Can it be a coincidence that the start of the summer cultural season – ie, that time of year when blockbusters hit big screens and beach reads land on bookshelves – has been heralded by two launches that, while they don’t necessarily celebrate consumerism, certainly have it at their core?
Between The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola’s dramatisation of Nancy Jo Sales’ magazine piece about brand-and-celeb-obsessed teenagers and the criminal lengths they reach, and Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan’s novel about lux- and status-obsessed Singaporeans, it’s hard to escape the idea that this will be the summer of stuff.
Especially because the homepage of The Bling Ring’s website features not just the bios of cast and crew, but products, from Vuitton Vernis bags to Louboutin pumps and Dior furs; and Asians is described, on Amazon.com, as “outrageous, uproarious, and filled with jaw-dropping opulence”. Yet pointedly, neither release makes an overt judgment about the slippery slope of brand obsession for its own sake and where it might lead (jail and bad marriages, apparently), instead claiming to act as reflections of a moment. I’m not going to get into a “whether they do this well or not” but I do think the fact they do it at all is interesting. Because if fashion teaches us anything, it’s that when we actually identify a moment, it’s usually over.
So I wonder if this cultural funfest actually signifies not a wave of consumerist celebration but rather the start of a post-consumerist era? Or, to be fair, since that’s a bit extreme – and while branded luxury sales may be slowing, they are still doing just fine – a post-logo era? Or a post-“in-your-face”-brand era? Or something like that.
After all, by the time you identify the aesthetic of a time enough to caricature it, you’ve moved on. 1960s mod minis; 1970s flares and wide ties; 1980s power shoulders and puff skirts; 1990s grunge and deconstruction – when we were in them (literally), we thought they looked great, but once they were re-created, especially on-screen, they became officially passé. The vast desire for stuff evinced on the part of the kids in The Bling Ring and Kwan’s Asians is no different, despite the fact that the protagonists themselves are.
Indeed, their difference is part of the point: on the one hand, you have adolescents from California; on the other you have extended families with members who range from their twenties to their sixties on the opposite side of the world. On the one hand, you have a crime movie; on the other, you have a comedy of manners and class. Both, granted, also have relationships at their centre – The Bling Ring, between an outsider guy and his girlfriend; Crazy Rich Asians, between the scion of the most secretive family in Singapore and his Chinese-American immigrant love – but the main relationships, in both, are really between brands and the characters who love them.
It is about the need for products that signify membership in a group, be it the cult of celebrity-for-celebrity’s sake that drove the Bling Ring to invade the homes of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton et al and make off with their Oliver Peoples’ sunglasses, Vuitton and Dior bags, and Rolexes, or the cult of the enormously wealthy Singaporeans, Malays, and mainland Chinese depicted by Kwan, with their Goyard, Gaultier, Gieves & Hawkes, and VBH. For both groups, name-dropping and social competition has as much to do with the famous brands you wear as the people you know. And when two such extremes share the same identifying characteristic – well, it seems to me, in the anthropology of pop culture, we are at a turning point.
Much has been written about the rejection of obvious totems of luxury and achievement in mature western markets during the recession, and the current similar trend in China, thanks to both an exponential consumer learning curve and the political anti-corruption/bribery campaign, and the fact this coincides with the release of both The Bling Ring and Asians may mark the apogee of branded luxury; you can’t really get much more extreme than a woman who uses her spare room as her couture closet (Asians) or kids who break into private homes to make off with handbags. Once these worlds have become part of the conversation, instead of part of life, life itself has to move on.
Indeed, this was acknowledged in a postmodern dissertation kind of way by Emma Watson, one of the stars of The Bling Ring, when she started discussing the paradox of her own participation in branded celebrity culture, as a former ambassador for Burberry and co-host of the Met ball with Christopher Bailey, a face of Lancôme cosmetics, and a red-carpet, best-dressed starlet, thus admitting she was complicit in creating the situation that made The Bling Ring possible, even as she acted as a protagonist in it.
All of which leaves us where?
Well, if one accepts the rule of three, which is as close to a natural law as fashion has (one is a fluke, two a coincidence, three a trend), and I do, then we need one more such book/film/whatever to confirm the above thesis. I’m not particularly concerned, however, because of another law I also believe, the law of pop culture, aka the law of the herd. This tells us that if one example of something is successful, it will be followed by at least five copycat examples attempting to piggyback on its profits. Given the hoo-ha around the book and film thus far, I think it’s only a matter of time.
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman