Just Throwing It Out There is a 2x/month newsletter that provides deep thoughts on shallow things: fashion, luxury, eCommerce and the future of retail. If you enjoy this issue, subscribe below:
This week VF Corp (owner of brands like The North Face and Vans) announced their intention to acquire Supreme from the Carlyle Group for $2.1B.
Supreme is a brand that defines the contradictions of today’s luxury market, as evidenced by the Twitter chatter around the acquisition:
Matthew Orley @mattheworley@mattstasoff @web Vans is an amazing success story. Acquired while losing market share for $390MM (~1x revenue) and on track for $4B in sales in 2020. Supreme now being acquired at its peak at ~4x revenue. Nowhere to go but downmarket, and without the benefit of nostalgia for the brand.
On one hand, Supreme has essentially written the playbook for today’s global luxury mega-brands: limited edition product drops, unexpected collaborations, and desirability that is built on cultural relevance as well as traditional notions of exclusivity.
On the other hand, most of the brand’s products retail for under $500. Supreme was founded on the Lower East Side in the 1990’s by skaters, not in the mountains of Italy in the 1890’s by craftsmen.
A lot of ink is spilled by brand strategists about the return to craftsmanship and “stealth wealth”, but the product driving record growth and profits for the most successful luxury brands is logo-ed, streetwear influenced, bombastic and designed to be instantly recognizable mid-scroll.
This contradiction is a symptom of the bifurcation of aspiration. At one end of the spectrum: awe that is uninformed by taste or savoir-faire. At the other end: highly intellectual output so lost in the sauce of niche interest that they inspire no awe.
In fashion, compare these two recent collections from LV Men’s and The Row. One screams, the other whispers in a language you’d only understand as a student of tailoring and textile science.
In architecture, compare these Ft. Lauderdale mansions and this Manhattan triangle. One is Cheesecake Factory on the water, the other…is a triangle.
In horology, compare these two watches. One will help you swoop chicks in the darkest club (pre-Covid), the other reveals its unique construction to the wearer only (it’s hard to see the curved face from a distance, or on the ‘gram).
To understand this trend, we need to segment the market for aspiration by the time and money each consumer has at their disposal. That leaves us with four cohorts:
Low Money, High Time: this is your stereotypical underutilized millennial. They have given up on the idea that they will ever become wealthy, so they focus their time and resources on enhancing and cultivating quotidian experiences. See: #plantmom, #selfcare, #forkyeah, #fitfam
Low Money, Low Time: these are your mass aspirants, who have not given up on the idea that they will someday become wealthy. Low time because they work at least 12 hours a day #hustle. This cohort still cares about traditional status signaling; they are the customers driving Gucci’s renaissance at scale.
High Money, Low Time: the low money/time segment evolves into this one when they achieve a significant liquidity event or reach the top of their career path. They have more money to spend, but they have not had the time to invest in developing informed aesthetic perspectives on every little thing.
High Money, High Time: this segment has more long term exposure to a larger variety of luxury experiences, usually through birth. They have the privilege of designing their careers around their lives or opting out of traditional work entirely. They also have the disposable income to go “all in” on lifestyle design.
You’ll notice that the behaviors of the wealthiest cohort—in both money and time—loop back into the behaviors of the least monetarily wealthy. The institution of “good taste” has dissolved, but so has the patronage that nurtures craft and produces iconoclasts of taste that emerge outside the influence of #sponcon.
To see what has changed in the past 50-70 years, compare the attitudes of the wealthy as chronicled by two books written 36 years apart: Women of the Upper Class published in 1983 and Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, published in 2019.
The biggest differences between then and now:
In 1983 the “upper class” was more likely to see itself as a cohesive community informed by geography, associated institutions and family lineage. In 2019 the “upper class” was defined by assets only, and the urban wealthy were less likely to see themselves as part of a cohesive community.
In 1983 almost none of the wives were formally employed, while in 2019 almost all of them were. In both eras there is pressure to “conform to the work ethic and the values of achievement that apply to the rest of American society”, although the pressure is more of a psychological burden in 2019.
In 2019 the subjects of the study were more likely to identify themselves as “middle class” or reject the label of wealth, while the 1983 subjects saw themselves as “gatekeepers and caretakers of upper class societal institutions”, a group apart from “ordinary people”.
You’re probably thinking to yourself, “That is good! I don’t need some snooty matriarch telling me not to wear white after Labor Day!”. And I would tend to agree with you. Many of these “upper class” institutions kept talented, underrepresented people out of positions of power and limited their access to capital (and still do!). But when it comes to aspiration, we may have overcorrected and thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
To understand the unintended consequences of the bifurcation of taste, let’s plumb the dark heart of aspiration itself with some help from philosopher Rene Girard as interpreted by this dude:
“Desire isn’t about having, or doing. It’s about being. It’s never really the objects or experiences we’re pursuing; it’s about the role models off of whom we’ve learned that behaviour, and acquired that desire. Girard calls these people the “mediators” or the “models” of our desire. We want whatever they have, and to do whatever they do. It’s never really about the object.”
There are internal mediators (role models), who are our peers—friends, coworkers, frenemies, and now social media influencers. There are also external mediators, who we realize that we will probably never meet, much less become—celebrities, politicians, even god.
According to Girard, our desire to imitate and become like others is innate, but it also produces inner shame and conflict: both because we constantly fall short of the goal and because we kind of hate ourselves for even trying.
If all our mediators are internal, this results in “tribal conflict” and instability. But if most of our mediators are external, we can scapegoat them from afar and avoid blowing up our own communities.
Within this framework, the bifurcation of taste (which is really about aspiration) accelerates instability. All of our mediators want to be internal (even if they’re not) because authenticity sells. That makes communities less stable and it makes self-loathing easier than ever.
The truly wealthy take themselves out of the picture entirely, playing status games that the masses no longer understand. They have abdicated their responsibility to be hated, and the end result is a culture that produces fewer things worthy of preserving—things that will transcend the commercial motive and stand the test of time.
And maybe you don’t care because you’re a nihilist and a cynic (and that’s fine!), but these trends do have implications for the success of consumer brands. The old foundations of aspiration—on which today’s surviving generational brands were built—are gone. Which brings us to…
This is the part of the Future Trendz newsletter where I share ideas for making money on these trends, or fighting them. The decision is up to you.
Consumer brands need to ask themselves two questions: 1. Am I playing the aspiration game? and 2. If so, which of the four segments am I targeting?
Regarding question 1: you are playing the aspiration game unless your offering is meeting a functional need with a patented innovation, you are competing on price, or you are competing by offering the broadest and most convenient distribution. Multi-brand retailers like Amazon and Target are better positioned to compete on price and distribution than mono-brands. Most bootstrapped brands will be competing in the arena of aspiration.
Regarding question 2: to gain a foothold in the market and produce the “irrational love” that enables higher margins, a brand must start with one of the four segments and address their concept of aspiration strategically. Brands with “mega” aspirations will need to expand to additional segments without alienating any one of them. This is a tightrope walk that successful luxury brands have been walking for decades—non-luxury brands will look to luxury marketing and luxury executives for guidance.
A product offering/psychological offering will always primarily appeal to one half of the market (external or internal status symbol), but it needs to provide plausible deniability to the other half to succeed. Key question: can a consumer purchase from a given brand without violating their self-concept: “I am the kind of person who...x”. Brands who have walked this line successfully are Gucci (flashy but woke) and Glossier (exclusive community dedicated to “you but better”).
Brands who are now succeeding because they rose to prominence on an outdated concept of aspiration are in a vulnerable position. Doing well without knowing why is just as dangerous as failing. These brands will need to dig into the segmentation within their existing customer base and retrench into segmented appeal. This requires the organization to “regress” to an earlier stage of growth—this is hard to do.
Header Image: Scarface