Regular readers will know that every once in a while I like to pause for a moment from tracking the visual economy and think, instead, about another phenomenon I call the fashionisation of life. This is the tendency of those outside the fashion industry to apply its principles to their own products, whatever they may be.
I’m talking about industries such as technology, publishing – even the bicycle business – that have become, on one level or another, accessory industries. The latest example of the trend is the food industry.
Before you say anything, yes, I know there are fashions in food but that is not the same thing as food treated like fashion. For the former, see anything from sushi to fusion to Tex-Mex. For the latter, I give you the cronut.
For anyone who didn’t read last week’s travel pages, the cronut is a breakfast pastry invented by French chef Dominique Ansel and sold from his bakery in New York’s SoHo. These doughnut/croissant hybrids filled with cream cost $5 each.
Tales of queues for cronuts, the cronut black market, and the various wannabe cronuts are now legendary. Cronuts are trending on Twitter. As a Tiffany collection was unveiled last week in New York, cronuts were displayed for visitors with the same fanfare as a $1.5m diamond ring.
Does this sound familiar to you?
Note, I am speaking not to consumers of food but to consumers of fashion, who should recognise the above markers in the time it takes to say, “Object of desire”. The key to understanding the cronut phenomenon is not to think of it as a comestible at all but to think of it as an It bag.
In many ways, the cronut reminds me of an Hermès Birkin bag. US Vogue acknowledged this overtly, tweeting: “Our favourite French imports – the ring, the shoe, the bag, the dress, and, of course, the cronut.”
Consider the bakery’s online description of the cronut: “Taking 2 months and more than 10 recipes, Chef Dominique Ansel’s creation is not to be mistaken as simply croissant dough that has been fried. Cronuts™ are made fresh daily, and completely done in house. The entire process takes up to 3 days.”
It is original! It is a secret! It’s all about hand work and effort!
Of course, hand work is a basic tenet of the luxury industry, because it both justifies a high price, and because it connects a contemporary product to the idea of tradition and human creation, which in turn bestows brand equity (as Hermès well knows). Hand work also creates another reality, that by necessity only a certain number can be made. Exclusivity, of course, is yet another defining principle of luxury. As is scarcity. Something is special because not everyone can get it.
But that’s just the beginning. Each month a new, single flavour of cronut is released – June was lemon maple, this month is blackberry, next month has not been revealed. This gives customers a reason to come back every few weeks and own the bragging rights of being one of the few to have tasted every flavour. Ask any analyst, and they will tell you a similar strategy of flash sales – promising now-you-get-it, tomorrow-you-won’t – has been responsible for Prada’s success in Asia.
The bakery also has instructions about the ritual of eating, and even cutting, a cronut; do it wrong, and you screw up the whole thing. In other words, only people who really understand the art of these treats will fully appreciate them.
Finally, there is the trademark. Unlike the last food fashion, the cupcake, the cronut has officially been registered as intellectual property; cupcakes, by contrast, are a general food item that a variety of different people elevated into a fad.
This creates a situation where people are seduced into obsession, thanks to what behavioural scientist and Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino calls “selfsignalling”. This is the willingness to go to what seems like risible lengths to secure an object because the process of doing so demonstrates that they are imbued with certain qualities they hold dear, which in this case is insiderness and an understanding of value. It’s the same urge that underpins the entire luxury industry; as various executives I talk to always say, they aren’t selling anything anyone needs, so they have to sell “the dream”.
It’s a genius move. By transforming a breakfast pastry into a luxury, Ansel has made it transcend the whole concept of food and – let’s be honest – fat. I mean, the thing is a quazillion calories and – in a world where governments are trying to legislate the listing of nutritional content, and magazines are under fire for using too-skinny models – no one cares. That’s rich, in every sense of the word.
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman