Jobs are scarce, disillusion is rampant, and Guy Fawkes has shacked up on Wall Street. The recession has made for some tough times, but not everyone is feeling the heat.
Despite recent economic turmoil and widespread anti-elite sentiment, luxury brands' profits have soared. Versace is predicting its first profitable year since the early 2000's, Burberry just reported a 29% rise in second-quarter profit, and Hermès literally cannot keep up with demand after a 50% jump in first half profits. The worldwide luxury goods market is poised to surge 10% in 2011. Brands are reporting record-breaking sales levels at every turn.
It seems a good chunk of the "99%" are emptying their pockets in an effort to look more like the "1%." People who haven't seen a raise in years are still finding ways to justify Birkin bags and $500 swatches of coloured silk. Fewer and fewer people are in a position to afford luxury fashion, but more than ever are buying it.
Many insiders will attribute this illogical behavior to the so-called "democratization of fashion." Brands have cracked open the pearly gates, allowing top bloggers to sit front row and designers to create cheap caricatures of their collections for H&M. Everyday people sit next to A-listers and sport garment ghosts of Lanvin past. These moves are strikingly forward-thinking for an industry that can't quite figure out the problem with "slave earrings."
Truthfully, this new democratic fashion is much more Florida Supreme Court than it is Locke. The industry's recent populist agenda spawns not from an egalitarian epiphany, but from marketing necessity. To survive the recession, brands created a new method of triggering our behavioral impulse to shop. They created a "lottery mentality" in fashion.
Buying lottery tickets is a clearly irrational act - the odds are so stacked against us that slot machines are more likely to result in a payday. Yet, millions upon millions of people buy into the lottery every week. Why? Because when someone hits the jackpot, with their story broadcasted across the nation, we see potent and irresistible evidence that an ordinary person, just like us, can win big.
The fashion lottery seduces much the same way. Amongst millions of eager bloggers, only a select minority is handpicked to appear in campaigns or sit front row. Many dress to the nines for events, but few have their photo taken for prominent style pages. Some get cars, trips, or electronics - but most are lucky to get a free bag of chips. However rare the odds of true blogger success, the prevailing mentality is, "that could be me."
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Luxury brands collaborate with mass retailers on collections that sell out in minutes - most of them ending up on eBay for astronomical prices. Just enough clothing is produced to give normal folks a glimmer of hope they could own something affiliated with Versace, Missoni, or Jason Wu. The odds of average people actually getting their hands on a garment are Alana Zimmer-slim.
Then of course there are the reality shows: America's Next Top Model, The Cut, and Project Runway. These feed the lottery mentality in the most obvious of ways. For many, the fashion dream has stepped in to replace a broken American Dream. The problem with lotteries is there are few winners - and most people aren't winning. Even worse, many are losing lots of money on this luxury gambling. The lottery mentality can rationalize high-priced splurges in bad economic times because it's more about the feeling than the product.
A team of Carnegie Mellon behavioural economists discovered people are more likely to purchase lottery tickets when primed to perceive their own income as low relative to an implicit standard. This creates a self-fulfilling cycle: lotteries appeal to people who feel relatively poor, which causes them to spend disproportionate amounts of income on lotteries, which keeps them feeling poor, which keeps them playing the lottery. In the same way, the fashion lottery appeals to people who are feeling poor or insignificant, which causes them to spend disproportionate amounts of money and time on fashion, which keeps them feeling low-status, which fuels more shopping. It's quite intervention-worthy, really. Never before has fashion offered so many opportunities for social advancement and pseudo-fulfillment. But the chances of getting caught up in a Tommy Ton-esque whirlwind are still slim to none. In times like these, we need hope, but from the right places. Target isn't one of them.
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