Minh-Ha T. Pham, half of the always excellent Threadbared, recently wrote an article in The American Prospect about the rise of the Chinese luxury market and the accompanying industry criticisms on the culture of “conspicuous consumption” among the growing numbers of “cash-rich,” brand-name-obsessed Chinese consumers. Most of these industry criticisms leak out in veiled, passive-aggressive statements: “In 2012, luxury will no longer be defined by excess and conspicuous consumption […] the economy has dictated that it’s no longer fashionable to make sure everyone knows what brand you carry or wear from meters away,” writes Robert Bergman of Bergman Associates. Valentine Fillol-Cordier, a fashion consultant and former model, is a little more forthcoming with her thoughts on China’s love for luxury products: “There’s a lack of distinction between sophistication and luxury […] you can’t pretend to have lots of taste if you’re simply buying all that shit and spending tons of money.”
The term “conspicuous consumption,” first used in 1899 by the Norwegian-American economist and sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, was originally used to describe a class of “new money” who used their formidable amounts of new-found wealth for social recognition and power. Obviously, the meaning of the term hasn’t changed too much over the years, but the definition today has come to mean something a little more general: the act of buying expensive things that you don’t need for the main purposes of showing off that you can buy expensive things you don’t need, and to draw attention. Which, I suppose, is a little distasteful, when you put it that way.
Not that all of this hasn’t been great for the wallets of the fashion industry, and not that any of this is stopping major designer labels from furiously expanding all over China so that each can get their share of what Ralph Lauren’s Chief Operating Officer, Roger Farah, calls “the world’s most important luxury customers.” So why this squirmy unease within the industry over this lucrative and symbiotic partnership? Why then – in the thick of all this unseemly scrambling for a piece of this tantalizingly juicy new market frontier in China – why this tone of disdain for their fans, similarly scrambling, not to sell but to buy and adorn on their bodies as many labeled brands as they can?
And to explain, I present to you what is perhaps my favorite bit of criticism on this whole Chinese conspicuous consumer nonsense, as written by a Chinese journalist in China, who doesn’t dance around the beat in polite little raps but spells out in true blunt Chinese form just exactly what his and everyone else’s problem is: “To most people, the idea of the ‘Chinese luxury consumer’ evokes two different images: One wears a well-tailored Armani suit, has his own office in a nice building, speaks fluent English, and travels to Europe every year for a one-month-long vacation; the other sloppily dons a Pierre Cardin suit and a Gold lion belt, and speaking Mandarin with a thick accent, barks at a Hong Kong store clerk, ‘I wanna buy a Rolex gold watch.’”
Refreshing, isn’t it, to finally hear the nitty-gritty nuances of social snobbery all aired like that out in public?
I have a feeling that the people complaining about the label-obsessed aren’t complaining about the Armani-wearing, fluent-English-speaking, one-month-long-European-vacation-taking Chinese chap, but rather the one who dons his suit sloppily and talks with the “thick accent.” You know, the one who barks. And how dare that person put on the same kind of clothing as the first person and then walk around in public with those labels flapping out ostentatiously as if they meant something more than just labels; as if he could fool people into thinking he’s something he’s not, like someone sophisticated.
A friend of a friend was once horrified to discover that her Gucci wallet was being sold at a Gucci outlet store 30 miles away, not because she could’ve bought hers for a cheaper price, but because people might think that she bought hers for a cheaper price. There is no denying that that is a part of the appeal in owning, wearing, and carrying brand-name items. And maybe it’s not the brand name itself but the quality, you say – it’s the quality. Fine. Whatever. But let’s all admit that at least part of the allure in having nice things is that it indicates a level of class, which in turn indicates a level of superiority – (because it’s certainly not inferiority). And whether our preferences happen to run quiet and tasteful, or loud and flashy, we are the same in this regard: we like nice things and we like what it means when we have them.
But the world has become richer, and the walls of exclusivity have dropped to dangerously low levels, which bring these luxury brands to an interesting dilemma: is it more important to cultivate and make taller the ivory tower of privilege their names have been built on all these golden years, or is it more important to capitalize on this fresh new market of billions and make even more obscene amounts of money than ever before? The business end of the argument seems to be winning at the moment, but the dwellers of the shinking ivory tower are displeased. After all, now that any riff-raff on the street can simply scrimp on food for a few months and buy that coveted Louis Vuitton bag, where does that leave those who are able to buy one without a second thought? Where, I ask you!
Okay, maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe the complainers and detractors really are just genuinely affronted by the sheer ugliness of tacky wardrobe ensembles, and maybe the only thing that’s bothering them really is just the thought of people besmirching the reputation and honor of their favorite labels. Maybe the only thing that troubles these fashion industry naysayers about ostentatious label-flaunters is the aesthetic ramification on their poor, tender eyes. Maybe. But probably not. I say that most of these people who have turned down their sophisticated noses at these conspicuous consumers are doing so out of plain and simple snobbery: their social insecurities have been riled up by these brazen impostors of class; their territories have been encroached upon by the unwashed masses and the sacred talismans of their clan have been freely distributed around the jungle for just anyone to brandish about. Where’s the fun in that?
Written by Helen Zou