Undoubtedly, fashion has become more accessible thanks to the growth of online shopping and the slew of fast fashion retailers. Clothes, shoes, and accessories have become easier to get a hold of and are more affordable. Because convenience and affordability are main influences in purchasing decisions, the ordinary shopper can therefore swiftly follow trends and copy styles they like. While this wide access is beneficial to many consumers, what effect does such easy accessibility have on the perceived value and appeal of a given product? 

For trend followers, the concern is not so much on being able to wear unique items and express a distinctive personal style, but rather on whether they can buy into the popular trends (and sometimes at a low price). This contrasts from those who strive to develop or maintain a sense of style that is uncommon to the mainstream crowd. But who is to say which is better? If a handbag, dress, or pair of shoes is out of the ordinary or hard to acquire, does that make it more fashionable than its attainable equivalent? 

It’s incredibly easy to fall into the whirlpool of trends constantly thrown in our faces. TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and other channels that provide a platform for influencers to share their own garments and promote products, effectively instill a desire in viewers to follow suit in imitating what they see. It doesn’t take much digging at all to see hundreds upon hundreds of tagged outfit posts or paid partnerships. Even luxury brands who have historically positioned themselves as exclusive are starting to depart from that image of exclusivity. 

The high buying power and impressionability of Millennials and Generation Z causes brands to market towards younger aspirational luxury consumers. Take for example Louis Vuitton partnering with Emma Chamberlain, 19 (9.8M YouTube subscribers, 11.9M Instagram followers) to create YouTube and Instagram content, and fly her to their fashion shows. Similarly, sisters Charli, 16 (106.5M TikTok followers) and Dixie D’Amelio, 19 (48.2M TikTok followers) who recently shot to fame on TikTok have been invited by Prada and Chanel, respectively to attend their fashion shows dressed by the brand. With massive followings and huge influential power over a generation of lucrative consumers, luxury brands are pivoting towards making their products be seen everywhere and on everyone.

Yet, these same brands still want to be perceived as elite–that is what makes them special and rationalizes (to some extent) paying an exorbitant amount of money for a product. After all, if you see too many people wearing the same item, it no longer becomes desirable because owning it no longer makes you stand out. It is industry practice for luxury companies to sell less than the market demands and even offer items to only VIP clients. For example, the Louis Vuitton x Supreme collection was sold only by invitation to select clients who were limited to purchasing one item from the collection. Similarly, Dior’s highly sought-after “Feminist” T-shirt was limited to 40,000 units and its Dior x Air Jordan 1 High sneakers were limited to 8,500 pairs. The French luxury goods manufacturer, Hermès, is also known for maintaining a strict policy on who can purchase their legendary Birkin or Kelly handbags. Everyone knows you can’t just walk into a Hermès store and buy a bag. Entering a lottery system to schedule an appointment, building a hefty purchase history, and being added to a waitlist are preliminary steps to even being offered a bag. And, when one is finally offered, you’d be happy to accept whatever combination of size, colour, leather, and hardware is offered–who knows when you’ll be offered another handbag again?! For these companies, maintaining scarcity and exclusivity are crucial to avoid diluting the prestige of their brand image and to keep demand for their goods airtight. 

So, with seemingly contradictory approaches to positioning–accessibility and exclusivity–it seems these successful fashion houses have been able to find a golden balance between the two. Combining elements of both–appealing to young and old, aspirational and absolute, trendsetters and trend followers, wealthy and less wealthy–these companies are able to maximize revenues and sustain growth. Extending product lines and expanding into new products are main ways in which brands can project elitism and attainability simultaneously. For example, Dior maintains high price points and rarity for its couture dresses, whereas its makeup products are more reasonably priced and easier to find. And, Louis Vuitton sells its Speedy and Neverfull handbags for a fraction of the price of its Capucines or Petite Malle handbags. Further, premium luxury brands and certain products will never go on sale in order to uphold the view that only a certain type of consumer is capable of owning the product.

Beyond the pricing strategies, the models the company uses, the celebrities they choose to promote their products, and the way sales associates interact with customers are additional ways in which companies create a sense of exclusivity and accessibility. For example, Céline and Saint Laurent are noted for using “too thin” models that promote a body ideal that is unattainable to most, and in most luxury stores, sales associates treat customers according to how they look or are dressed. Companies also need to be prudent in choosing who to associate their brand with; who they dress on red carpets, feature as campaign stars, or gift items to have an impact on their brand identity. 

So far, it appears that these luxury companies have done an exceptional job at walking the fine line between accessibility and exclusivity, reaping the benefits of both. They are able to appeal to aspirational consumers first dipping their toes into entry level products, and at the same time, sell to loyal deep-pocketed clients who seek one-of-a-kind pieces. For as long as these brands can continue to do so and sustain their allure, this strategy is not a faux pas.  

-Written by Lesley Cheung