There’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.