Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Louis this, Gucci that: thoughts on aspirational consumerism in Seoul

[Disclaimer: this is written with the full knowledge that its very author may also be implicated as complicit in abetting and supporting the behavior critiqued within. See explanation below.]

The very first time I jumped on the subway from Ju-Yeop into Seoul, I was unprepared for the veritable flood of luxury items with which I was confronted. As, frankly, a confessed brand monitor, if not outright follower, I had thought that my trips around SoHo and Broadway/5th Avenue (not to mention, 4 undergraduate years at a ridiculously wealthy school) had inoculated me against the vast human drive to consume.

Not so, apparently. Over the course of my first trip into Seoul - not to mention subsequent jaunts around town - I am nigh-certain that I saw more Louis Vuitton monogrammata than in the preceding 22 years of my modestly accomplished (if overly self-congratulatory) life. My current estimation grants something like 1 in every 7 or 8 women (and 1 in every 15-20 men) on the subway/street in my corner of Korea (including in church, in the mall, on the bus, etc.) an aspirationally branded carryall, purse, or other sort of bag; not to mention the belts, wallets, etc. and the like which parade themselves in front of me on a weekly basis.

Aspirational brands? I hope not, for - if so - these Ko Rean citizens sleep fitfully and dreamlessly.

Far be it from me to criticize a foreign culture (I say as I prepare to plunge into exactly such a piece of critical work), and I do hold out hope that this one niche impression in a sole field of Ko Rean life is merely some quixotic quirk of the cultural milieu, but this overabundance of luxury goods has inculcated in me an instinctive reaction to the very hint of a Prada nameplate, the Gucci interlocked G's, or the brown/tan patchwork of a Louis bag: to wit, I have begun loathing the trappings of conspicuous consumption.

Actually and honestly loathing: my reaction has taken on a visceral note; I nearly (and occasionally literally) cringe at the sight of another overexposed high-fashion brand, and have been (thankfully, not often, and only, I pray, in exaggerated rhetorical jest) struck by the desire to bear down on the next bearer of such an item, wielding vengeance in my own fist.

Of course, this is an odd confession from an avowed fan of, well, consumption. Let's be blunt here. I am straight up a purchaser: I will subsist on $5 a day but then drop $40-80 on a pair of shoes like it is not even a thing. And perhaps, in some indirect way, this is an indictment of my own habits.

But I think there are some distinguishing features of this particular obsession which particularly sadden me, in ways that (I hope) my own spending patterns remain innocuous (though it still provokes thought). Mainly, my arguments fall into two categories: (1) that such an obsession, if not the actual physical ubiquitousness of such items, is a sad reflection on the status of popular culture and spending trends, and (2-4) that such acquisition is actually statistically self-defeating.

1) Statistics: either Koreans are madd rich, or people are far over-reaching their means.
The prevalence of Louis Vuitton bags is such that either 12-18% of the population in Seoul (at least, that part of the population within my sampled demographic) is wealthy enough to spend multiple thousands of dollars (that is, multiple millions of Korean Won) on a single cosmetic item; or what I consider the more likely scenario (and again, it is a presumption on my part that Seoul does not have precisely such a well-earning population), that a large percentage of the population considers the status of owning a Louis bag (what status is this? see below) to grant sufficient utility such that it outweighs the additional work required (or benefits sacrificed) to earn the extra few thousand dollars to purchase the item.

2) Removing the "luxury" from "luxury brand".
All the brands whose prevalence has been increasingly obnoxious to me are brands whose hallmark is that they are, definitionally, aspirational: that is, to own such an item from such a brand ought to be something to which one aspires, and then, in a culminating moment, in the apex of one's consumerism, attains. The permeation of such items into Korean society cheapens this aspirational aspect: if everyone has a Prada bag or a Louis belt or a Gucci wallet, then acquisition becomes no longer joyful. It is, in some perverted sense, mandatory.

3) "A little Louis better than no Louis at all"... nah.
The items which I have been seeing have, as a general rule (with several exceptions), been smaller-ticket items. A small belt, a small wallet, the smaller-sized (and more simply designed) purse or carryall. This is one of the points which seems self-defeating to me: the very idea of an aspirational luxury item is that it serves as an ostentatious display of wealth. LV and other aspirational brands produce small lower-price-range items for two reasons: (i) to provide corollary goods for those high-rollers wealthy enough to purchase the large-ticket items (i.e. you get the LV backpack... and you get the belt to match. You get the Gucci kicks, or windbreaker, and the wallet to match) and (ii) to cajole those without the financial werewithal to purchase the more expensive items into spending their money on secondary items. A preponderance of small-ticket items without a large-ticket item conveys a sense that the wearer/bearer falls into (ii): someone without the means to purchase a more expensive brand item, who wants, but cannot and does not actually have, the status associated with said brand. This is the epitome of ironic self-defeat: in purchasing and bearing supposed luxury goods, the consumer actually expresses their lack of economic status.

4) "Youse all biters!" (Beat Street); swagger jacking.
Stylistically, this seems self-defeating as well (a bone which I have to pick with much of Korean society at large... but I don't want to get too aggy on 'em at this moment yet [Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em!]). The very essence of a luxury good lies in connoting to others the sense of classic style and coolness: that the {w,b}earer is sufficiently entitled such that they can afford time and money on something which is stylish, functional, and blings hella bread. By cheapening the idea of a stylistic luxury item to the level of a common accessory, the idea of good taste flies out the window: if you wear a Louis item like a nouveau riche, it is not serving to lend you an air of class; you are lending it an air of banality.

What does it all mean?
So, then, why do so many desire the status conveyed by these items? What do these items say about an individual, if anything?
As I touched on in (1) and (2), above, the status of carrying such an item cannot be that one is wealthy: the prevalence of such items likely (I suspect) implies that owning an aspirational item does not necessitate the purchaser's entrance into a particular social class. Rather, it only implies that one values such an item as greater than the utility of other goods, services, and benefits which could be purchased for an equal amount of money (which is a troubling realization, in general, regarding aspirational items, especially when compared against the cost of, say, feeding or educating children, widows, etc., in much of the third world... but more acceptable, for various reasons which I may later articulate, for those with immense disposable incomes; less so, perhaps, for those without).
Also fairly obvious (again: highly subjective words) is that the value of such items does not lie in their ability to serve as accoutrements to a certain style or fashion of attire. I have seen luxury items acting in blatant counterpoint to the dress of the person carrying them: in fact, such a use of said items seems purposeful, highlighting flamboyant wealth through stark juxtaposition. It's tacky and tasteless: worse than meaningless, it points out a deficiency of fashion sense and style.
So, it seems, this is the purpose of such items: the brusque display of gross wealth.
But again: isn't this simply the purview of the nouveau-riche? Or the rustic fakir, making pretense of wealth but spending grotesque quantities of money in the wrong places: the entry-level BMW with the baller status rims.

I submit, then, that this is the sad state of affairs: aspirational brands, due to overexposure in popular society (along with a lack of imagination and comprehension of the source of such brands' popularity), have transformed from status symbol to sign of misappropriated and likely misused funds.

Corollary I - Fakes, and the negligible effects thereof:
Of course, it has come (and been brought) to my attention: such items may be, in large part, fakes. A sham, a gilded brass ring.

But does this change my argument in the slightest? Not at all. In fact, it only advances my argument that aspirational brands' function as status symbol has been surplanted by their status as emblem of a tragic lack of sartorial imagination and farcical aspersion to wealth, for reasons that ought to be fairly obvious.

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