Generations above us have saved up their first adult paychecks to splurge on a nice suit or bag for themselves: think Burberry, Hermès, Chanel. For them, the new purchase was a sign of success and maturity in their new era of adulthood.
Our generation maintains different priorities when it comes to where our first paychecks go. We’ll begin paying our dues to typical expenses—rent, electricity and insurance—but for us, the real holy grail doesn’t lie with luxury goods.
Of course, securing that one signature designer piece you’ll keep for your children and grandchildren is rewarding. But, duplicates of these items—with stitching that looks just slightly off—can be found on street corners around the world, sold for a fraction of the price you pay off with your first check. Materialism and mass production leads me to the conclusion that luxury is losing its flair it once had.
So, what exactly happened to the industry? The answer is, the definition of luxury changed for our generation. While in the ‘70s or ‘80s, designer clothing indicated class, opulence, and status, hype culture has shifted our perspective on the coveted, hard-to-achieve status symbol.
This hype culture means designer prints are popping up everywhere. Shein, a fast-fashion company that exploded in popularity in the last couple of years because of our generation, is copying Burberry’s iconic tan, white, black, and red branding. And people are eating it up—the company’s revenue increased 398% from 2019 to 2021.
There’s nothing wrong with lowering the prices of designer clothing by a couple of thousand dollars. But when we see our fellow classmates sporting real—or fake—luxury goods on a random Wednesday in class, we start to wonder, “What happened to the rarity of brands like Versace or Gucci?”
Commonality lowers value—what’s the point of saving up to buy a new bag if it’s on the arm of your friends the day after? It loses its distinctive “you” factor. And with the global luxury goods market predicted to grow to $329.4 billion by 2030, consumer commonality seems to have no stops in sight.
The opposite of mass materialism is a spontaneous travel experience. Sure, there can be an argument for the two to be equated—both, at one point, were considered exclusive and coveted. Our parents saved up money to purchase a nice designer bag, and we saved up money to finally take that trip that the Covid-19 pandemic delayed.
Back then, luxury goods weren’t as mass-produced as they are now. Designer companies didn’t have impossible-to-meet quotas for their workers—today, the global fashion industry produces more than 100 to 150 billion items of clothing per year, according to McKinsey.
That’s out of our control, until at least, we reach the age where we can be in charge of these companies and identify the root problem—materialism—as the key to luxury’s rapidly declining popularity. What is in our control, however, is where we put our money, and what companies
The issue with luxury goods is that they can be replicated, and in today’s day and age, they can be mass-replicated. One thing that cannot fall into that trap, however, are experiences. Real authentic experiences cannot be curated and customized to be exactly how we like, and that’s what makes them powerful.
Materialism is tangible and quantifiable, while experience can’t be something you wear on your arm. In fact, the particular flair of experience is that you alone understand how it made you feel, while flaunting a material object, like a new dress, is a public affair.
The term ‘quiet luxury’ can be raised here, as a truly excellent experience doesn’t need to be flaunted or paraded around to friends. You—and whoever shared that moment with you—know the experience well enough to let the beautiful memory live inside you, and to preserve that feeling for years to come.
The key is that travel itself is the new luxury symbol. If we make enough of a living, we want to invest our brand-new finances into living our lives and encountering unforeseen experiences, not into a new bag that we can show off to the world.
The beauty of travel these days is it can be do-it-yourself—a message the luxury industry will never promote. We say, “Whatever makes you comfortable and happy,” while they advise, “Go big or go home.” They profit off of providing us with absurdly-priced purchases they believe will enhance us—does the message “You’re not complete without this item” ring a bell?
So the truth remains, the new luxury is experience. In fact the opposite of mass-produced goods, experience can’t be replicated. It’s impossible to purchase an experience and wear it on your body for all to see—the moment is yours and yours alone, something the luxury industry can no longer claim for themselves.
Charlotte Ehrlich is a student at Northwestern University studying journalism, legal studies, and Asian humanities. You can read more of her work at The Daily Northwestern.