Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The ugliness of fashion



Hong Kong is brand crazy.
Asia currently constitutes the largest market for Western luxury brands, and Hong Kong accounts for 12% of that market, according to a book by Radha Chadha and Paul Husband, “The Cult of the Luxury Brand” (2006).
This gives us the largest share of Asian consumption outside Japan – whom we nonetheless surpass at a per capita rate. And a 2005 report by the Federation of Swiss Watch Industry FH declared that Hong Kong boasts as many purchases of Swiss watches as the entire USA.
As if that weren’t enough, Hong Kong also contains more big-brand stores than Paris, London, Milan or New York.

According to the authors, the trend reflects the essential conviction in cities like ours that “the face you show to the world counts more than how you live.”
 Yet signifying status through fashion is hardly a new phenomenon, having been analyzed to death since Thorstein Veblen’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class” (1899).

What’s interesting about the preoccupation with brand names and logos in question is that it concerns itself with nothing less than full-on identity. “In today’s Asia you are what you wear,” say Chadha and Husband. “Your identity and self-worth are determined by the visible brands on your body.”
The claim fits into what the authors call the “luxe evolution model,” which traces out a trajectory followed by Asian cities like Hong Kong through different stages, with luxury brands serving different roles at each stage: early on as a means of merely showing off (as currently found in mainland China), later as a means of fitting in (Taiwan, South Korea), and eventually as an all-consuming way of life (Hong Kong, Japan).


One interesting theory about the origins of our love affair with luxury brands comes from Gordon Matthews, associate professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Matthews puts it down to the lack of identity that Hong Kong has struggled with over the last three decades as it shifted between British and Chinese rule without aligning itself directly with either. “Over that time, identity in Hong Kong has been ambiguous,” he says. “Everything has been based on money because that’s the only thing many Hong Kong people felt they could trust. It’s been the only marker of identity, and it can be directly displayed through these names and symbols."

“There’s a strong following instinct at work here", says local psychologist Dr. Julian Von Will. This instinct has a large place in luxury brand promotion, critically emphasizing the inherent paradox of much “high” fashion: “Despite being elitist, it promotes a herd mentality and it works off people’s stupidity. It has to because it’s all based on an absurd, unsustainable logic.”

Another obvious promotional point for luxury brands in Hong Kong is the architectural layout of the city. The stores are so woven into the fabric of the city, so integrated into our everyday experience, it becomes impossible to walk home or to the office without being conscious of the latest designer products sitting in the windows.

Next time you covet an overpriced, fashionable and branded item, take a deep breath and repeat with me: "This will go out of fashion in less than an year, and make me look like a complete fool." Hold on to your money. Use it to pay for what you really need to be free. Fashion never set anybody free.

By spending less, you will need to work less, and can finally be in control of your life. Time is one of the few things you cannot buy with money.

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