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April 17, 2014
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"Merci, Mademoiselle," chirped the Parisian clerk, handing me my very first Louis Vuitton purse. My heart fluttered and fingers tingled as I grabbed the ribbon-wrapped chocolate-brown box, floating out the door onto the Champs-Elysées. True story.

The threat doesn't just lie in Amazon gaining market share, either, but in the fact that the online retailer will make once hard-to-come-by products available to people anywhere and everywhere with one click of a mouse.

Do you remember those days? When a trip to a big fashion capital - Milan, Paris, New York - meant stops at iconic designer shops to get your hands on items you couldn't find back home? The products felt exclusive; the purchases an investment, artifacts of intimate encounters with high fashion.

But times are changing: luxury boutiques are cropping up in malls in cities big and small; high-end labels are offering low-end creations at retailers like Zara, H&M and Topshop; and, little by little, premium boutiques are morphing into sales-churning online shops. The middle class is trading up, wealthier citizens are trading down, and once exclusive items are starting to lose their luster as they become more commonplace. 

In the short term, though, everyone benefits. Companies profit and the middle class gets to look and feel good in the process. Even affluent consumers - from Kate Middleton to Kate Bosworth - enjoy mixing and matching products from both ends of the style spectrum. But in the end, the democratisation of high-end fashion, especially via e-commerce, is changing the luxury landscape as we know it.

Companies like Amazon epitomise the direction of luxury online, with the potential to transform exclusivity into a commodity. Typically known for its bargain finds on, well, everything except extravagant merchandise, Amazon hopes to enter a new market, benefiting from huge profit margins in a sector abundant with premium pricing. "[Amazon] has the latitude to set prices and charge whatever it wants," explains Sucharita Mulpuru, a Forrester Research analyst, when speaking with the New York Times. And though Amazon and budget-conscious consumers are poised to benefit, she adds that it is "a huge threat for brands."  

The threat doesn't just lie in Amazon gaining market share, either, but in the fact that the online retailer will make once hard-to-come-by products available to people anywhere and everywhere with one click of a mouse. Says James Twitchell, author of Living it Up: America's Love Affair with Luxury, in an interview with CNN about the future of luxury: "It may very well be the end of luxury; because if you democratise it too much, it soon loses whatever cachet it has."

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Trying to maintain that cachet is luxury shopping site Yoox, which recently partnered with PPR - the high-fashion conglomerate responsible for brands like Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent (Saint Laurent Paris), Alexander McQueen and more. By teaming up, they will launch individual online branded channels for their labels, ultimately reaching 100 countries worldwide. PPR CEO François-Henri Pinault says, when speaking with Business of Fashion, that the goal is for it to be "at the level of the shopping experience in store."

But PPR recognises the need to differentiate between their online shops and those of mass fashion brands. Pinault envisions offering professional tailors that can come to customer's homes via an online appointment, adding that "this is the type of service that will be completely inaccessible for mainstream brands, but will make the difference between a luxury brand and an accessible brand."

Somewhere between upscale branded channels like Yoox and massive online retailers such as Amazon, are services focused solely on tapping into the market of consumers trading up. Take The RealReal - self-coined the "world's premier online luxury resale store" - which hawks every exclusive label imaginable during 72- to 94-hour online sales events. Along with other luxury secondhand e-commerce sites - from Portero to Bag, Borrow or Steal - emerging companies are evolving the manner in which previous have-nots interact with once exclusive brands, making high-end labels within reach both physically and financially. 

...unfortunately, there isn't much of a story behind purchasing a ubiquitous product online that is available to consumers around the world.

This democratisation of high-end fashion may, however, be at the expense of diluting brand equity because, says Twitchell, "Money is to be made in the generation of mass luxury, but you run the risk of rattling the narrative." And it's that narrative that often defines luxury in the first place. He adds: "There is no such thing as a luxury good. There is no such thing as a luxury object. It's just an object with a luxury story attached to it." And, unfortunately, there isn't much of a story behind purchasing a ubiquitous product online that is available to consumers around the world.

So now big brands must decide which path they will take. Many will err on the side of exclusivity, hoping to maintain their history of quality and craftsmanship. Meanwhile, others will be tempted by the promise of tapping into larger markets. Ultimately, though, luxury may well be on its way out, regardless. Explains Twitchell: "What comes into culture almost always as luxury, if it has allure and appeal, soon gets reconfigured into necessity." From cars to plumbing, items that were once reserved only for the wealthy, are now standard essentials for people across the board. 

Indeed - not unlike luxury cars - the high-end labels we know and love will likely become even less exclusive. Come what may, there's one thing that we can probably all agree on, though: beautiful and quality products will always feel luxurious - whether traded up, traded down, bought online or from a Parisian shop.

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