The Cost of Luxury
Are price tags weighing us down?
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.