On June 27, a Federal Court judge ordered a trio of companies, including Singaa Enterprises (Canada) Inc., to pay $2.5-million to Louis Vuitton and its co-plaintiff, Burberry Ltd., for trademark infringement. Two years ago, a Vancouver warehouse belonging to Singaa, a company specializing in counterfeit designer handbags, was busted by private investigators working for LV. Although the award is a miniscule fraction of the global trade in phony designer wares, it is also the largest of its kind to be imposed in this country, sending notice to both the purveyors of fakes and those who buy them that trademarks will be respected. Among the fashion and design cognoscenti who would never dream of buying sham goods, however, the point is rather a moot one, as they have largely moved on.
In the eyes of this new breed of style elites, sporting designer labels – whether bona fide or bogus – just isn't stylish any more.
To them, it's the luxurious feel of a textile or expert cut of a jacket, the expensive mechanism on the flip side of a Longines Column Wheel Chronograph watch, the hidden detail or obscured flourish that only the bearer knows is there that counts.
Stealth style, in other words, is the latest mark of luxury, the new badge of cool. If you've got it, it's no longer necessary to flaunt it.
"While luxury goods in fast-growth markets, such as China, Russia and the Middle East, are driven by a more conspicuous consumption, luxury demand in many Western markets is more discreet," says James Lawson of Ledbury Research, a U.K. agency focused on the wealthy and their buying habits. "This may partly be a result of the aftermath of the recent financial crisis. But is also due to a longer exposure to many of these designer-label products, making the luxury consumer more discerning."
Instead of flashing a pair of double Cs, the ubiquitous LV pattern or a gold-plated Medusa head, today's most discerning fashion and design fans rest content in the knowledge that their good taste is discernible only to them. In the past, the subtle or concealed flourish – sumptuous lining, luxurious trim – was a hallmark of the most expensive men's wear, but this type of anti-statement statement can now be seen in all manner of upmarket wares, from jewellery to home furnishings to eyewear.
"To me, style is hidden luxury," says Jason Kirk, maker of Kirk Originals, high-end fashion eyewear worn by the likes of Oasis, U2 and the actor Samuel Jackson. The frames in his Saturn line, launched last year and available in Canada through select opticians, including Karir in Toronto, look handsomely staid on the outside, but offer flash in the form of glittering surfaces on the inside: Clark Kent meets Elton John.
"It's all about tailoring a sense of personal expression," the British-born designer, who is based in France, continues. "Our customers are not interested in wearing a label. They are independent free-thinkers wearing something they love, something that represents style as subtle and well-made."
Since the 1980s heyday of screaming status symbols, the mass production of goods bearing designer stamps by both counterfeiters and the design houses themselves has dispelled their aura of exclusivity, of unmatched extravagance. The new luxuries, especially in the view of younger aspirants, tend to be in limited supply, less obvious in their appeal and more likely to provide an emotional experience for the consumer, offers David Pike, a Toronto university student and fledgling fashion photographer who shoots for B-insider, the Hudson Bay Company's new online fashion and style guide.
For Pike, true style is a "private sort of enjoyment," barely discernible to the outside eye, that is best represented by selvedge denim, a highly durable cotton twill used to make high-end jeans costing upward of $150 a pair. Brands as niche-market as Naked & Famous and as mainstream as Levi's have discovered it, but it's not the price tag or label alone that makes them covetable: Selvedge denim is almost always sold as unwashed jeans and denim fanatics like Pike will go months if not years without washing a pair to give them a personalized, one-of-a-kind look.
"Each pair represents an investment of both money and time," Pike says of the jeans, which also have a unique band visible only when the cuffs are rolled up. "I prefer selvedge denim over having multiple mass-produced washes and styles of jeans. How they fade is unique to how an individual wears them. They become personal according to how one breaks them in."
The concept of luxury as something not readily seen, as something enhancing an individual's private enjoyment of an object also motivates Crabtree & Evelyn creative director India Hicks, whose new line of fine jewellery (available at Holt Renfrew in September) features whimsical embellishments on the backside of pendants and on the inside of bracelets. Her inspiration was twofold, encompassing both the archival monogrammatic designs of her late father (legendary English decorator David Hicks) and the Indian jewellery passed down to her by her mother, who first acquired it when Hick's grandfather, Lord Mountbatten, was Britain's last viceroy in India.
"Indian jewellery is famous for being as richly adorned on the front as well as the back," Hicks says. "It's embellishment that only the person wearing the jewellery knows is there."
If this brand of subverted, perhaps even subversive style has precedent in other cultures, it also spans them, as the furniture designs of Mexico's Joel Escalona (www.joelescalona.com) demonstrates: His eye-catching contemporary offerings boast, among other touches, shockingly colourful interiors behind their glossy black facades.
Made in Mexico City but available through select retailers across Canada, Escalona's cleverly "quilted" Rocky line, for instance, consists of a bar unit, TV cabinet, wardrobe and dresser characterized by vivid red linings visible only when their doors and drawers are opened. The same type of peek-a-boo opulence defines his Brick collection, which disguises bright yellow insides.
Even if a product isn't one-of-a-kind, "the belief that it was made only for you" is what appeals today, Escalona says.
Among the bigger luxury-goods brands, secret indulgences do exist: Christian Louboutin footwear is defined (famously now) by its vibrant red soles, while Louis Vuitton offers exquisitely subdued finishes, such as Taiga and Epi, in addition to its iconic Monogram.
But the very notion of labels contradicts the essence of stealth design, which is also hard to counterfeit, too.