December 9, 2011 10:16 pm

A work of art? It’s in the bag

Nobody has understood better than the luxury goods industry how status works today

Earlier this year I was out in Hong Kong with two Englishwomen. We saw a handbag in a shop window. The women were moderately tempted. It was priced in Hong Kong dollars. “What’s that in pounds?” we wondered. Eventually we worked it out: £12,000. We staggered off, amazed. Later I asked an executive in luxury goods who would buy that handbag. “A secretary,” she replied.

That handbag is a key artefact in our current status game. Nobody has understood better than the luxury goods industry how status works today.

Humans seek status, and usually deny they’re seeking it. The best route to status used to be high birth. You were born posh, and then marinaded in posh codes from the nursery. Nancy Mitford, in her essay “The English Aristocracy”, divulged some upper-class speech rules. Crucially, if the topic arose, you had to say “lavatory paper” and not “toilet paper”. “Lavatory paper” was upper-class (or “U”, in Mitford’s code) while “toilet paper” was “non-U”. However, Mitford doubted that “non-U” people could ever become “U”.

But when she wrote this, in 1954, she knew that meritocracy was already changing things. High birth no longer guaranteed status. Status was becoming something you had to acquire. Often people did this by mastering high culture. If you “knew book” (to use the excellent Liberian expression) you had status. But from the 1960s, high culture too began losing status. As pop culture made its own claims, people began to ask why knowing book was better than knowing TV.

The third main route to status was to buy things you didn’t need. Thorstein Veblen in 1899 called this “conspicuous consumption”. Whereas high-culture people sought status in knowing, conspicuous consumers sought it in having. The “knowing” lot had to mock the “having” lot, because everyone else’s form of status threatens your own. If I know book, then I want status to derive from knowing book. I then have to mock anyone who claims status from anything else.

But rising incomes changed the status game again. Suddenly new groups could afford things they didn’t need. Clearly their claims to status had to be mocked. And so in pre-recession Britain, working-class people who bought luxury goods got called “chavs”. In China, I’m told, secretaries who buy the same stuff are known as “Madame Bovarys”. The Bovarys are derided for inhabiting a fantasy world of £12,000 handbags. Because of these women, conspicuous consumption lost some of its status, just as high birth and high culture had previously.

Simply “having” luxury goods is no longer enough. Other conspicuous consumers, anxious to prove they aren’t “chavs” or “Bovarys”, now try to “know” the goods too. “The whole game now is to be a connoisseur,” the executive in the luxury goods industry told me. A Bovary merely buys the handbag. A more ambitious status-seeker visits the Parisian atelier where the handbag is made, watches the workman finish the handbag on the spot and gets told a story about how the company has made handbags for posh Europeans forever. What was once a handbag is now sold as a work of craftsmanship, or even art. After all, nobody can say for certain any more that handbags aren’t art.

Luxury goods companies now wrap themselves in the language of high art. They call themselves “cultural and creative industries”. Louis Vuitton pays artists such as Takashi Murakami and Olafur Eliasson to design its products and shop windows. And the guardians of high culture increasingly accept luxury goods as art: the Met in New York gave the fashion designer Alexander McQueen a fantastically popular posthumous exhibition.

But that £12,000 handbag, as well as being art, and being expensive, has a third trait too: a whiff of poshness. Luxury brands are forever trying to anchor themselves in the prewar European aristocracy.

I saw this recently when (strictly for research purposes) I visited Louis Vuitton’s flagship store in Paris. About half the customers were Chinese. (Here is the only plausible economic future for France, Italy and Britain: flogging our posh prewar past to non-Europeans.) From a wall beside the store’s entrance hung old monogrammed trunks of the sort that prewar aristos such as Nancy Mitford used to travel.

On a shelf stood a book called 100 Legendary Trunks, open at a page marked, “Artists and Scholars”. I became probably the first person ever to read the quote on the page. “What is interesting about the imagination,” wrote someone called Anne Baratin, “is that one never knows to what country it will take us. We packed our trunks to go north, we left for lunch.” I smirked at the ludicrousness. Of course I did: intellectual snobbery is my only claim to status.

Still, the luxury goods industry is clearly cleverer than I am. The store (or “maison”, as the industry likes to call it) screamed out a new symphony of the three main forms of status.

High birth, art and conspicuous consumption have now merged into one handbag. That’s why it costs £12,000.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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