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Luxe Redux

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Yet the challenge BMW faces in getting its message up to date is exemplified by where Pitney is laying out his vision. We are back in that time warp of yesterday's marketing plan, looking suddenly and painfully obsolete. Pitney is in Los Angeles to host a launch party for the new BMW 7 series amid an exhibit of BMW art cars, various makes and models painted by artists ranging from Warhol to Peter Max. Pitney stands, cocktail in hand, in the entrance foyer of the L.A. County Museum while bow-tied waiters serve from trays of lamb meatballs and mini-burgers and guys wearing shirts opened one button too many chat up women who seem to have opted for one cup size too large. It is hard to take seriously a brand's commitment to technology and the environment when it is delivered while Joan Collins and Dennis Hopper exchange air kisses in the background.

Luxury will survive, as surely as there will always be wealthy folks and those who aspire to look like them. We are a nation of would-be predators, and some portion of us will always revel in conspicuous consumption.

But luxury brands, to thrive as they have been this past heady decade, need more than just that an elite demographic, they need to sell to the vast swath of those whose place in the food chain is just a notch below the top one-percenters, that group of the affluent but not superwealthy who have been most stung by the recent economic cataclysm. And will a history lesson or a quick primer in the virtues of a certain kind of hand-tooled leather really convince those consumers to keep paying those premiums?

Maybe, but if not, then the luxury-goods brands might have to do something really crazy: charge less.

Karl Taro Greenfeld is the author of four books, including the just published Boy Alone: A Brother's Memoir.


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