Top designers are moving even more upmarket and hoicking their prices in an attempt to make up for losses during the pandemic, it has emerged. The strategy cashes in on a surging demand for luxury from the super-rich, many of whom have grown even wealthier during the pandemic.

The fashion industry broke out of quarantine in chic heels last week after a near 18-month absence from live shows. How much the industry has changed was revealed at Paris fashion week and, in a first by an African American designer, in New York. Apparent at both were new methods of functioning in a world changed economically and by racial justice demands.

For some, like Chanel, that has meant jacking up the price of handbags, first in May last year, citing the cost of raw materials, and again this month, with customers being asked to pay about 15{096b2e998501de63987487f5b284e40da46bccd5dc56eb9142e664f1872c8bd5} more. This comes after the company’s revenues declined 18{096b2e998501de63987487f5b284e40da46bccd5dc56eb9142e664f1872c8bd5} in 2020.

A recent Bernstein “untapped price increase reservoir” industry report identified Rolex, Dior, Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton as brands that had raised prices. The analysis found that the pricing of luxury bags had increased at twice the level of the broader consumer prices index over four decades. The most desirable brands had translated growth into increasing prices quickly in what Bernstein called an “unrealised pricing upside”.

Bernstein analyst Luca Solca said: “Most luxury brands increased prices during the pandemic in the attempt to cushion the impact of lower sales. Chanel has been particularly aggressive in this move. Very desirable brands have the ability to increase prices, if they so wish.”This, Solca added, “has the advantage of reducing the risk of overwhelming the market and putting perceived exclusivity in jeopardy.”

While that may be the hard-nosed luxury business rationale, one of the realities of the creative end is to act against decades of mass market luxury, with brands wanting to become more exclusive, rarefied and expensive enough to bear the additional costs of craftsmanship and sustainability.

Orsola de Castro, founder of Fashion Revolution, a fashion activism movement, said: “The luxury industry needs to go back to some kind of semblance of luxury, because it’s hardly been immune to the low-quality, high-quantity bug. There is so much wrong with luxury these days, but the main issue is lack of transparency,.

She added:“To imagine a luxury industry that really is luxurious, they need to reinvent their parameters, go back to the essence of what luxury is – craft, respect for human toil and skills, and beautiful materials. None of this can hurt people and nature, if we are to consider it a luxury product.” In other words, goodbye to the sale-price handbag, hello to full price or better.

Last week, Demna Gvasalia, the radical Georgian designer behind Balenciaga, which had its first couture show in 50 years, said his fashion would lean towards a dressier style, though “not in a red carpet way at all”. This, according to the Guardian, is in part a response to the industry’s urgent need “to regain control of the fashion narrative” that has been losing out to trends led by Nike and Netflix, adding that “the reopening of haute couture represents Balenciaga pulling rank over those pretenders”.

Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond is the first African American to be invited into the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the governing body of the couture system. Photograph: Megan Cencula/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

At the same time, a couture show in New York also offered an indication of how things are changing. Elaine Brown, former chairwoman of the Black Panther party, gave an uplifting address to an audience that included Tracee Ellis Ross, the actor and activist daughter of Diana Ross, and Bethann Hardison, the highly influential fashion activist, before a couture show by Kerby Jean-Raymond, head of the design label Pyer Moss, and the first African American to be invited into the official Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the governing body of the couture system.

The show, which was rescheduled for Saturdayafter the approaching front of Hurricane Elsa drenched the catwalk and audience, represents a symbolic redress for an industry that has come under fire for its lack of diversity.

Lauren Preston, a consultant, said that there had been improvements but “it won’t feel authentic and genuine until you see the change at the top. It feels temporary as of now, but we will see.”The designer Tatiana Franklin said: “Black designers like Kerby and Heron Preston are being incorporated. But it can also be cultural appropriation because they still steal from the black designers and then put them on a pedestal. It’s interesting to see this, and where the designs actually came from.”

Chi Ossé, newly elected progressive member for New York city council attending the show, said that fashion had the power to change perspectives. “I think all fashion is black because it comes from streetwear and that starts in the African American communities. For black fashion to be recognised, it has to be edgy and authentic, but we also need the resources the white designers have.”