Lauren Goldstein Crowe is unimpressed
with my defense of Richard Prince’s new handbag line for Louis Vuitton, claiming
that "Vuitton is going too far from its roots" and wondering whether
this handbag line might not be financially disastrous for the fashion house.
The answer, I think, is that it won’t be – and that the criterion of financial
success, here, is not necessarily the obvious one (sales).
Remember that the most valuable thing that any luxury-goods house owns is its
brand. The success of the Marc Jacobs – Richard Prince collaboration should
be measured not by the number of genuine Richard Prince handbags sold, but rather
by the degree to which the existence of those handbags has increased the value
of the Louis Vuitton brand.
Think back to Gucci in the 1970s, when the erstwhile luxury brand licensed
itself out to dozens of ill-advised mass-market ventures in an attempt to boost
sales; the result, inevitably, was bankruptcy. Sometimes, increasing sales can
devalue a brand so much that it becomes worthless. And the converse is also
true: launching an avant-garde handbag line which nobody wants to buy can actually
bolster the reputation, and therefore the value, of the brand.
Lauren should know this better than anyone, since she’s been covering the couture
industry for years. Couture, of course, has never been profitable: it’s a way
of building a valuable brand, which can then be slapped onto the real money-makers:
perfumes and handbags and sunglasses and the like.
For years, it has been perfectly acceptable to send unwearably improbable clothes
down the catwalk. If Jean-Paul Gaultier, say, shows something weird and gets
lots of press for it, then that only serves to boost the sales of his perfumes
and his jeans line. The interesting thing about the Richard Prince handbags
is that until now, fashion houses have jealously prevented their cash cows –
the handbag lines – from venturing too far into the realm of the outré.
After all, if no one buys an unwearable dress, that’s fine, it wasn’t designed
to make money. But if no one buys an ugly handbag, then that’s real potential
profits down the drain.
But here’s the thing: Louis Vuitton already has an extremely well-established
and very profitable handbag line. The Richard Prince bags won’t replace
the extant Vuitton bags. Rather, they’ll give an edgy glamour to the Vuitton
brand which it does rather need.
Lauren asks me whether I would by a Richard Prince bag: no, of course I wouldn’t.
And she asks whether "management shouldn’t be taking more care with its
cash cow" – by which I assume she means the Louis Vuitton handbag
line. Maybe that’s exactly what they are doing. Vuitton is in a difficult
position: it’s on every street corner in Japan, which means that it’s the dominant
behemoth whose market share all the other brands want to eat into. The worst
thing it can do, in such a context, is allow itself to get stale: it has
to be ahead of the curve, in order to keep its entire inventory desirable. The
Prince bags serve that purpose: so long as Vuitton is putting out stuff like
that, no one is going to consider the brand to be passé.
In fashion, complacency is death. Vuitton can’t stay close to its roots and
maintain its present level of sales: if the brand isn’t changing, then it’s
dying. A strategy of "we do certain things incredibly well" might
work for a niche house; it can’t work for a brand the size of Louis Vuitton.
Mark Jacobs, in bringing in Richard Prince, is trying to keep the Vuitton brand
vibrant and relevant. The measure of his success will not be the sales of Richard
Prince bags in Vuitton stores: the true measure of his success will be the sales
of fake Richard Prince bags on Canal Street.