The Cost of Luxury

by Mattie Kahn
December 12, 2013
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Are price tags weighing us down?

Lets-talk-about-it-gold-glitter

Like you, I’ve been weathering the holidays since the beginning of November. Let’s blame Thanksgivukkah. I did, anyway. Care of the epic ritual mash-up, the much-maligned season descended even earlier than usual this year. By the time Turkey Day at last rolled around some weeks ago, the insufferable cheer seemed inescapable. Carols blared. Starbucks painted every town red. Your second cousin mailed her customary, politically correct card. And, meanwhile, all over the Internet, department stores and boutiques and blogs reminded you that the time had come not only to draw up your own wish list, but also to brainstorm a bevy of presents for your nearest and dearest as well.

At first, I resisted the incessant click bait. I had exams to study for and places to be and episodes of The Mindy Project to watch. But when Gwyneth debuted her Goop-approved guide to gifting, I succumbed. I couldn’t help it. My equivocations on green juice notwithstanding, I harbor a not-so-secret crush on the idiosyncratic starlet. Was I surprised that the same woman who told a British talk show that she’d rather smoke crack than eat cheese from a tin also admires a set of Hermès playing cards and a $200 spun brass teapot? No, I was not.

(She is apparently eyeing Paul Cunningham’s “Handsome Dan Leather Head Football,” too, but I couldn’t tell you how much BespokeGlobal.com is charging for it. To view pricing, you must have an account on the site. I do not.)

There is, of course, something obscene about Paltrow and her list and the demographic to which she caters. And yet there is also something fabulous about it — the way so much of fashion favors fantasy over reality. Why else do we look at so many pretty things we cannot afford? Why else do we feast our eyes on breathtaking art and hand-beaded couture and $120 Christopher Jarrat slingshots sourced from Gwyneth’s “latest find for discovering art”?

But there is a darker side to the extravagance.

Last week, the New Yorker published a stunning essay by Carmen Maria Machado. This year, Machado is spending this holiday season “working in sales at a store in a giant luxury mall . . . near one of the richest Zip Codes in the United States.” There, she peddles expensive skin creams to preteens, preternaturally posh millennials, and affluent middle-aged women. For the most part, her customers are not the problem. In her own words, they are “at their best, perfectly friendly, and, at their utmost worst, uninterested in my presence.” That is: “This is not going to be an essay criticizing the behavior of the rich.” Instead, Machado describes the experience of being so constantly aware of the presence of wealth and her astonishment “at the ease with which it moves around” her.

As the studies she goes on to cite confirm, her feelings of alienation are not some figment of her imagination. Nor is she the only one suffering them. Kathleen Vohs, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota, found that “exposure to money, even if it’s not your own, can desensitize you to the needs of others.” It can also make you depressed and antisocial.

As a window-shopping enthusiast, I have long associated upscale goods (greats?) with an aspirational approach to style. After all, they are the stuff glossy editorials are made of! For me, at least, the gorgeously impractical items that Goop or Vogue or even a site like Farfetch is featuring have become sources of inspiration entirely independent of their astronomical costs. But Machado is pointing out that — even as I might like to pretend otherwise — their price tags are not somehow “besides the point.” For the people who spend their days surrounded by them — the cashiers and the poorly compensated stylists and even the interns — the psychological effects are very real.

As someone who writes about so many dresses and shoes and bags that she could never consider buying (see: Chanel 2.55), I wonder how or if a version of Machado’s argument applies to me and to those in the industry at large. (Has it ever applied to you?) Is it fair — or even possible — to enjoy only the fiction of fashion with no regard for its cost? Does the sticker shock Machado pronounces rightly render such fantasy impossible? If so, what should designers — especially those artists who themselves once struggled to make ends meet — do about it?

‘Tis the season for exchange! Let’s Talk About It.

REPLIES
  • The Spartaco
  • http://thoughtsofglam.com/ ThoughtsofGlam

    I love luxury but I’m on a strict budget still recovering from student loans. I created my blog to get a little taste of the luxurious stuff and also keep things really practical price wise. I find that with a little bit of work I can get all the great brands I love and find discounts to help with the price.

    Thoughtsofglam.com

  • Alicia Arkell

    4 words: Philip Lim for Target.

    !!!!

  • a.n.a.l.u

    You are so right, i think is hard to keep a balance because of course we all want to spend a little bit more in luxury things. But after all, we all know that at some point live like that doesn´t give you a lot more. After all i feel a little bit guilty when i spend too much money, just think in how many people can eat with the price of the hermès cards.

    LAZYCATSTYLE

  • Fishmonkey

    Somewhat tangentially related: a couple of months ago there was a lot of discussion regarding a study showing that the rich have less empathy; what was interesting about it was that even people who were not rich but who were made to FEEL rich (via Monopoly money) showed immediate declines in their empathy abilities. I wonder if the luxury exposure has a similar effect — vicarious wealth and aspirational window shopping might be making us more callous to the needs of others.

    Good article, thanks for posting.

  • Morgan

    I thought this was a very interesting piece, I wish it could have been much longer and dissected the idea of money (in extreme quantities) making it’s owners desensitized to people’s needs.
    I managed a department for a luxury retailer within a luxury mall in one of the most affluent zip codes in America (an incredible fashion show was just held, ahem, very near there) for two years and it certainly made an impact on me. Aside for making me ungrateful for the things I had and perpetually worried that I would be “poor” forever, I was constantly astounded by the spending habits of the girls I worked with. In what seemed like a subconscious effort to “keep up” or feel as special, they almost always spent money they didn’t have on things they couldn’t afford. It was almost like an adrenaline rush for them and I slowly started to do the same thing.
    When people come into the store on a daily basis and buy 1K worth of bras, it’s hard not to feel inadequate, and I think it is that feeling of inadequacy that made Machado (and myself) so depressed. As for the lack of empathy from those with copious amounts of money, as I said, I would have liked to hear more. I certainly got the sense that the wealthy customers who came into my department would never care to hear about my money struggles or even be charitable, but I am not sure money in general would do that to absolutely everyone.

    • Hereshoping Themayanswereright

      I have a friend/customer who fits this category and there is indeed a repulsive lack of empathy, as well as a false sense of superiority and genuine indifference to those who appear to have less. I used to secretly detest her, but now I’ve come to realize how sort of childlike she is and instead feel sorry for her and her limitations as a human. She will never “get filled up” no matter how many outrageously expensive items she purchases, and it seems to be what her life revolves around. On the other hand I do know a billionaire couple who are the most down-to earth, warm, engaging, lovely couple you’d ever want to meet and they don’t appear to be outwardly extravagant at all.It does depend on the person – it’s really a mixed bag. In general the people who have inherited money tend to be the most hideous, entitled, and lacking in empathy, while the people who have worked hard for it tend to be more multi-dimensional. Of course, this is just my experience based on people I’ve encountered.

      • Viva

        What a horribly puritanical way of conceiving people with money.
        Many of the most famous philanthropists come from privileged backgrounds and yes, inherited money from many generations.

        • Hereshoping Themayanswereright

          What amazingly limited reading comprehension skills you have. Which part of, “Of course, this is just my experience based on people I’ve encountered.” did you fail to grasp?

  • Sophia

    It’s like you took the words right out of my mouth. Just two nights ago I was rolling around in my bed, sleepless, thoughts of designer sweaters I desperately “need” to buy struggling against the shockingly low number of my bank account this month. The luxury market, including upscale magazines, does a fantastic job of selling us these dreams, ideals and to me, a certain style. Yes, I can do my best at Zara and Topshop to buy a cheaper version of the look I’m dreaming of. But knowing that it’s not “the real thing,” is still a bit depressing (leading me to watch “Confessions of a Shopaholic” as a reality check) (or as a buying incentive?). Maybe it’s only fiction for us with the non-existent paychecks (hello, fellow students living off of their parents). But does fiction become reality when we’re able to buy into the dream?

    Great article!

    http://traveltall.blogspot.co.uk/

  • Catherine

    Great topic. It’s nice to see a change of pace around these parts when it comes to the reality of being able to indulge in all the goodies (greaties?) that are put on a blog pedestals.

  • Ruth

    But isn’t there something wonderful in not being able to afford everything you want, every moment you want it? Isn’t there something pleasant about saving and spending because you understand the value of something, and not just the price? (cost is another matter altogether). The vagrant consumption that Machado was witness to, in itself might cause someone to feel depressed just simply because of the lack of meaning attached to said consumption. When you don’t work for what you have, how then can you really appreciate it? Food for thought. (btw, I have a big soap box about this very subject. I’ll spare you.)

    • Mattie Kahn

      Don’t spare! I’d love to hear your thoughts on anything related to the relationship between cost, value, and (self) worth.

  • http://BikePretty.com/ Bike Pretty

    pretty cool that this is posted on Man Repeller, a blog that started off chronicling Leandra’s expensive purchases.
    thanks for the real talk about money & class.

    • Sharon Macklin

      True…but even back when Leandra began her blog, I was very aware of her knowledge that most of the world (and the people reading her blog) don’t have her resources. It’s not that she came out and said it, but nonetheless, that was obvious to me. She is a very smart young woman (I can say that because she is younger than my children)!

  • Stefanie

    Wow, I have so many thoughts on this I don’t even know where to start. Thanks for bringing this article to my attention! Is it possible to simply admire something for it’s beauty and not feel some twinge of yearning, or jealousy towards those who are actually able to make the purchase? It’s especially difficult considering the amount of new “stuff” that’s being thrown in our face with each passing season. Not to mention pre-fall, resort, and on and on… I hope discussions like this are a sign that we are beginning to move forward as a society in regards to the way we accumulate possessions… says the girl who blogs a new outfit post every single day… oh well…
    http://www.eVolstyle.me

  • PAAR

    Shocking post. Being Mexican, it does feels weird to see underpaid staff at luxury stores selling ridiculously priced items (luxury goods here are even more expensive than in the US) to thousands of Mexican millionaires – who are amongst the richest in the world…

  • http://nusardel.com/ Nusardel

    But isn’t it all a matter of relativity? For me, an average purchase is a $10 t-shirt from a chain store I ‘despise’ yet secretly love. For the more affluent shopper, that could be a $900 coat from Barneys. Having access to that kind of money just warps your perspective of what is or isn’t reasonable. It’s far worse when you meet people who are born into wealth. They’ve never known anything else, and they’re the absolute worst for it!
    Also, on a related note, I’m sure I’m not the only person who walks into a department store, tries on a $13,000 snakeskin bomber and feels like shit for the rest of the day because of it. I suppose that’s my brand of reckless emotional behaviour.

  • Jen

    A really thoughtful, considered article. I really enjoyed reading it. It would make my day if you would check out my blog http://www.theboonreport.com – I hope you’ll like it!

  • Gabriela Rivera

    As you cleverly said, I only regard luxury items as inspiration. In my particular case, I live in the third.world and I’m not among the 0.02% who owns my country so yeah I can definitely cannot afford and moreover have no access to luxury goods. I will admit though, owning a $34 YSL lipbalm but hey tjat is as luxurious as I can go.

  • CarolinaG

    Love your blog!

    I’m posting looks from Los Angeles and accessories:

    http://www.thegavlaks.com

  • Marc Ferraz

    I think there are things we really don’t “need”. And once you’ve acquired them, you, deep down, realize you really didn’t. That just has to be bad for anyones mind; never mind how full your bank account may be.

    https://twitter.com/ferrazmarc

  • http://www.fancyalterego.wordpress.com/ Heather P.

    It’s my alternative to diving into a good book. Perusing the internet, looking at the goop list, and shedding a solitary tear over the price tags is my way of fantasizing about what I WOULD buy if I had a bigger bank account. Reading a novel is great and all, but sometimes I just want to shut my brain off and go “Oh yeah, a Birkin IS timeless! I would totally get it in plum!”

    I don’t necessarily think it makes me depressed, but it does bum me out from time to time. It also probably helps that I don’t spend much time around people who make that much money, but I can see how the common behaviors of the affluent can rub off on someone in a bad way. I know people who spend like there’s no tomorrow, and the detachment they seem to have to what they’re buying is odd to me. I rarely, if ever, get to impulse buy anything – so to see someone grab and pay for a purse that costs more than my rent without even a thought…it throws me for a loop sometimes.

    Until I meet that billionaire who will whisk me away to Fantasy Land, I’m stuck wondering what could have been. Maybe next year, Gwyneth, maybe next year….

  • Suzy_Q

    Honestly, as a student, the number of times I’ve bankrupted myself because of Net-a-Porter’s midseason sales (SALE is a relative term, but of course) is a bit embarrassing. I mean now I realise I have the best clothes out of anyone I know….but increasingly fewer occasions to wear them. (I can’t afford to eat out or buy drinks at bars!) I know this is a temporary situation, as I just graduated and am bound to get a job at some point, but it’s taught me a valuable lesson in money management, and that clothes can never define you unless they cost so much that they alienate you from the rest of the world.

    Okay it’s late and I’m a slightly hallucinated philosopher at this point…but I stand by my words. I’ve always been prone to exaggeration.

  • http://www.nouveauclassical.org/ Sugar Vendil

    I still enjoy the fiction of fashion because I don’t associate luxury with personal value or the enjoyment of life. (Also, like @thoughtsofglam:disqus student loans makes it impossible to have those things anyway!) It is pretty empowering to not let material desires get in the way of my priorities, mainly to pursue my artistic career as a pianist & director. Being an artist is not lucrative, at least for a while, so one really has to make a choice.

    I don’t know if there’s anything designers could/should do about it. A lot of ‘big’ designers are in fact still not profitable!

  • http://BikePretty.com/ Bike Pretty

    Your perspective sounds really fascinating. There is definitely room for a blog that discusses this side of fashion.
    What you said about guilt, that really resonated with me. And kinda like you, the most expensive item I’ve ever bought was my wedding dress, for $475.

  • Cointrelle Vintage

    Such a breath of fresh air to read this on your site, Leandra. Thank you! As someone who pinches every penny trying to make my business a success, I can’t help but feel down on myself when I see all the things I’d love to own but simply can’t afford to at the moment.

  • Cointrelle Vintage

    Mattie I mean, oops! Sorry ladies!

  • 33

    Interesting article that touches my nerve because I have been increasingly aware of the effect of seeing high price tags and luxury goods.
    Not from working for NM or Barney but from bloggers and on-line sites (Farfetch, Real Real, etc.). I found myself thinking what a bargain a $500 handbag is in comparison to the $1500 to $4000 bags that many top tier bloggers are toting.
    But the fact is, my food/grocery budget is only $200 a month yet I thought I should drop $500 for a new handbag. Better yet, I should buy a Chanel Boy because it’d only be $500 times nine months. I can swing that, can’t I?
    I have become desensitized by seeing high priced items daily.

  • 33

    If I have anything to offer, it’d be asking for wisdom. I am old enough to recognize and process negative feelings as soon as I feel one coming. I can admire the bloggers and stylists without feeling small in comparison. They have the resources and sense of style. I am happy to be inspired by them to find my own style within my budget.
    Style evolves. One day you may have more $ to buy pricier items, or you may never. However, your sense of style will always stay with you. It’s a process, a learning experience of how well you know yourself and appreciate what you have genetically and materialistically.

  • Bailey

    Really enjoyed this piece…I work in a different luxury industry (wine) and have occasionally found myself more at ease with astronomical price tags than I should be given my income. They say in sales you should learn not to think it terms of your own pocket, but I guess I should be wary about bringing that ethos home from the office…

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