Logo Culture’s Dying Sigh

the-fashion-thiefThere’s a profoundly distressing article in New York magazine this week about Kevahn Thorpe, a bright 18 year-old from Queens with a serious case of fashion kleptomania.  He’s been in a state prison for the last few months now and has done multiple stints at Riker’s for repeated shoplifting offences.  The article describes how this calculus-loving student with good grades quickly became obsessed with designer labels at the age of 16, when he first stole a couple of t-shirts at Macy’s and then upgraded to “crafting” (his word for lifting) Comme des Garcons shirts and Prada loafers at Barneys and other luxury retailers.

As a marketer with certain issues about marketing’s role in creating oftentimes unhealthy desire, I was deeply affected by Kevahn’s story.  On the one hand, I could see some mogul reading the article and taking pity on the fashion-obsessed kid, offering him a job in publicity or a spot on an MTV reality show; all culminating in a happy ending worthy of Sunday Styles (brought to you by Tommy Hilfiger!).  But mostly I saw Kevahn’s plight as a sad example of what the last several years of relentless lifestyle marketing and credit-driven upscaling have produced.  His MySpace page where he posted photo after photo of stolen designer merch amidst a backdrop of urban squalor seems to capture the very essence of what had gone terribly wrong in consumer culture.  He never stole to sell the stuff, he just felt a compulsion to look “fly.”  When he’s dressed in his Dior and Gucci he says, “I feel high-class–like nobody can tell me nothing.”

Even the placement of the article in the magazine’s Fashion Week issue, overflowing with images of perfectly proportioned New York socialites in couture gowns seems sick and myopic.  Here we are showering our kids with images of the good life and the brand names that define it, all the while arresting them for coveting the things we’ve caused them to hunger for in the first place!  I’m not saying it’s okay to steal, but it seems to me that the responsibility for Kevahn’s derailing lies with many of us, myself included.  I’m guiltily reminded of the metrics of the American Brandstand, where the number of times brand names are mentioned in popular music (usually hip-hop) are salivated over by marketers.  There’s no denying that there’s something very unsettling about the way luxury marketing has so thoroughly permeated popular culture.

Kevahn’s current situation (behind bars in a gray jumpsuit) is in many ways emblematic of the current winding down of logo-driven consumption.  Like Kevahn, we’ve been busted for not having the money to pay for the things we felt we deserved.  It’s not just the economy that’s spurring this:  if you look at what’s already started to happen in Japan where luxury sales are plummeting in favor of well-crafted indie brands with no logos, you can start to see that the golden pendulum is about to swing back with a vengeance.  The fact that Japan’s luxury market is the most mature/saturated in the world is telling.  It’s peaked, we’ve had enough. We’re starting to wake up from the narcotic effects of “mass luxury.”  Real luxury isn’t about a logo.  It’s about craftsmanship and scarcity.  I can only hope that Kevahn and the rest of us will eventually snap out of this twisted need for LVs on our bags and double G’s on our belts, and learn to appreciate true quality as something worth earning.

Hua Hsu on Colbert

atlantic-white-america-cover1Shout out to the perpetually sleep-deprived Doc Hsu up in Pokip for getting his super symmetrical name up on Colbert the other night.  If you’re not able to go out and buy a copy of this month’s Atlantic, read Hua’s thought-provoking feature on race in America here.  I can’t even write about it here because it’s just too awesome.  Go read it for yourself!  V.v.V

Japan <3 Cell Phones

Image by Dr. z0live (via Flickr)
Image by Dr. z0live (via Flickr)

I recommend listening to this great report on Japan’s love affair with cell phones by NPR’s On The Media.  I was especially glad to hear DeNA’s Satoshi Tanaka point out that the Japanese cell-phone experience evolved from an entirely different context to that of the U.S.  While personal computers and Internet access took root prior to advanced mobile technology in the U.S., many Japanese to this day do not own their own computers or even know how to surf the web on anything other than a cell phone.  As Mark Phillips summarized:

This has produced two different trajectories for cell phone evolution. In the U.S. we’ve been upgrading our cell phones with the hope of recreating the Internet experience we’ve had for years on the computer. In Japan, since the cell phone has traditionally been the gateway to the Internet, the evolution has instead been in the incremental improvement of the cell phone network and hardware.

It’s important to keep in mind when thinking about Japanese cell phone culture that it’s not like pushing the fast-forward button on the way we currently use our cell phones here.  In fact, while it’s tempting to look at all the amazing things it’s possible to do via mobile in Japan and simply declare it a more technologically advanced society, that’s not necessarily the case.  In a May 2007 issue of the Japanese magazine AERA, there was a feature article called “The Invisible Wall of the Digital Poor,” which referred to the growing group of young Japanese who had no computer skills and used only cell phones.  They were called the “Digital Poor” because their lack of basic computer skills made them difficult to employ.  While they may be able to pay for cabs using their cell phones, they are not able to compete as workers in the global marketplace.

There’s been lots written about Japan and its cell phones in recent months, like the New Yorker article by Dana Goodyear on cell-phone novels or keitai shosetsu, which shed light on the successful crossover of melodramatic romance novels from mobile to hardcover.  While it’s always very exciting to see new forms emerging from the intersection of technology and culture, I have to say (and I know I sound like a curmudgeonly old man when I do so) that the intensity of cell-phone reliance in Japan is pretty scary and feels symptomatic of a deeper social decay.

It’s not just the eerie silence of being on a subway car filled with people staring at phones.  (I admit I fall into doing exactly the same when I’m in Tokyo, and even concede that I prefer text over talking on the phone.)  It’s also the worrisome fact that a significant number of Japanese can no longer write in proper kanji without the aid of conversion software.  Unlike in English, where the alphabet is essentially all you need to know as a foundation for literacy, the Japanese language requires the ability to read and write thousands of characters for adult proficiency.  One may say these cell-phone novels are just a form of “evolution” in Japanese arts and letters, but it’s frankly quite terrifying to think that we may not be that far off from a future in which Japanese literature is reduced to the large-font drivel of anybody with a phone who can type away with an audience-friendly vocabulary of a ten year-old.  Perhaps it’s just the lit major in me that thinks 2 million copies of a REALLY BAD BOOK sold, no matter how ‘cutting edge’ its origin, is really just a sign of cultural devolution.

Smart Incentives

trust-artA good friend of mine once told me he wished there was a system in which he could invest in actors before they became well-known celebrities because he could’ve retired by now from investing in Jessica Alba.

According to him, he’d seen her as a kid in a minor role in some random tv show and knew instinctively that she had that special something that would rocket her to eventual stardom.  If only he could have bought some Alba stock!  I used to work in casting back in the day so I’m more than familiar with the idea of talent excavation and how potentially rewarding it could be.  A lot of people and their oftentimes unrewarded efforts go into the making of a star.  Everything depends on how many people believe in you, and how committed they are to promoting you.

This is why crowdsourcing investment feels a lot like just a natural extension of how the world already operates.  SellaBand has been rocking this for a number of years now, combining the benefits of a MySpace-like fan-network with an investment model that allows musicians to raise money by offering shares of future revenues to their most dedicated followers.  It translates the heat generated by a passionate fanboy into dollars and cents to form a mutually beneficial relationship.  And then out of last week’s TED conference came Trust Art, a site that similarly asks people to invest in public art projects in exchange for a piece of the pie.  From their Manifesto:

Investors will take a share in one or many Trust Art projects, while also spreading word of Trust Art in their social circle. At the end of the year, each art piece is auctioned, and investors split the proceeds with the artist. Inevitably, art will be created that otherwise wouldn’t exist, you will feel good, and culture will have been renewed.

We already go about sharing links and yapping away about the people and projects we admire, so how great is it to now have an added incentive to perform all that publicity?  And while it may not be the same as buying a share in the future career of a hot young thing (my friend can go invest in an up-and-coming model at BeautyHolding.com if he must!), think of all the people you can impress at your next cocktail party by saying you’re invested in a documentary starring everyone in the world. It would be great if existing crowdsourcing sites like authonomy.com, which turns to crowds to weed out their next best-sellers, began incentivizing people with profit-sharing models as well.  There’s nothing like a committed and invested fan to push you into the big leagues.  “I’d like to thank all my fans,” as they say.