I would mistake it for some generic bag sold in TJMaxx. Fully finished by machine, Gabrielle has a heavier coated leather and rigorous construction, an even thinner interior lining, and lighter hardware with a less delicate finishing.
I brought my last contemporary Chanel bag collection, a 2012 limited edition Celtic Boy to the handbag making class. "What is it, " master pattern maker squeezed the crumbled gusset of my precious Boy bag, "it's a piece of crap. The leather is too thin. You are not buying leather, you are buying the reinforcement*."
I still shop Chanel, but only vintage pieces between 1980s and 1990s when the hand-making techniques peaked and plateaued. Integrated tanning, gold plated hardware, hand stitching, these are what make a Chanel bag truly special. It is important luxury consumers be informed and educated of their purchases, because that's the prerequisite to challenge the status quo of the current luxury market.
*Reinforcement is the interface between the leather exterior and lining of a handbag that keeps the bag in shape.