I get an email every morning from a popular online men’s magazine. It’s a digest of their newest content, consisting of posts about rare luxury cars, liquor, gear, getaways and whatnot. It’s bro porn.
Here’s the problem: I don’t drink, I neither have nor really want a car, and I don’t have any money. And I’m guessing that at least 99.99999% of the men on this website’s mailing list do not have the money for 99.99999% of the featured gear and getaways either. On rare occasions, the editors feature something fantastic that is actually affordable, which is nice.
So why don’t I unsubscribe? Well…
There is a presumption that we’re supposed to want such things. In fact, if we’re going to be rigorously honest here, the entire luxury style/lifestyle industry is fueled by triggering a lust for stuff we don’t have but wish we could have. We’re supposed to be dissatisfied with who we already are, what we already have and where we already are so that we can want the things we don’t have yet. Some call it “aspiration;” others call it envy; I’m calling bullshit.
One thing is certain, though. In terms of creating, packaging and marketing things that look stunning and make us really want them, the luxury industry generally does it better.
The appreciation of beauty is a legitimate thing. Beautiful things make life more pleasant. Consider the beautiful clothes, the beautiful photography, the beautiful locations, the beautiful art direction you see in ads and online visuals for luxury goods. They look really sexy. Unfortunately for mortals, luxury brands seem to corner the market on capturing taste and elegance so exquisitely. (It also seems that luxury brands are the only sector in the consumer goods industry willing and able to pay for top talent, really good photography, great models and truly tasteful art direction.)
It’s almost as if brands on the more affordable spectrum are forbidden from speaking a visual language that conveys a certain level of beauty and taste. I’ve never understood why J.Crew’s visuals can’t look as good as Ralph Lauren’s. (Sorry, but they just don’t.) Why does Suitsupply’s version of the well-dressed international gigolo look slightly cheesy while Tom Ford’s doesn’t? Where is it written that affordable cars must be ugly (or “cute,” which is another boner killer), leaving luxury cars to corner the market on hot design that everyone wants but can’t have? Some downmarket brands try to create a luxury feel, and some of them do a pretty good job (Combatant Gent clothiers, Hager Watches, Owen and Fred, and Away luggage come to mind). But the result of most has the effect of an amateur attempting to move into a speeding lane of masters who gracefully blow past him in better looking vehicles.
It’s like the donkey and the racehorse. Affordable brands are the donkey, and luxury brands are the racehorse. Must it be so?
“Exquisite” is a word you could use to accurately describe many luxury goods. Crockett & Jones shoes, Rolex watches, Aston Martin coupes… all exquisite. But applying the word “exquisite” to Florsheim shoes, a Timex watch or a Chevy Cruze doesn’t feel quite right. For some reason, the word “exquisite” seems appropriate only when applied to most things that the average person cannot actually acquire.
This, really, is the point of the concept of luxury. It’s engineered to make you feel better than other people. Having a garment, car, home or accessory that other people cannot have is designed to make you feel superior. You have something that common people can’t have, and you are, therefore, more fabulous. The rarified air of exclusivity is intoxicating.
The desire to belong to this special group has a powerful pull. Lower tier “associate” memberships are available for a smaller fee, via more affordable, junior league, entry-level accessories. You can’t afford the suit, but you’ve got the sunglasses or the bag. The signature hinge on the frames or the logo on the handle is a signal to anyone who notices – and PLEASE notice – that you’re part of the tribe.
Affordable goods never seem to have the same allure. Part of the problem is design of the products themselves, most of which are made with a compromised, down market aesthetic that says “Hey poor people: this is your pile.” Another reason has to do with the way they’re marketed. It’s almost as if the directive is to make affordable goods look as unsexy as possible. Put a really handsome guy in a Toyota Prius, and put his identical twin in a Tesla Model S. Guess which one will turn more heads.
“But I don’t care how it looks.” I’m calling bullshit on that, too. Show me one warm-blooded American male who watches a Bond movie or an Avengers film and wouldn’t love to wear 007’s or Tony Stark’s clothes, drive their cars, use their gadgets, and live and work in their environments. Every man would love that. But we’re trained to believe that only rich or special people are allowed to have access to tasteful things. So we write it off as a fantasy of which we’re not worthy, relegated to the humdrum of uninspired clothes, cars, homes, furniture and other tools of “real life.” But we keep coming back, pressing our noses up against the glass to get a glimpse at a sexier alternate universe, because it just looks so goddamn good.
And cheaper brands keep selling the let-down, speaking a visual language that keeps reminding “thousandaires” that their aesthetic standards belong on a lower level. If you’re not rich, the two-fold message is “keep dreaming” and “aim low.” All the really good designers, all the really good photographers, all the really good art directors and all the ones with really good taste seem to be playing for the luxury team. Again… just look at the ads or the store windows.
The rest of us, i.e. the ones who may not have money but have appreciation and discernment, are left with scraps and compromise. I suspect that if Ford made an affordable electric car or even a hybrid that looked as unapologetically sexy as a Tesla, they’d make headlines, break industry rules and sell more cars. (The hint of Aston Martin lines on the Ford Fusion weren’t bad and they were no accident. The designers for the respective companies are brothers.) But for now, there’s some unwritten rule that only luxury cars are allowed to look hot. The rest of us get to drive ugly dogs that were designed by data and committee.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have options. Since they’re not so explicitly displayed for us in an irresistibly gorgeous catalog of sorts, we just have to work a little harder to find them. Instead of an exquisite universe being created for us in a magazine filled with exquisitely designed ads and editorial spreads, we have to be our own editors and our own art directors and create it for ourselves.
In a way, having to dig deeper to carve out a more attractive design for living for ourselves is more authentic. As I’ve often said, anyone with money can acquire, which is boring. All you have to do is point at the picture and say “I’ll take it all” or hire a designer to do it for you. You don’t need taste. The taste has been made for you. But a person on a limited budget with taste and desire or even a mere curiosity is forced to be more resourceful, which is where things get far more interesting.
I have a friend who is not wealthy by any means. But he has great taste. Over the years, through estate sales, flea markets, eBay and other resources, he has amassed a gorgeous but very edited collected of things that make his humble one-bedroom look like Halston’s legendary townhouse. His apartment is chic as fuck, and none of his stuff came from a magazine or a full-priced resource. It’s not to say all of the things in his apartment are luxury derivative one-offs. He just chose carefully. He never settled for the idea that his economic status demanded he compromise his aesthetics.
In a recent post, I wrote about how people often mischaracterize me as someone who’s into fashion and luxury goods because of how I present myself. The truth is that I don’t own one stitch of designer clothing. Not one. Except for the five new plain white t-shirts I just bought, I haven’t bought any new clothes in over a year.
I just like things that look nice. Given my budgetary constraints, I have to be extremely discerning and very resourceful.
So why do I keep subscribing to this men’s magazine that flaunts all these unattainable things? Because the pictures of the clothes look much more inspiring than Men’s Wearhouse… because the cars look far more fun and interesting than a KIA… because the furniture and housewares look way hotter than the way Macy’s presents them… because the getaways and hotels look much more alluring and have much better lighting than a typical Hilton… because affordable brands do their customers a disservice and continue to insult their taste intelligence by letting luxury brands kick their ass in the “so hot I can’t stop looking at it” department.
As I mentioned, I like nice looking things. Aesthetics are very important to me, and I’m extremely sensitive to my surroundings. Bill Cunningham famously said that “He who seeks beauty will find it.” He also said that the reason his annual trip to Paris was so important was because Paris “educates the eye.” Since I can’t afford an annual trip to Paris, the best I can do is to educate my eye is by looking at movies and pictures that showcase fantastic design and lovely things to look at and appreciate. I’m reminded of beautiful things I always adored, and I’m introduced to and inspired by new things and ideas that never occurred to me. As it is now, it just so happens that the luxury industry tends to do that showcasing a lot better and on a more sophisticated level. And that’s a bummer.
About that car… It’s a Speedback GT from David Brown Automotive. Yes, it’s exquisite, which means it’s extremely expensive. Read more about it here.