Once upon a time, luxury fashion was relegated solely to the closets of the super-rich. Now it seems that everyone has a Gucci belt and a Chanel bag. Unsurprisingly, this is thanks to the internet. Social media makes it easy to see people who are not “real” celebrities showing off their luxury items. Decades ago, a lot of people probably didn’t even know what Gucci is and if they did, they thought of it as a brand exclusively for celebrities and ultra-wealthy people.
I think what’s changed is people’s perception of clothing. People now view luxury as something that is, or should be, attainable for them even if they aren’t rich. This has created, in my opinion, the democratization of luxury and the rise of premium mediocre, which are closely linked.
Luxury used to mean expensive, exclusive, and high quality. It was an item. Now it is something else. Consumers today, millennials especially, tend to value experiences over products. That’s why people go to the Gucci store just to vlog or Snapchat it, rather than actually buy something. Luxury is no longer defined by a price point or uniqueness or exclusivity or even quality. Luxury is now defined by hype.
Sometimes the hype is warranted. Sometimes it isn’t. But it doesn’t matter because luxury doesn’t reside in quality and exclusivity anymore it resides in status, how “Insta-worthy” something is, if you’ll be flossin’ with it.
However, I must admit the price is a part of the hype even if it’s not a defining trait. People rent designer items, buy them at deep discounts on consignment, and purchase fakes. People love getting something for nothing- or at least getting something without having to give up “too much.” It’s the thrill of the chase, the treasure hunt experience popularized by off-price retailers rather than the actual ownership of the product. Often times the anticipation of attaining a luxury product is more thrilling than having it.
Enter premium mediocre and affordable luxury.
Premium mediocre is all the cheap items branded by designers that allow the masses to go into their boutiques, get the branded shopping bag, and broadcast their experience on social media. While not entirely inexpensive, considering what they are, the items are cheap. Premium mediocre is $12 Supreme toothpicks, $30 Gucci matches, and pretty much any designer T-shirt with the logo emblazoned across the front. These are the items you could get at the dollar store but because they’re branded, they cost 20 times more. I think the entire brand Supreme is premium mediocre so at least for Gucci, the real luxury of the brand lies in their $3k wool/silk blend dresses and other high-quality items that are out of reach for most people. Premium Mediocre thrives off hype and that is what is driving the high sales designers get from their luxury street-wear more so than their suits and dresses.
Affordable luxury is the items that are of good, but not high, quality (slightly better than fast fashion, but maybe or maybe not as high quality as luxury) but are priced higher than the discounted, off-price items consumers have become used to. I think that consumers have become so used to poor quality, disposable clothing that we think of accurately priced, good quality items as being “too expensive.” Brands like Michael Kors, BCBG, and Ralph Lauren retail their women’s dresses from about $100 to $300+. For a lot of people, that’s too expensive.
And it is too expensive… if you expect to own 103 items, rather than just the 9 to 11 most women wear regularly. If most women spend $150- $400 per month on clothes, that would equal about one or two nice items per month. When you put it like that, $200 for a dress doesn’t seem so ridiculous, and that price is right in line with inflation from the 1930s, but a lot of people are addicted to buying too many clothes that they’re unhappy with.
The democratization of luxury is in essence the facilitation of the attainability of luxury items, whether they’re of good quality or not. The democratization of luxury is being able to rent designer clothes, buy them second hand, going to a designer store to buy a premium mediocre product, and even buying knock offs.
What’s interesting, however, is that the democratization of luxury items don’t cheapen the brand. More people own a Gucci belt or slides or a Chanel bag now than in previous years, despite the economic troubles of the younger generations. Anyone can rent designer clothes online or buy knockoffs from China. Designer brands and luxury items are no longer “exclusive” like they used to be. But, people still buy designer goods so that they can “flex.”
Designer brands of today are like the Hollister, A&F, and Aeropostale of the early 2000s. People buy the items for the labels and it’s what all the “cool kids” are wearing. (Don’t lie, you know you wouldn’t buy Louboutins if no one could see the red bottoms when you walk, or a Gucci belt without the double G’s.) Paradoxically, we hope that luxury products will help us to fit in by standing out. Owning luxury brand items gives us validation; with that belt or those shoes or a handbag, we have bought our seat at the popular clique’s lunch table. The reason that the democratization of luxury doesn’t cheapen the brand is because if it did, everyone who has bought into the brand would then have to admit that their investment was a waste.
A cheapening of the brand would mean a cheapening of ourselves.