Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Confessions of a brand whore

Posted by digglahhh on 22 April 2007

The New York City Subway system is a graduate school in conceit and humility, though not everyone signs up for its workshops. Earlier this week, I overheard a conversation between two women who appeared to be in their late twenties to early thirties. One of them complimented the other on her new designer handbag and a conversation ensued. Eventually, the question was asked. “How much?”

“500,” replied the woman. “But, if you want quality, you have to pay for it.”

What does that mean?… Nothing of course! It is a meaningless platitude.

When a piece of merchandise doubles as a status symbol, all forms of insincerity and misrepresentation occurs. Ask a woman about her Jimmy Choos and you’ll hear remarks about how she just needed a pair of black heels or how her feet are an irregular shape and only a few (outrageously expensive) types of shoes really feel comfortable. Sometimes you’ll hear her reference the amazing craftsmanship – all of a sudden she’s a cobbler from Lynn, Massachusetts. I’m sorry, m’am, from the pristine French-tip manicure you are sporting, I wasn’t aware that you were such the student of the craftsmanship of leather goods.

I should know. When I was in high school, the style was oversized rugby and polo shirts by Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and other upscale white designers. I was fully on the bandwagon. Predictably, taste and price were rationalized as quality, not the brand. There was only one problem, the blaring contradiction that the most sought-after articles were those that most prominently displayed the brand name.

Our behavior was understandable. It was high school. We were pimply-faced, insecure kids who were deathly afraid of rejection and yearned for anything that could potentially give us the confidence to make a move on our crushes.

We are not in high school anymore but many of us, like the woman on the train still purchase luxury items for the status they confer. Why are they so ashamed to say so? Do they feel guilty about being shallow?

I have some respect for the woman who says with quiet confidence, “500, it’s Chanel.” There is honesty in that statement. Perhaps she is shallow and rich, but maybe she is not. Somebody actually in the fashion industry would likely give an assured response. It’s the sort of “it is what it is” response that implies security in the notion that to some people spending that kind of money makes sense and to most it does not. It is unapologetic.

Of course, the incendiary version of this response is when somebody will tell you how “nice” or “cute” something is. Now, perhaps Burberry did extensive research involving psychological color and pattern association and concluded that this plaid is the most appealing possible arrangement to women with self esteem issues, ages 18-65. I tend to doubt, though. Monograms that can’t confine themselves to a corner of a garment or handbag are even worse. Is there an inherent beauty to interlocking “C”s or “LV”s that simply escapes my aesthetic sensitivities and is not shared by other letter combinations? Perhaps. But, I’ve been appreciating the art of graffiti since I was in junior high school, so once again, I have my doubts.

And yet, I too have my indulgences, such as a rather large rotation of sneakers and fitted baseball hats. Personally, I feel that my two indulgences are carefully chosen as they both relate to two loves of my life; hip-hop and sports. My mother, with whom I’ve had many political arguments, has called me a hypocrite. She would say that our conversations end with me lecturing her about Marx, but almost always in a different pair of sneakers.

Even as I condemn excess consumption I wrestle with my own purchasing patterns. Am I allowed to buy another pair of Air Maxes? Can my footwear invalidate my professed political sensibilities? It can’t, can it? It doesn’t seem fair but, at least to some, it does. We preach moderation, but think in absolutes – we are socially conditioned to do so.

Thus the hypocrisy is to unilaterally condemn people for their consumerist indulgences. Not all consumerism is mindless. We should, however, indulge moderately and choose our indulgences carefully. This is how I’ve come to think about things– make sense of, or rationalize my own behavior in other words, depending on how guilty you think I should feel about it.

The way we talk about our purchases is a reflection of our personal relationship with consumer goods. A reference to “quality,” “style,” “means of expression,” “craftsmanship” and so forth is almost always irrelevant in the context of consumer culture. Sure there is a relationship between price and quality/craftsmanship, but the cost-benefit ratio is usually closer to the median price point than to the high end. Expressing yourself through your clothing is more about style than cost, unless of course you just want to express your wealth. And style, well, style is in the eye of the beholder. Just ask Christine what she thought of Theo’s Gordon Gartelle, um, I mean Ichy Amorada…

I don’t apologize for what I own. I do realize though, that back in high school, while I was a rather independent thinker in social studies, I was a sheep fashion-wise. I won several “best dressed” polls in high school, which ironically proves the point. Also ironic is that as I become nostalgic about the culture of that era, I really wish I still had a lot of things that I got rid of because they temporarily fell out of popularity. I can’t believe that I find myself purchasing the re-released versions of sneakers I owned and got rid of, or that I could have sold the originals for a small fortune if I had kept them. My junior high school sneakers are my father’s Mickey Mantle rookie cards shred by the spokes of his first bicycle.

I am ashamed to admit that I made fun of my peers who couldn’t afford the newer styles. I shoplifted items I couldn’t afford in order to keep myself looking fresh. With a little bit of revisionist history, though, voila! I can reframe shoplifting as a latent political act. But there’s no excusing making fun of somebody because they are poor. If it’s not the height of insensitivity, it’s pretty near it. I’m ashamed that I judged people on such a shallow basis, especially the outcasts who were wise beyond their years for not caring about such trivial matters. But, I am also proud that I grew up, and out of such a childish mind state. I am proud that I’m secure enough to no longer define myself by what I purchase, but not feel the need to defend my purchases either.

What I am sad about is that so many have not, that consumer society is still one big high school cafeteria where the cool table makes fun of everyone else. Where most of those not at the cool table yearn to be, thinking that they are only one designer handbag away from ruling the school.

That woman on the train is proud to flaunt her new designer bag, but embarrassed of what it says about her. She knows it too, and she makes it most evident when she tries to pretend otherwise.

13 Responses to “Confessions of a brand whore”

  1. Livette said

    Nice blog!

  2. Vicki said

    Note: In proofing this, I realize that I don’t really have a point. But, this being the blogosphere and all, perhaps that isn’t important. At least it’s an indication that I’m in yur blog, readin’ yur words!

    I tend not to be a brand whore, I guess, although I claim no virtue by this. It seems to be the way I’m wired. I remember the first time in college when I realized that a bar that I frequented was selling t-shirts with their logo; I’d assumed they were give-aways, a kind of promotion. I was agog at the idea that people would pay the bar to wear their advertising.

    That said, I did buy for each of my daughters at their high school graduations a leather Coach tote bag. They don’t say “Coach” on the outside (unless you’re one of those amazing sharp-eyed consumers who can rake a bag with a glance and say “Coach, 2002 season”), but they are beautiful, well-made and with proper care will be useful for many years. Both women use the bags a lot and neither bag has yet to show a scuff or scrape. I will confess that the fact that they’re Coach makes a difference to me.

    I also have a Gucci handbag that I scored at a thrift shop for $3. My daughters twit me about flashing the logo around to impress people.

    Last night I brushed shoulders with some of Rochester’s elite at a fund-raising dinner/auction for an organization that works to provide housing for low-income and disabled people. I have to say that I did enjoy the valet parking, the young people in white logo shirt and black pants opening doors for me and 250 well-dressed and well-heeled people gathered around the bar, talking about trips to Barbados and golf vacations at their condos in Myrtle Beach. And I stood there in my $15.00 party shoes, the only ones I own, designed to appeal to 16-year-olds going to a prom, with a sparkly band across the toes and clear plastic 3-inch heels. Do I have a point? Only that I was indulging a smug feeling of fellowship with a group of relatively wealthy and important people, but I guess I wasn’t willing to go the distance and show up in Jimmy Choos.

  3. Jen said

    There are times when brand loyalty, even to expensive brands, is warranted. My $10–20 Payless or Target shoes last me about six months before looking ratty. My $70 Teva sandals, which I bought four years ago and wear almost daily during warm weather, are still holding up and have only recently begun to show wear in the sole of one shoe. My Docs are about five years old and in good need of a polish, but are also still going strong. I can either buy cheap shoes that end up as landfill fodder, or I can buy pricier shoes that will last me much, much longer. And if you find a brand that doesn’t suck, it’s worth rewarding it with more of your money.

    You made this point, of course: “We should, however, indulge moderately and choose our indulgences carefully.” It’s not a sin to have nice things if you use them and aren’t just mindlessly spending money.

  4. digglahhh said

    Thank you Vicki, and rest assured that in responding to my posts, “having a point” is optional.

    I want to be clear that buying your daughters a single luxury item to celebrate an important accomplishment/milestone in their lives is certainly not the type of behavior I was shaming.

    As far as the bar t-shirts, there is a shallow reciprocity involved that is not unlike the monogram bag. I advertise your bar and as cool a place to be and in turn I advertise myself as being cool for being there. When there is a local flavor to it, it can even be quaint in a sense. When there a 15 year olds from North Dakota taking Myspace pictures with a CBGB shirt on…

    The whole “poser” dynamic and how the internet has taken posing to a whole new level is a tangential phenomenon, and is deserving of its own discussion. Related to both topics is the whole bootlegging industy and those who flaunt fakes.

    I’m glad you had a great time without feeling insecure last night.

    And I think it is real cool that you found that Gucci bag for three bucks in the thrift shop. I do a lot of shopping at thrift stores. The fun of shopping is in the hunt. My single greatest thirft store find was a $1 t-shirt that reads “I like Jesus but I love the New York Mets.”

  5. digglahhh said

    Jen,

    I also think it is worth noting that the $20 to $70 shoe fits the price/quality curve that I mentioned. Generally speaking, up to a certain point you get what you pay for and beyond that you are basically paying for status.

    These scales change from product to product. For example, I remember when growing up, I would tell my mom that I didn’t care if she bought the store brand mustard, but the mayo was terrible. The ginger ale was fine but the orange soda was awful. A responsible and intelligent consumer will determine their own ground rules through some trial and error.

  6. mpk said

    Dude, 500 for a Chanel purse? That was either a major score or else she bought an expensive fake.

    I don’t agree with brand whoring, but quality does play a part in price. Not as much as supply/demand/image, but one part nonetheless.

    Compare the labor cost of an item made in Europe vs. China or Central/South America. Also compare the work that can only be done by hand by a human being. How much is your time worth to you? If it takes 4-5 hours of labor, and you make $30/hour, that’s already $120-150. Not singling anyone out here, but some people don’t know how to appreciate the work it takes to make everything you see in stores. High quality old-world crafts like tailoring and watch-making (just as examples) take immense time and skill. You can do it right in an Italian factory or bespoke tailor or you can outsource it to hacks in China at less than 5% of the cost. If you’re fine with cheap stuff made cheaply, then great.

    But in the end, I say the biggest idiot is the person who pays for the label without a clue if it’s worth the labor or material. My take on the market? Ladies who sport LV and Gucci purses made of CANVAS are ignorant, frankly. I prefer Ferragamo, Bottega Veneta, Tod’s, Givenchy… much more reasonable prices for comparable items. Burberry is actually a good deal comparatively, but they’re playing the public with their “London” vs. “Prorsum” lines. Not all lines are equal. Coach has great quality and great prices, but I’d stay away from overpriced canvas with monograms.

    Let’s not hate on those with an eye for real quality. We can all agree we pity brand whores but at the same time, we all have our obsessions. I just hope people make educated choices.

  7. There’s been a debate here in Sweden for the last couple of days quite similar to the post. The basic topic is over consumption, conspicuous consumption and it started of with one well renowned fashion/culture journalist buying a bag for 10 000$ and then putting it in the closet because she didn’t like it.

    Sweden being a nation with low income differences and almost okay gender equality regarding at least salaries. Buying expensive items and flashing them has never been sanctioned by society and has almost been seen as a spit in the face of those who have not.

    The arguments has been ranging from womens emancipation and into the consumerism that men has always been allowed, to this is just the intellectual middle class trying to retain the power over the definition of good taste, elitism, certain virtues and on to moralism. There’s not been much fuss about the supposed quality of the items as everyone, pretty much assumes the they all were made by children in the same factory in Bangladesh.

    Whatever you may think of the arguments above there have been some more insightful comments. One is of course and as touch upon in the post the consumerist society’s obligation to generate dissatisfaction and emptiness. A good consumer is an dissatisfied one. Also the obligation to consume is part of the capitalistic society pressure is high from the “enlightened” market liberals that have seen the light to the companies, politicians and government. To sustain growth we must consume.

    The one that got me going though was – the abundance of money. People today (in Europe, some parts of Asia and the western hemisphere) have a lot more money than they did a generation earlier. Top that with the fact that most things have gotten cheaper, if inflation is taken into consideration. Electronics, food, traveling is now cheaper. We therefore have money over when our basic needs are satisfied and we therefore need new needs; which are provided by the consumer society.

    I am beginning to smell the real revolution being a non-consumer, imagine the evil you could do just by not buying those new sneakers or that Chanel bag instead storing your money in the mattress or using it to build a better world(of course that could be seen as the ultimate luxurious consumption).

  8. Love it… I’m fighting what may turn out to be a losing battle against the onslaught of tween labels (Abercrombie and Hollister) right now, flaunting my Mossino (Target’s finest) fashion as best I can. For a laugh about how young it can start, see http://svmomblog.typepad.com/silicon_valley_moms_blog/2006/07/does_baby_waby_.html

  9. SVM, that post is hilarious (and saddening!).

  10. digglahhh said

    “Coach has great quality and great prices”

    Whoa. How did I miss this?

    It’s a belt! Where do you have to be on the economic ladder to look at $100 for a belt and determine that is a great price?

    I don’t want to hear about the quality of the leather. If you have a special knowledge and reverence for leatherworking, then fine. Somehow, I still doubt that Coach is the top of the line. My childhood best friend’s father made leather goods by hand, so I’ve seen what real quality workmanship and personal flair can do.

    But, even assuming that Coach can compete with a true old-world producer, the wou;d-be leather guild does not at all define the market for these goods, so it is irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion.

    At the end of the day, it comes down to $100 for a belt, which ridiculous under just about any circumstances, unless you are immeasurably wealthy, going to use it to “discipline” George Bush or it was made out of Leonardo da Vinci’s DNA.

  11. polo shirts are very casual and stylish indeed, most of the time i use polo shirts “-~

  12. the internet is always the source of cheap stuffs, you can buy cheap electronics, cheap softwares and other stuffs ;,’

  13. Terus terang saya kater… blog nie .. memang terbaikklahhh :)

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