Colin’s Column | The Age of Irresponsible Excess

Following news that a shop assistant in Zurich refused to let Oprah Winfrey examine a $38,000 black bag, Colin McDowell says astronomically priced products are emblematic of exactly what’s wrong with the fashion business.

Trois Pommes, Zurich | Source:

LONDON, United Kingdom — Historians take pleasure in giving portmanteau names to periods: The Age of Elegance; The Dawn of Civilisation; The Gilded Age. It is interesting to imagine what, in the future, will be the title given to today’s fashion period. Guilt and Greed, perhaps? The Death of Taste? I would suggest it could best be summed up as The Age of Irresponsible Excess.

To illustrate what I mean, take the recent little vignette that played out in Switzerland, starring Oprah Winfrey. In a Zurich shop, the American media icon expressed interest in a $38,000 black bag, displayed in a locked showcase. A shop assistant refused to get it out of its case to let her properly examine it. Oprah (who is estimated to have earned $77 million last year alone) was informed that it was too expensive for her and after a few more requests and refusals, she left. Many will agree with her assumption that she, an African American woman, was a victim of prejudice, and they could well be right.

Racial prejudice is intolerable to all civilised people and it is right that it should be rigorously questioned and examined. But what has not been questioned or examined in this particular case is something which should shock and appal all right-minded people. And that is the price asked for the bag. What an affront to society and civilisation it presents. Above all, it is a shocking indictment of the mindless greed of the higher echelons of the fashion industry and the way in which it has corrupted certain areas of society. Astronomically priced products are designed not to shock, but to excite a customer sufficiently to be determined to buy them.

To me this is exactly what has gone wrong with the fashion business. A spat between a designer and a journalist, like the one between Hedi Slimane and Cathy Horyn, is demeaning and embarrassing, but the “Oprah Bag” question is infinitely more important and should outrage us all. Can we really have respect for an industry that sells handbags for $38,000?

My view is that we are so corrupted by high prices, and even higher praise, for the frequently banal artefacts that command them that we have only one way to gauge their value and that is how much they cost. That is why we have stopped looking at fashion and have become obsessed with the value of the label it bears — a value put on it not only by customers but by its owners. How is this done? By brilliantly judged pieces of psychology called advertisements which entice us to such a degree that we are prepared to pay any price for something which — to echo that chillingly and insensitive phrase “to die for,” coined by our industry — has a very short shelf life.

So, you might say, if the rich are foolish enough to pay that amount, it is their stupidity. And you would be right. But it is the industry that is weakened and besmirched by such attitudes, because It encourages the decision-makers to believe that anything goes, as long as the prices continue to go up and the profits remain buoyant.

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  1. Now I would normally agree with the idea that my(our) industry has become like a runaway train, no brakes – speeding ever faster to churn out the latest “it” products. However I would like to state not all the blame can be laid at the feet of the companies that produce these “unique” luxury items. Rather the blame starts from the consumer and then works it’s way up from the suppliers – reason – items made from rarefied materials(crocodile, sable, precious metals…etc) all have an inherent cost – with a growing consumer appetite to show off their wealth – basic economics – the demand outstrips the supply – then add in the factor of country of origin – if made in said first world countries, then does not the worker/artisan who makes these products deserve a living wage to be able to continue to live adequately? And note, some of these items if made by hand, inherently take time – a very expensive commodity. – once all this is factored in, often times the wholesale price to a retailer is well already in the 4-5 digit figures. – so YES! the prices often seem quite outrageous for a luxury black crocodile handbag, but please remember potentially how many people livelihoods depend on it…plus as a luxury item, by definition would be well out of reach of the general public’s price point.

    Ed Tung from Vincennes, Île-de-France, France
  2. Growing up in a family where craftsmanship and artistry were a daily part of life (fabric design, couture sewing, illustration & painting, jewelry design), definitely shaped my vision on fashion and design. The batik fabrics designed by my grandfather were a work of high artistic sensibility, the outcome of patience, age-old storytelling and diligence. Somehow I’ve never been able to approach fashion in any other way than with the same patience, artistic sensibility, the practice of diligence, the desire to share a personal story.

    My main reason to fall in love with fashion was its history, its heritage, its craftsmanship, artistry and family houses (the age of the ‘créateurs’, where Maisons were still owned by the designers/couturiers, instead of bankers who aspire to quick break-evens, where a process that goes with “better quality” is seen as “too costly” or “too time consuming”..). The authentic work of couturiers, fabric designers, leather wizards and embroidery giants. Anything else never really seemed fashion to me.

    Therefore, I might be more appalled by those who easily accept ‘made in whatevercheapproductioncountryoffersthecheapestpricestomanufacture’. We can be angry about a price tag that seems too excessive, but…do we also know what we are NOT paying for when we meet a price tag that fits within our reference frames? A ‘cheaper’ price can mean that costs were cut, and not only on production, but as well on safe, healthy work environments, salaries.

    As a starting fashion entrepreneur, I respect and love my craft, and it’s an organic part of my design process to research yarns, visit my yarn producers in Italy, to visit my fabric producers in Germany, to only work with local ateliers in Berlin, to select a pattern maker who loves HER craft, supporting a European Couture Industry that’s dying. To stay on top of my supply chain, to research, ask questions, know who I work with, work with local craftsmen, make my own fabrics, select my own yarns, work with other family-owned yarn and fabric producers, who built a long heritage on quality and love for their craft. And yes, demanding quality in my supply chain is time consuming and results in high material costs. But, is there a price that’s too high, when it comes to humanity?

    Yes, I’ve been told by many financiers and consultants that I can do it cheaper. I don’t want to do it cheaper. I want to do it better. I want seams pressed to ‘marry’ them with the garment. I want certain stitches hand-sewn to provide more strength. No child-labour, no bad working conditions, from the raw materials to manufacturing the products, the boxes, the neck label. An estimated 27 million people are enslaved globally, more than at any time in human history. They work in fields, homes, mines, restaurants—and garment factories. It is most prevalent at factories that churn out fast fashion; it is rare in factories that pride themselves on quality and artisanship. (- source: Eileen Fisher Ampersand).

    I choose humanity, craftsmanship, artistry and a focus on quality instead of saving costs everywhere to go break even in year one. If this comes with a price tag, I’m very willing to pay that. In the end, my clients deserve a high quality garment that’s made with passion and a love for a beautiful craft, not an easy fast fix that goes on sale six months later. Fashion to me is not a marketing term, neither is luxury. I would not be able to afford the bag Ms. Winfrey was interested in, but if this is the price that goes with quality, humane work environments, craftsmanship, knowledge, artistry, love, passion, (was it organic crocodile leather, where the crocodile dies naturally?)…than let that be the price.

    The age of irresponsible excess… Maybe the irresponsibility lays in easily accepting what we NOT pay for. Aren’t we all too poor to buy cheap?

    Priscilla Obermeier - Vermeij from Berlin, Berlin, Germany
  3. Mr Ford uses his sterling marketing skills when pricing his collections.. he operates under the assumption that if it costs more then it must be fabulous but aside from that .. the entire episode with Oprah is nothing more than customer profiling ..I wont say racial profiling, which it is .. but any sales associate who pre judges a possible sale is a moron.. just because you happen to be worth almost a billion dollars doesn’t mean you walk around with your bank statements hanging off of you …. I have known an awful lot of economically challenged people who always look like a million bucks all the time !!

    JEFFREY FELNER from New York, NY, United States
  4. There is paying for quality because you enjoy the craft.
    And there’s paying for brand because you enjoy class.
    But its another thing altogether paying for product
    just to be above the mass.

    there’s so much ego in fashion it’s fierce…

    how can we bring the craft to the mass?

    rHaj Paul W from Bridgetown, Saint Michael, Barbados
  5. It is indeed worrying that no commentator had previously considered the bag’s hefty price tag. Your last two stories, Colin, have made me reflect on how prescient the writing of Theodor Adorno and Guy Debord is.

    Benjamin Wild from United Kingdom
  6. An entire article about how ridiculous it is that $38,000 handbags exist and not a word about Hermes? How interesting. Hermes’s bags surely rank in that price level, and have for years. In fact, I assumed that Oprah was trying to buy a vintage Hermes bag, before I found out the bag was by Tom Ford. And not a word about how the Olsen twins had a similarly priced exotic skin backpack last year (that sold out, by the way)? Overpriced goods are not new to retail. To pretend that this is new news is odd. And if you think that no one was talking about the price point of the bag, you must not be reading the same blogs that I do. The comments were 1/3 ‘the salesperson was racist’ 1/3 ‘the salesperson was misunderstood’ and 1/3 ‘I could live for a year on what that bag costs’ on the blogs I read.

    pam bernstein from Plymouth, MN, United States
  7. I once read in the NY Times why a pair of designer pants cost $550. It explained clearly as to why it was so expensive (not only production cost, but also the cost of retail employees, retail rent, profits, recoup losses, etc). The profit part is what will irk most, with most fashion houses on the stock market, the expectations of making more of a profit than the previous year, puts an enormous pressure to sell. And if designers want to stay in the game and don’t want to cut on quality, the only way to beat last year’s profit is to hike the price!

    I’ve seen certain items that I had been eyeing rise in price overnight. Acne’s pistol boots used to be $570, they are now $610. Christian Louboutin’s Loubiposh studded clutch was $895, but is now $995. Why did these items prices rise overnight? I have no idea, maybe it’s because they can, maybe it’s because they’re popular, maybe it’s inflation. All I know is that designer fashion is slowly inching its way into even more unreachable plateau.

    As I’ve mentioned in a previous comment on another article, there are many of us who would like to wear quality clothing as well, but we are being locked out and forced to wear things made in third world countries because that’s all we can afford. This is indeed a different time where designers need to build companies in order to survive, just don’t expect a huge clientele who can afford to buy your products at the end of the line.

    Dahlia Pham from Los Angeles, CA, United States
  8. I think Geoffrey Beene said something along the lines of, “We will always have the rich, without the rich we wouldn’t know what poor was.”

    And I think Calvin Klein once recounted a story from his childhood, he was helping his father help set up the fruit stand and he noticed that the grapes had two different prices despite being exactly the same. He asked his father about this discrepancy and he replied: “Some people like to a pay a dollar for their grapes and some people like to pay a dollar and ten cents.”

    The thought of a $38,000 bag would only be absurd if the customer for it didn’t exist, no matter whatever classist undertones or signs of excess it carries with it. But you cannot blame a luxury brand for offering what the market asks for. While I do think the price/value relationship that drives consumer spending and retailer and manufacturer’s pricing is imbalanced if not delusional, this is a problem rooted in the consumer not in those who sell to them.

    Honestly, if you can find someone to pay $38,000 for a handbag then there is no reason you shouldn’t sell it to them.

    Jeremy Lewis from New York, NY, United States