Monday, August 20, 2007

Itty-Boo, Parvenu

Here, we allegedly have neither royalty nor a deferential society. We're 'mer'cans, after all, not Brits.

Yet, it's hard to square our feigned egalitarianism with MacMansions, with slavish attention to tawdry, self-indulgent celebrities, and with envy and worship of business types and those with inherited wealth. We somehow have overlooked the hereditary titles, as well as the requirement of decorum, but otherwise, we out-English the English.

You can lift up the lid on this cesspool of irrationality by observing media coverage of our brand of royalty. You can also consider the disparate takes on a little book by Newsweek writer Dana Thomas, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster.

I am first to confess that I love alliteration more than most. That surely stems from and was ingrained by my elementary-school poetry writing. In this book's case, it illustrates the artificial cleverness that this fashion/style/culture writer employs.

Light Muckraking

That is the nature of her business as well, but be warned. Were she on the serious side of reportage, this could be yellow journalism and exposé. She draws on her visits to the workrooms, factories, offices and stores of high-end nonnecessities. She emerges with a few bits of dirt in her teeth, such as absurdly overpriced (and to my eye, very ugly) handbags being almost entirely made in poor countries before coming to Italy or France to get a buckle (and the MADE IN... tag) added. Also, foreign factory managers and workers save scraps to feed into the illegal knock-off market.

Jeeves, quickly, my smelling salts!

You can get your own sense of her cutesy, lightweight insider's writing by paying $28 or heading or to Gawker for some excerpts — handbag obsessions, underground purses, and tiny lessons from the Parada HQ. Yet, more telling is how this trivial book is garnering disparate reviews.

Get It/Don't Get It

Over at the blue-collar New York Daily News, Sherryl Connelly plays up the asininity of wasting money to look like so many others aspiring to look like some dubious ideal of privileged. As she writes:
"Perhaps because as the luxury goods industry has swelled to a $157 billion business, it's obvious in a world gone mad for designer goods that we're buying in. What are we coming away with, then, for our dollars?

According to Thomas, we're duped into purchasing 'the appearance of exclusivity,' which she considers an inferior product. Maybe it is, and in that case it's fair to ask: Hey sucker, where didja get that bag?"
Over at glam.com, the take is that the book "explores the darker side of the new luxury industry... and reveals that instead of producing the finest products that money can buy, the luxury marketplace today focuses on the single goal that the major fashion labels don't want you to know about: maximizing profits." Likewise, a review by John Stoehr in the Savannah Morning News (disclaimer, I used to work there and might not cite it otherwise) judges, "While it's not completely clear where Thomas' sympathies lie, one can tell she's genuinely troubled by the facts she has unearthed. The splendor of luxury is clearly tainted by knowing so much about it."

However, the best take is totally different. A review in the business section (!) of the Sunday New York Times by Harry Hurt III (only III?) rues the day when the really upper class could look down their long faces at hoi polloi who would drape themselves in their castoffs.

He calls it "sometimes heat-wrenching" when Thomas notes that luxury biz no longer caters to what I would call our royalty. He quotes her passage that making high-end goods available to plebes is a social tragedy. "It has become part of our social fabric. To achieve this, it has sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history and hoodwinked its consumers. In order to make luxury 'accessible,' tycoons have stripped away all that has made it special."

So put in my terms, most of those who sell luxury items to make the self-defined aristocrats feel ever more special and distinct have fallen into a luxury industry. Alas, when the wealthy would easily differentiate themselves from hoi polli by what they would acquire for have done for them may be much harder. As Hurt notes, the richest will always have ways beyond means of even the wealthy to have custom goods and services. Yet, now even people who work for a living can brazenly stroll with oversized evidence of the unnecessary and overpriced.

Hurt loves Thomas' image that "Luxury wasn’t simply a product. It denoted a history of tradition, superior quality, and often a pampered buying experience. Luxury was a natural and expected element of upper-class life, like belonging to the right clubs or having the right surname. And it was produced in small quantities — often made to order — for an extremely limited and truly elite clientèle."

Horror at the Common

That may look to us as though she is writing about people who belong an a zoo or museum. Yet she and Hurt seem like minded on this.

He even pulls images of terrible consequences from this democratization of exclusivity. He cites "dire effects across the globe, and on almost every socio-economic level." Among these are sweatshops. He seems totally unaware that those have existed for centuries, are far more common for ordinary consumer goods, would not go away if all the luxury labels poof disappeared, and luxury companies don't pay their overworked laborers any more than sneaker companies do.

Our everybody-panic reviewer concludes that "merchandising luxury has taken a heavy toll on both cultural and language...one of the most dire effects has been to turn the term itself into a kind of oxymoron. After all, what's the real luxury in being a 'have' if hordes of logo-loving former have-nots can own the same product?"

Now, luxury-brand companies are rapacious capitalists seeking excess profits from rapacious consumers. They deserve each other.

On the other hand, Thomas and Hurt can split a vintage Veuve Cliquot as befits their slightly elevated status, while lamenting that the very unAmerican pseudo-royalty has to work harder to find ways to feel special. Surely, that class can hire someone to find those ways for them.

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