The New, Subtle Face of Luxury

Manolo Blahnik autumn 2011

Is luxury shopping shifting toward a new, subtle refinement?  If Manolo Blahnik’s return to the top of the fancy footwear game and the rising interest in ready-to-wear’s most couture-like offerings are any indicator, high-end shoppers are newly in the mood to pay for understated quality, not trends.

Blahnik’s eponymous line of shoes went from being an insider luxury brand to a pop culture fixture (thanks to the preference for them shown by Sex and the City characters) but were pushed out of the limelight by edgier cobblers like Christian Louboutin.  But Blahnik’s gimmick-free elegance seems to have recently surpassed Louboutin’s signature red soles, and the shoes are back on top.  Kate Moss wore Blahniks at her recent wedding.  And Vogue‘s contributing editor Andre Leon Talley noted to The New York Times that “they’re a staple, something you have to have in your refrigerator like butter or milk.”

A resurgence in preference for pricey heels that don’t come with a trademark giveaway detail is one hint of backlash to flash.  Another is the uptick in sales for ready-to-wear’s most elaborate, limited-availability pieces. Both young designers like Jason Wu and established labels, along the lines of Balenciaga and Chanel, are facing more demand for their “demi-couture” pieces.  While not haute couture (there are specific guidelines qualify as such), the items have nearly the same man hours behind them and price tags to match.  What shoppers are paying for is a unique product and craftmanship that ought to last a lifetime.

One look from Alexander McQueen’s Autumn 2011 ready-to-wear collection.

Beyond the quality it offers, a gown that took 150 hours of hand-sewing just doesn’t translate into fast fashion.  It can’t be knocked off.  Meanwhile, an understated pair of perfectly-made pumps probably has less appeal in copied form at an outpost of H&M than a more aggressively trendy pair of shoes.   Beyond its long-lasting appeal, ready-to-wear’s most subtly stylish, high-end looks might be having a moment because a cheaper version of them just doesn’t exist.