Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Cost of Luxury

Every once in a while, right around the time I’m paying bills and wondering how my bank account got so drained, I’ll stumble into an article about luxury goods that sets me into a rage. Today, I had the misfortune of finding two such articles: “What Makes E.S. Kluft’s Palais Royale Mattress Worth $33,000?” in the Wall Street Journal and “Domenico Vacca’s new denim line slips us the Mickey—and the Piven” in the Los Angeles Times.

In the first article, the headline says it all: there exists in this world a mattress that people actually buy for $33,000. That fact hardly needs any comment; it is offensive on nearly every level. To me, it’s like Brioni’s $43,000 suit—at this point, the market is testing the limits of the wealthy men it has created by offering them more and more absurd items, stretching the prices by packing products full of rare materials (vicuna fibers, gold weaves) that have no utility.

The answer to the question in that headline is vanity. What else could make a person sleep well after such a purchase? From the Journal we learn that E.S. Kluft, the mattress company, “uses Italian twine to hand-tie coils used in a box spring.” (Emphasis mine.) That among the many layers in the Palais Royale mattress, there are “more than 10 pounds of cashmere, mohair, silk and New Zealand wool.” And that, with the success of this mattress, there’s going to be a $44,000 mattress coming soon. The word recession doesn’t appear once; only this:
“There's an arms race under way in the world of luxury mattresses that jittery economists and sluggish home sales seem unable to stop. Even at the middle-to-upper-middle tiers, mattress prices are creeping up as companies cater to mainstream demand for luxurious sleep.”
Note that last part: it isn’t a better sleep that we demand, but a more luxurious one.

Oddly, luxury today often means wearing jeans that make you look like you work outdoors, with your hands, and on your knees. This is where the second article comes in. Domenico Vacca, an Italian suit maker, undeterred by the fact that the premium denim trend peaked years ago, has launched his own line of jeans (retail: $240-$590 a pair). One model—there are ten, all named after celebrities—looks like it was worn by someone who worked around a lot grease, maybe a mechanic. Another looks like it was repaired haphazardly by a child learning to use a sewing machine.

Vacca in one breath points to his desire “to bring all those little sartorial touches” to the jeans, and in another breath says that the Mickey Rourke model had 30 hours worth of strategic distressing and ripping. Construction, and then deconstruction.

I’ve ranted about premium denim before. It’s like premium vodka: it’s a sham. The only thing premium about these products is their prices. On a much smaller scale, do you really think there’s a demonstrable difference between Levi’s “Original Collectors Edition 501” jeans for $98 and the regular 501s for $58?

Why am I so bitter about suckers spending too much for beds and pants? To paraphrase something I heard recently, it’s not that I want to be included, it’s that I don’t like being excluded. That ain’t how I’d spend my money, but I can’t stand seeing people waste theirs when so many others are wanting these same basic items—a place to sleep, clothes.

I can’t help wondering how easily I could get caught up in luxury, had I $33,000 to spend on a bed. Do people who make enough money suddenly need to ratchet up the base prices of every item they buy accordingly? I guess part of my frustration is that Americans haven’t acquired a taste for exceptional quality—they’ve been infected with a need for luxury, and status symbols are replacing actual status.

1 Comments:

Blogger Sarah said...

The interesting thing is that this commercial trend mirrors what happened in the art world--people use exotic materials (elephant dung, human skulls, sharks) to create something very expensive, but they'e not actually creating something that's really worth all that money (at least to me).

6:40 PM  

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