The Business of Fashion recently published an article about the struggle in the luxury business in light of unparalleled economic disparity. And it’s hilarious.
With the canyon between those who have money and those who don’t being wider than ever, the resentment among those who don’t have money is making rich people feel demonized and uncomfortable about flashing their gold. Their right to bear billions is at stake.
Instead of being comfortable flaunting their wealth with a gaudy bullhorn, the super wealthy who feel victimized have resorted to displaying their wealth with a dog whistle that only other rich people can hear, deploying more subtle flourishes like a particular kind of bespoke stitching or a more discreet logo or tag. (More restraint and less ostentatious displays of wealth have been around for ages. It’s called taste.)
What I found interesting about the article was the positioning of the wealthy as “victims” in this scenario. The story, titled “To Have and Have Not: Inequality Hits Luxury,” fails to acknowledge that wealth inequality and the haves versus the have-nots are precisely the whole point of luxury’s “I have it and you don’t” appeal. My favorite quote (and it is delicious) came from the chairman of a luxury conglomerate:
“Our clients will be targets. They’ll be hated, despised… People with money will not wish to show it.”
What was almost as interesting to me in the article was the fact that the super-wealthy don’t account for the bulk of luxury spending. According to the story, 75% of luxury spending happens among the new rich and the “aspirational class.” The irrepressible urge to show off money – particularly new money – is as old as time, though no less gross. Just look at the cars and clothes owned by fresh hedge-fund lottery winners, tort lawyers, rappers and petty drug dealers who haven’t been in the game for very long (and probably won’t be in the game for much longer). What I find most disturbing is the phenomenon of aspirational people wanting to look like they belong in a tacky club that doesn’t want them. It’s like gay men dressing like hillbilly truckers or jocks – the guys who hated fags in high school and would love to beat the shit out of them if they could get away with it. Why anyone would want to emulate or seek approval from a group that would prefer you didn’t exist is a mystery to me.
People may interpret me and what I do as “aspirational.” I beg to differ. What I’m about is pursuing classic, masculine and affordable ways of dressing better and less conspicuous ways of living more effectively. When you break it down, my pursuits and interests in this area really have very little to do with money or the appearance thereof. I just like looking nice and living effectively, which, I believe, are not privileges of the wealthy.
The real downside to this whole story is that the luxury business employs a lot of people. It represents a lot of jobs. When business is down, it’s bad for workers. However, these brands that make the bags, shoes, sunglasses, wallets and other boldly labeled “gets” for the aspirational set are more than welcome to diversify their portfolios with offerings that have a more universal attainability. Sales taking a dive for a luxury car maker? Start a division that makes great-looking, well-built, affordable cars and even bicycles. Not as many people shelling it out for your $10,000 baby ostrich handbag? Make chic handbags and wallets with more sustainable materials at a more accessible price point. Joan Rivers made a fortune selling tasteful, well-made, affordable costume jewelry to working-class women, making them look and feel beautiful. And she was just one person. Educate consumers with tasteful things that are well-made and affordable. Sales might not explode and shareholders might not jump for joy, but as the bulk of working class consumers with shrinking paychecks have learned: it’s better than nothing. But what do I know? I’m not a CEO or a creative director.
What I do know is that people with enough money for multiple lifetimes crying because they can’t show off their wealth as freely as they’d prefer is positively ludicrous. Everyone in the world is touched by pain, illness and heartache, but people with enough money to effortlessly pay for housing, quality healthcare, food, clothing and other basics as well as luxury amenities – multiple times over – need to shut the fuck up. No reasonable person cares. Because no one should.
In David Mamet’s underrated screenplay for the 1997 film The Edge, Anthony Hopkins’ character is a billionaire who utters one of the truest lines of movie dialog I’ve ever heard: “Never feel sorry for a man who owns a plane.” And I won’t. The gains of wealth come with the forfeit of popular empathy and sympathy. That’s the deal.
And while people who are rich enough to buy a therapist whine about feeling inhibited, I’ll continue to enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that I look better in my $500 suits than most show-offs who dropped $5,000.