image: Balenciaga

image: Balenciaga

Balenciaga’s foundation is rooted in luxury. The Paris-based brand’s founder, the late Cristóbal Balenciaga, or who Mr. Christian Dior called “the master of us all,” put his eponymous label on the map thanks to his precise tailoring and technical mastery. One of most influential couturiers of the 20th century, he continues to be revered as “the supreme deity of the Paris salons more than 40 years after his death,” and the house that he built, the source of luxury goods rivaling those of the other well-established French houses that show b-annual couture collections.

Fast forward to 2018, though, and things look a bit different. You need not look further than the tags that adorn some of Balenciaga’s products as of late. One of its buzziest products – the Triple S sneaker, which was initially produced in Italy – is now being made in China.

As documented by Business Korea, until a few months ago, the sneaker bore “a ‘Made in Italy’ mark on its insole, but those currently available have a ‘Made in China’ mark inside the tongue.” The Seoul-based publication aptly notes that Balenciaga is not alone in re-locating at least some of its manufacturing out of the confines of Italy and France to lower-cost centers, including China but also Eastern European countries, such as Romania.

While the manufacturing source of the shoes has changed, the price tag has not, and some consumers are conflicted, in part because despite any of the sizable cost saving benefits that brands garner from shifting production to lower cost hubs, many luxury brands continue to mark up their goods, at least in part to bolster their luxury image.

A Larger Trend

Balenciaga is not alone. In fact, compared to the practices of other brands – many of which have opted to keep such information out of the spotlight (due to the enduring perception that items made in China and other many Eastern European countries are of lower quality than those produced in France and Italy), in some cases by swapping “Made in China” tags for more luxury-oriented “Made in France” or “Made in Italy” alternatives – Balenciaga appears to be one of the more forthcoming in its labeling.

The news of Balenciaga’s seeming bait-and-switch comes after a much more controversial occurrence involving Louis Vuitton, which, according to a June 2017 report, makes all but the soles of its footwear in “well-kept secret [factories], their identity closely guarded” in Transylvania, Romania before they are “finished” in Italy and France, where “Made in Italy” or “Made in France” tags are affixed.

This may be perfectly legal because the country of origin according to the European Union’s rules of origin is where the final production process is carried out, but according to the Guardian, it tends to conflict with the brand’s boasting of its Italian footwear workshops, which embody “ancestral savoir-faire” in a region “revered for its fine shoe craftsmanship.”

Right around the same time, a French broadcasting station reported that Prada and Gucci are producing shoes in the same way. Gucci has produced some sneakers in Serbia since 2004 and Prada is producing shoe tops in Slovenia. In addition, Prada, Burberry, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Miu Miu and so on are producing products in China. About 20 percent of Prada bags, clothes and shoes are manufactured in China.

Still yet, Gucci, Balenciaga, and Saint Laurent’s parent company Kering came under fire this part summer when specialty eyewear retailer Selima Optique filed suit against it, alleging that it employs a “bait-and-switch scheme” by “deliberately and falsely represent[ing] that their eyeglasses and sunglasses are ‘Made in Italy,’” when “in truth, their products, or substantially all parts of their products, are made in China, and (at best) shipped to Italy for final assembly and packaging, and then exported.” Kering vehemently denied the allegations from the outset and the parties managed to settle their differences out of court by the end of the year with Selima Optique voluntarily dismissing its complaint with prejudice.

In connection with the case, Kering was adamant that its “luxury products are indeed manufactured and distributed in compliance with all ‘Made In’ laws.”

Prada, on the other hand, seems to be far less concerned. As Miuccia Prada – some of whose own label’s garments and accessories bear tags that read “Made in Romania” or India or China or Peru – announced several years ago, it does not matter where things are made anymore. Or in her exact words, “‘Made in Italy’? Who cares? You have to embrace the world if you want to live now.”

Similarly, as Cathy Horyn wrote for the New York Times in September 2009, this is not a wildly uncommon practice: “Today, despite ‘Made in Italy’ promotions, a lot of manufacturing is done outside Italy — in China, Romania and dozens of other countries.” And Luigi Maramotti, the chief executive of MaxMara, echoed this notion, saying, “It’s not a scandal if in 10 years clothes are made somewhere else — if we know how to do it.”

As for whether consumers will warm up to the idea of luxury goods being made outside of the world’s traditional luxury manufacturing capitals is another matter.