The other day, I saw a Louis Vuitton handbag with a price tag of $750 locked inside a department store glass case, and, I confess, I coveted the thing. The bag was made of laminated canvas, was covered with muddy LV monograms, and resembled, in shape and size, a beach tote — none of which attributes are especially prepossessing. And yet, I wanted it. Why? Why, for that matter, are so many women willing to spend a small fortune on bags emblazoned with Gucci G’s, Chanel reverse-facing C’s, dangling leather Coach tags, Kate Spade stitched labels, and Hermes perforated H’s?
The rise of the logo as a source of appeal took off 30 years ago in response, I would postulate, to a new kind of consumer that came into being with the investment-driven economy of the 1980s. Before that, old-moneyed people were content to know that their things were better made (and more expensive) than those of the hoi polloi, while new-moneyed people were content to engage in conspicuous consumption, flaunting their cars and their jewels in the time-honored fashion of the nouveau riche.
But in the 1980s, a new kind of new-moneyed class emerged with a more savvy relationship to consumerism. Maybe because they all had MBAs, they wanted to advertise their wealth in a more efficient and succinct way. Hence, the birth of the logo.
The trend began quietly enough, making its first appearance in menswear. The first stirrings can be traced to the custom-made shirt with its monogrammed breast pocket — though the monogram here was of the buyer, not the seller. There was also the bespoke suit, most famously associated with Savile Row in London, which carried the subtle mark of its made-to-measure craftsmanship by having the buttons on the jacket cuffs actually open and close — those in the know knew to look. But it was the Lacoste crocodile that was the real harbinger. The little croc on the breast pocket of a men’s tennis shirt (referred to, for complicated reasons, as an Izod shirt) marked its wearer as “preppy” — a sportive type with a trust fund, as The Official Preppy Handbook, published in 1980, informed us. (It may interest readers to know that Lacoste, in 2003, sued Crocodile Garments, a lower-end manufacturer, over the use of the crocodile logo, with the result that the latter agreed to have its crocodile face the other direction.)
As the success of The Official Preppy Handbook indicated, a new new-moneyed class had arisen that, though they didn’t have trust funds, wanted to be preppies. In other words, they didn’t want to engage in simple conspicuous consumption as their nouveau riche forerunners had done: They instead wanted to appropriate the style associated with old money. The solution, as they came to understand it, lay in surrounding themselves with the right sorts of things.
Traditional European fashion houses like Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Prada, and Hermes, and eventually, even the stodgier British and American companies like Burberry and Coach, understood this and began to market their products in new ways. They did this by making their goods more instantly recognizable — aggressively promoting their distinctive aspects: the ridiculous horsey designs on the Hermes scarf; the dangling leather tags on the lead-heavy Coach bag; the dowdy plaid of the Burberry raincoat — all became emblems of old money exclusivity, marketed through trendy campaigns and ingenious product placement to the new Masters and Mistresses of the Universe. The high-end companies that didn’t understand, such as the venerable leather goods retailer Mark Cross, went under. Grace Kelly shows off her discreet Mark Cross overnight case to James Stewart in the 1954 movie Rear Window (“I’ll bet yours isn’t this small,” she boasts), but she wouldn’t be able to carry one today. The company was bought by the Sara Lee Corporation in the early ’90s and closed in 1998. With no aggressive marketing campaign behind it, it had to play second fiddle to frozen baked goods before moving quietly into extinction.
As luxury manufacturers came to understand the new market, they also began to see the value in promoting themselves in even simpler ways — hence the increasing ubiquity of the logo. Logos are the quickest possible means of making clear that a product has the right provenance — i.e., comes from an exclusive place. And one of the salient characteristics of the new logo-ed merchandise is that it encourages “graded” purchase. Training goods, like training bras, prepare the less well-endowed for what is hopefully to come. Thus, those aspiring to wealth can buy the Louis Vuitton key chain, wallet, and, in a splurge, the handbag, while those who have definitively “arrived” can buy the full set of Louis Vuitton luggage — also, the Chanel suit and the Hermes Kelly bag with its distinctive lunchbox shape (unlike the Mark Cross overnight case, this Grace-associated item is alive and selling like hotcakes — $40,000 hotcakes that come only after a year spent on a waiting list).
Meanwhile, new high-end merchants began to imitate the old ones. For example, Dooney & Bourke, though it looks like it derives from 19th-century fox-hunting gear, was founded in 1975 in Norwalk, Connecticut. And Ralph Lauren, the seeming epitome of the English country gentleman, was originally Ralph Lifshitz from the Bronx, who started his empire with a necktie store in 1970. Lauren went on to devise the Polo Pony logo (more to the point than the Izod crocodile) and to exploit the idea of graded merchandise more brazenly than anyone had before. He separated his goods into strata: purple at the top (appointment only), with black and blue labels, then Polo and Rugby, and finally, Ralph Lauren Sport bringing up the rear.
But capitalism is also resourceful in underhanded ways, and no sooner did the logo make an appearance on luxury goods than imitation logo-ed goods began to flood the market. I recall that in the ’90s one could buy a very nice imitation Gucci bag for $30 from a street vendor on the corner of 53rd and Fifth in Manhattan. Since then, in a predictable counter-move, the manufacturers of high-end merchandise have gone to court to stop the imitators, which means that you now have to make a real effort to find the knock-offs, and, when you do, you have to pay more for them. That $30 imitation Gucci that I could have bought on 53rd and Fifth 15 years ago would now cost at least $100 and take some looking for on the Lower East Side. The trick, as I see it, is to get yourself to Beijing where, if you whisper Gucci in a crowded mall, half a dozen people will descend on you, lead you to the back rooms of their shops, and display merchandise arranged by degree of quality: from $10 super-cheap imitations to $200 ones likely to have been produced in the same high-end sweat shop as the $2,000 originals.
You probably couldn’t find a better expression of capitalistic enterprise in action than the various moves and countermoves involving logo-ed merchandise, where value is continually undergoing revision and re-appropriation. And it’s amazing that I can write this and still covet a Louis Vuitton handbag. Karl Marx would say that I’ve succumbed to the delusional effects of the bourgeois marketplace, the LV bag being just about the purest example there is of “exchange value” — an item entirely severed from its use value. I know I would do as well hauling my junk around in a plastic bag, but that doesn’t prevent me from wanting the Louis Vuitton Neverfull GM bag ($750) or, as long as I’m being honest about it, the Louis Vuitton Artsy GM ($1,630). As Marx explained, esthetic and market forces won’t get disentangled until the Revolution comes. • 5 March 2010