Status goods: Looking for love?

My friend Leslie sent this parody the other day:

The Diva's Prayer

Which Art in Neiman's
Hallowed be thy shoes
Thy Prada come
Thy shopping done
On Rodeo
As it is in Paris
Give us this day, our Visa Gold
And forgive us our balance
As we forgive those who charge us interest
Lead us not into Penny's
And deliver us from Sears
For thine is the Chanel, the Gaultier and the Versace
For Dolce and Gabbana

Shortly after,  I read an article published on The School of Life's site, "On Consumption and Status Anxiety".  The article positions buyers of branded status goods as those who "invest in luxuries because we want people to be nice to us", and adds, "it isn't luxury goods we want as much as the kindness they are a conduit to."

The uncredited writer says, "It is the result of hundreds of thousands of people who feel pressured by the fear of the coldness of others to add an extraordinary amount to their bare selves in order to signal that they too may lay a claim to love".

I'm not sure you reap kindness, let alone love, by buying a crocodile-skin Birkin, but you will receive deference, admiration or envy from persons who share similar values, and contempt from those appalled by ostentation. You may attract a type of friendship that people who have made and then lost money realize was phony.

While the display of status items reflects a desire to be noticed, to be seen as special, I believe there are many other reasons why someone acquires such goods:

1. Conformity: If everyone in your office wears bespoke suits, you may feel it wise to be one of the group.

Fendi "Peekabo" bag

2. Beauty: The author seems unaware that the fine materials and craftsmanship of a Fendi Peekaboo bag deliver an aesthetic experience not replicated by a Nine West. (For this reason primarily—the tone-deafness to the sensual pleasure of many luxury goods—I am willing to bet the writer is a male who has very limited experience with them, even at the "just looking" level.)

3. Peak Pleasure: Ask the guy driving his red Lambo, top down on a sunny afternoon, if he isn't having a pretty good day, or at least a better day than in your beater. And let me tell you about the ten minutes I spent wearing a vintage Cartier diamond and ruby necklace (in a shop), quite the thrill! A supremely fine object 5-alarms the brain's pleasure center.   

4. Reward: When friends who can afford such things have shown me a luxury purchase, they often note that their trophy marks an achievement: the first big deal, the partnership, the book prize. Our friend Éric had a big strike, so prudently bought a piece of property, but also some spiffy Italian clothes.

5. Signal of Economic Power: When my 1%-er acquaintance John steps off the private jet, he is signaling to his cohort that he's in their league. For the same reason, he has not walked to the back of a commercial flight in decades. I doubt that he is looking for love, but he is looking for power, and the jet or first class cabin conveys that he commands significant resources.

6. Displacement: Status goods, instead of a strategy to evoke the niceness of others, can be proxies. This was the case for Joanne, who, after a breakup, bought a set of Valextra luggage roughly equal to the price of a car, and got her eyes done. She knew that, saying, "If he doesn't love me, I'm going to love myself."

School of Life has a distinct anti-capitalist bias; I applaud their efforts to question complex issues such as how to address the widening gap between what a few have and many do not. But they are throwing out the Bonpoint-clad baby with the bathwater in this post.

A number of top-ranked MBA programs now offer a specialization in Luxury Brand Management, and I doubt they view that niche as "existence to a trauma".  When nearly all of us can, we want better, whether fingerling potatoes or Moncler jacket. Oprah, reminiscing about her first big TV gig, said she immediately treated herself to fluffy, matching bath towels.

Reed bag for Kohl's
Sometimes a luxury brand crashes, because there is intense competition for those fat wallets. Reed Krakoff, who made luxury clothing and accessories, initially courted that glossy consumer, and now designs a line for Kohl's, Reed, which features items like this Atlantique satchel for about $82.

Louboutin "Trepi" sandal
Is entire tony tier overpriced, as the author asserts? Some goods are; do you think these Louboutin sandals justify the $1, 145 tag? A good test for whether we are getting stuck in the Venus Flytrap of status is to ask, "If a person, including me, had no idea who made this, would it still be worth the price?" (For more about this subject, see my two-part post on snobs.)

The article ignores the savvy of those status brands who ensure their quality is consistently exemplary, and shrewdly create lower-cost entry-level items—perfume and makeup are typical. But I don't think a woman hopes to recapture the unconditional love of infancy when she buys a bottle of Jour de Hermès.

The writer ends the piece with a jarringly illogical conclusion, referring to "acquiring a high-powered job" in the same breath as getting a Chanel bag or a Ferrari.

You can't buy that job (unless you count an investment in your education as 'buying'), or hordes of women would max their Visas immediately.


LauraH said…
Fascinating post. The basic point of the article you referred to did not make sense to me, your analysis did. I don't have much experience with luxury goods, a category I find puzzling in many ways. Friends buy or aspire to certain brands but some of these brands like Coach, Kate Spade, etc. don't seem all that luxury to me, just expensive. I felt there must be more involved than just cost and your post has shown me some of the 'more'. Of the reasons you list, beauty and pleasure are what drive my more expensive purchases. Yesterday I bought some wonderful plant supports for the garden, I guess those are my luxury items!
materfamilias said…
I can often see the intrinsic aesthetic value of many luxury goods and I would even applaud those that involve keeping artisanship alive and decently remunerated. I also understand many of the various motivations that impel their purchasers to collect them. But the economic and social inequities that position the Fendi bags, Louboutin shoes, Lamborghini cars, and Cartier necklaces against the continuing struggles of the poor, the precariously housed, the underfed children. . . Not fair, perhaps, or even logical, to juxtapose the two, but I do think these goods often serve to underline the borders between the world of those who can sport such goods and those who cannot. Of course, I suspect the same could be said of my own gear, which places me firmly in the lucky middle-class. . . . I think the article's analysis is simplistic, and I very much appreciate your more nuanced look at luxury goods, but I certainly relate to the discomfort.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: Thank you; I find the entire topic of deep interest personally and am pleased to hear your take.

materfamilias: "Middle class" of course depends on where you are standing, and who's counting. You might enjoy this post on the excellent blog "Separated By a Common Language":

I just came home from a thrift in my neighbourhood, where I bought new house items (new condition): two British-style beer sleeves, a silicone ice cube tray, and three high-end (French) pieces of baby clothing with the tags still on, for $8.

Could I afford the stuff full price? Not the baby clothes, and why pay so much more for the housewares?
Jane W. said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jane W. said…
Edited to correct embarrassing typo.

Thought-provoking post. While I disagree with the article's take on luxury goods existing solely as a salve for the walking wounded, overall the piece resonated with me.

I stopped reading several "style" blogs because I can't take one more post that positions the consumption of luxury goods as an intellectual or creative achievement.
materfamilias said…
Oh, what Jane W said!
And I do take your point about declaring myself middle class (the article elucidates the issue effectively), but I think that's where my allegiance wiil always be. . .
LauraH said…
I should mention that the plant supports are hand crafted here in Toronto by a very skilled and talented woman, Clare Scott- Taggart She has done custom work for me for a number of years and in my mind they qualify as luxury goods.
Interesting article - but I find their point of view to be rather limited and could never agree that the purchase of luxury goods occurs only to alleviate the pain of the walking wounded. I think it's a much more complicated issue than that.

Short of winning the lottery I will never own a pair of Loubitons or a Chanel suit or Jewels from Harry Winston - but it doesn't mean that I can't admire the quality of the product or the beauty of the design work. Saks has just opened a number of stores here in Toronto and while I might be able to afford the odd accessory or two I won't be shopping there on a regular basis - however, I can admire the beautiful layouts of the stores, the attentive personnel and the quality of the stock. I can also laugh at the price of some sandals that are nothing more than a couple of straps and some beads! I can admire without being envious (or at least not too envious) :-)

I was always taught to buy quality over quantity - and to spend the most you can afford and that will be different for each of us.

What I take from the article - and who I think they refer to are those who think their only worth depends upon the labels they wear, or carry or drive - and that is truly sad. Or those who go into debt to "Keep up with the likes of the Kardashians". There was a financial program on Cdn. TV called "Princess" and it referred to those sorts who only saw their worth in terms of what they owned - women who proudly referred to themselves as "Divas" who "deserved" to own these items simply because they existed - not because they had worked hard for it or had a true appreciation of the workmanship - it was simply the label that somehow conferred status. I would laugh if it wasn't so sad that these young women think so little of themselves.

Very thought provoking - thank you for your perspective.
Duchesse said…
materfamilias: Somehow this reminds me of when I worked periodically in London, in the early '80s. I asked an executive "How far can a woman go in banking, in Britain?" He replied, "Quite far enough."

LauraH: I have a real weakness for stealth luxury, the kind like that. I read somewhere that CZ Guest had her gardening smocks made by Balenciaga.

Jane W.: Agree, though some have the means to buy fabulous things and the talent to combine them in interesting ways. Others are absolutely cookie cutter. I get more annoyed when I pick up a fashion magazine like Vogue (at hairdresser, I don't buy) and not one item is under $1400. Per item.

Margie: I went thorough two Saks in the last 6 weeks, the new Toronto Saks and NYC Fifth Ave.
The Toronto Saks/Bay (Queen St.) is one of the weirdest physical shopping spaces ever; Saks' gleaming, sleek clothes (and the shoes!) cheek by jowl with lower-end good old Bay, dependable Parkhurst hats and a sea of Nygaard poly (does he even make the higher end liine anymore?) and that limp and blah line Jeanne Beker's Edit: but by god, Canadian. Just so odd, stepping from one store into another from one of the upper floors, not even a door. I fled to Comrags, Alexia von Beck and Gravity Pope- happy to do so.

In NYC Saks, fantastic clothes but the exchange rate stopped me cold.

Duchesse - I completely agree concerning the Queen St. store - very odd. But the one at Sherway Gardens is completely separate (they took over the old SEARS store) and it is quite spectacular.
Me: a lovely heavy stainless-steel stovetop espresso pot (6 cups, aka 3 modest "normal" cus for $8). I took it in to Dante to have the seal changed, and the male owner was Very impressed. It iS an Alessi and very expensive.

The problem is, while our mothers told us to "know quality", a lot of branded designer goods are not very good quality at all.
Duchesse said…
Margie: That seems more coherent to me, the Queen Street one feels like they couldn't decide so went for both.

lagatts: Major score! You will enjoy that forever.

The "luxury" and "designer" level are not interchangeable. Luxury, in terms of branding, refers to the top of the market and generally delivers superior materials and workmanship. The designer goods that do not meet the luxury standard are sometimes referred to as "aspirational"- customers want to feel they have bought something exclusive or better than average, but the item is not luxury. The brands LauraH mentioned are examples.

Once- but probably not since the '70s or so-"designer" did mean evidently superior design and quality. No such assurance these days. For those of us taught by our mothers to know quality, this creates a sense of dishonesty from those brands.
Rafe's Hotel said…
I generally like The School of Life articles, as often they are thought-provoking -- but that one was just puzzling. Your suggestion that the writer might be a young man who is not sufficiently acquainted with the fine materials and skill that (sometimes) go into luxury goods would explain a lot.

It wasn't just that I disagreed with the writer; not even sure I always did. It was more that too many of his/her points were uninformed, unsubstantiated assumptions. Was left thinking, "Go out and research your topic before you blather on." :-) Your comments on the subject were far more interesting and insightful.
Duchesse said…
Rafe's Hotel: That's what I thought, and why I took it on! Thanks. I do think the subject bears scrutiny, because I see so some people aspiring to these status goods without thinking why they want them.
Susan W H said…
The first time I saw a Chanel 1955 bag on display I knew I wanted one. I didn't know it was a Chanel, although I did know who Chanel was--the designer of those popular 1950s suits. Twelve years ago I bought my first Chanel bag after I inherited some money from my Mom. This bag is a tribute to her, her thrift, her carful savings during the years she worked so that she could leave each of her daughters enough money to give them a sense of independence. I'm living the life she would have loved to live--I can afford some nice things of good quality.

My only regret is that I didn't buy the larger size bag--it would have been more useful. And I did buy it before the prices went sky high a couple of years later.

Thanks for this thought provoking post.
Duchesse said…
Susan W H: Thank you for your story, your recognition of your mother's intention: her wishes for her daughters' independence. That we all, to some extent, live our parents' unlived lives is a key Jungian concept, and one I have seen, too, in my own and others' lives. (I have been influenced by the analyst and writer James Hillman.)

So, instead of buying that bag because you are trying to replace early love (as the author of the article asserts), you bought it, at least partly, because you loved •her•.
And there is your own appreciation; you did not buy it just for her, but for your own enjoyment too.

Many luxury items are beautiful objects, but some resonate with one person more than another. You found yours.

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