In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen observed that silver spoons and corsets were markers of elite social position. In Veblen’s now famous oeuvre The Theory of the Leisure Class, he coined the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ to denote the way that material objects were shown as indicators of social position and status.
Well a lot has changed since then. Due to many factors the word “Luxury” has been redefined many times over the last 15 years due to the economic changes around the world, the new markets for luxury products, and the ‘younger’ luxury consumer which has “democratized” not only the offer but the way in which it is communicated on social media, the way luxury goods are produced and developed and undoubtedly, the personality and values attached to the given brands.
On the table above, we see how luxury strategies are changing to give more “accessibility” and “creative surprises” to appeal to younger, middle class, audiences. Whilst keeping the tradition and status for the elite luxury consumer. However, even younger audiences are wanting to know about the roots of the brand, the traditions, the particular savoir faire… this was seen recently in Hermès opening its Petit H ateliers to the public.
“Five ateliers were in place for the day in Hermès’ sweeping location. At one, people could see how to wax shoes using John Lobb products, while another was all about shoelaces. Visitors learned the knack of sewing buttons onto Hermès pouches, plus used their creativity in pasting leather and silk scraps onto notebooks, and making small leather earphone holders. Nearby, an artisan hammered nails that ultimately would create the shape of the Petit h logo on a wall.”
Of course, luxury, is relative, depending on where you live in the world. “Some wealthy Chinese consumers seem to think that Prada has become “ordinary.” Aspiring to convey their elite status, they are avoiding luxury brands that the less affluent can afford. As a result, because their middle class popularity is exploding, Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci are getting slighted by high-end consumers. Business Insider quoted a billionaire consumer saying about Louis Vuitton, “”Everyone has it. You see it in every restaurant in Beijing. I prefer Chanel or Bottega Veneta now. They are more exclusive.”
In this luxury spending pyramid, you can see that Prada’s leather goods and clothing for women and men are classified as “accessible core.”
This has started a relatively new strategy of product development called “discreet luxury”, particularly for the Chinese customer. Below, you can see how luxury brands are starting to adapt their products to have more discretion with their logos.
Some companies have begun downsizing their logos, hiding them (putting them on the lining of a handbag rather than on the exterior, for example), or making them optional. Tiffany, for example, has dropped the spelled-out brand name from its fashion jewellry line in favor of a simple “T.”.
In her book, The Sum of Small Things A Theory of the Aspirational Class, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett states…
“In today’s world, the leisure class has been replaced by a new elite. Highly educated and defined by cultural capital rather than income bracket, these individuals earnestly buy organic, carry NPR tote bags, and breast-feed their babies. They care about discreet, inconspicuous consumption–like eating free-range chicken and heirloom tomatoes, wearing organic cotton shirts and TOMS shoes, and listening to the Serial podcast. They use their purchasing power to hire nannies and housekeepers, to cultivate their children’s growth, and to practice yoga and Pilates.”
But, the shift away from conspicuous consumption to inconspicuous consumption—from goods to services and experiences—can also make luxury more exclusive.
“Anyone with $6,000 can buy a limited-edition Cartier watch. Or, for the same sum, you can register for the TED conference. That $6,000 ticket entitles you to spend four days in California hearing short talks by famous innovators (Frank Gehry, Amy Tan, Brian Greene) and not-so-known. You get to mingle with smart, curious people, all of whom have $6,000 to spare. But to go to TED, you need more than cash. The conference directors have to deem you interesting enough to merit one of the 1,450 spots. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a velvet rope.”
So from this we could say, that inconspicuous consumption is still deeply embedded in the conspicuous aspects of luxury, you have to look, feel and play the part, and have the right credentials. But if you want to be more inconspicuous with your consumption, here are some tips…
The 7 Laws Of Inconspicuous Consumption according to Perry Garfinkle of the Huffington Post are:
#1: Buy to enlighten, not to impress.
#2: Buy quality over quantity.
#3: Make anonymous gifts.
#4: Buy things that leave a small carbon footprint
#5: Buy local products and produce
#6: Buy small. Small is the new big.
#7: Buy, buy. But buy well.