Lux Logos: Cultivating Personal Identity Through Luxury Brands

Signaling status through luxury goods has been a prominent practice in society for hundreds of years.  Theorized by Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 treatise, The Theory of the Leisure Class, conferring status through “wasteful expenditure of time and substance”(Veblen 51) is the evidence of wealth. Coining this concept “conspicuous consumption”, Veblen exemplifies the “leisure classes’” purchase and display of the latest fashions, exotic dog breeds, and manicured laws as a signal of prestige based on their expensive nature.  Therefore the identity of members of a higher class is rooted in the conspicuous consumption of goods as it disassociates them with lower classes.  And because the higher class is not just wealthier, they are considered “better”, members of the lower classes attempt to consume conspicuously as well to be perceived as and identify with members of a higher class.

In today’s consumer driven society, Veblen’s notion of conspicuous consumption is more relevant than ever.  It has become widely accepted that people make inferences about others on the basis of their possessions according to Russell Belk’s 1982 study, “Possessions and the Extended Self”, illustrating the deep ties between consumption and personal identity.  With the vast amount and varying prices of goods today however, anyone can own a purse, a watch, or a pair of shoes.  Consumers cannot simply construct an identity signaling wealth based on the type of an item they are able to purchase as suggested by Veblen.  French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu stresses the importance of “taste” in terms of consumption in his 1979 analysis, “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste”.  He declares, “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social Subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make”(Bourdieu 6).  Therefore having “taste”, or a discerning eye “between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar”(Bourdieu 6), is essential to signaling class and identity while conspicuously consuming.

With so many variations on the market today, “brand prominence” described as “the extent to which a product has visible markings that help ensure observers recognize the brand” by Han, Nunes, and Drèze in their 2010 “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence”, signifies taste and conspicuous consumption.  The researchers believe that consumers’ preference for conspicuously or inconspicuously branded luxury goods directly corresponds with their desire to associate or disassociate with members from their own and other groups.  Categorizing consumers into four groups, they state wealthy consumers low in need for status (patricians) want to identify with their own kind and “pay a premium for quiet goods only they can recognize”(Han, Nunes, Drèze 15) while wealthy consumers high in need for status use loud luxury goods (parvenus) to signal to the less affluent that they are not one of them.  “Consumers high in need of status but cannot afford true luxury (poseurs) use loud counterfeits to emulate those they recognize to be wealthy”(Han, Nunes, Drèze 15).  As there has been an influx of luxury logo wear in the market in the past few seasons by the likes of high fashion brands Chanel, Kenzo, Jean Paul Gautier, Givenchy, and Carven however, many patrician consumers have adopted the “loud signaling” ways of the parvenus and poseurs: cultivating a personal identity through luxury logos.  Thus this embrace of luxury logos by the top tier of society has trickled down the ladder of society to produce more inconspicuous counterfeits and even parody products to appeal to those desiring status without the financial means of patricians.

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Luxury fashion brand Kenzo’s utilization of a logo on their coveted Fall ’13 sweater and sweatshirts illustrates the trend in patrician-approved logo wear.  Emblazoned with a graphic lion and the Kenzo label, the sweaters and sweatshirts were seen on what “seemed like every It-blogger, fashion editor, and model” during the Spring 2013 collections in New York.  Photos of these sweaters on fashions elite, styled in unique ways to compliment the wearers own personal identity, graced every major fashion blog for weeks and within days, it became impossible to track down any version, color, or size of the now iconic sweater.  Although surprised by the immediate reception of the Tiger Sweater, the creative directors of Kenzo, Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, “understood the value of an icon that a brand can hold onto”.  Thus they delved deep into Kenzo Takada’s archives to find the authentic tiger iconography used by the fashion house’s founder in his Kenzo Jungle collections during the 1980’s.  And with a price tag over $300 for the sweatshirts, the creative directors of Kenzo also understood the importance of adding “snob appeal” to an otherwise pedestrian product as mentioned by Han, Nunes, and Drèze in their article.  The authors declare consumers will pay a higher price for a functionality equivalent good because they crave the status brought about by such material displays of wealth and in some ways, make consumers feel superior as one of the few who can afford to buy the product.  While the adoption of such a loud signaling item as the Kenzo Tiger Sweater would traditionally be categorized as of parvenus or poseur nature, the fact that fashions elite has chosen to wear such a conspicuously loud item proves otherwise.  The same patricians who used to wear quiet signaling goods such as Bottega Veneta handbags, have adopted the loud signaling ways of the parvenus and poseur classes as part of their own identity making luxury logo wear chic and sophisticated.  Therefore it can be argued that the patricians of today not only want to identify with their own kind but also dissociate with those of a lower class by wearing these loud luxury branded items thus blurring the lines between patrician and parvenus.  And because consumers are influenced by members of their own group, these logos will only become more engrained into the identity of patricians in seasons to come.

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Due to fashion’s trickle down affect, patricians’ adoption of luxury logo wear such as the Kenzo Tiger Sweater has influenced and shaped the identity of the parvenus and poseur class.  While loud signaling luxury items such as Louis Vuitton handbags have been counterfeited for decades, luxury logo wear has introduced a new form of imitation: parody.  These products, such as the Benzo Tiger Tshirt and others displayed on vfiles.com, subtly change the iconic logos of major luxury fashion brands to give them a new tongue-in-cheek meaning. Poseurs, usually prone to buying counterfeits of the loud signaling luxury goods worn by the parvenus, now are able to target and mimic the fashions of the patrician class due to their loud signaling nature. And with some of these items with price tags over $100, poseurs are not the only ones now mimicking the identity of another class. The parvenus, wanting to hop on the luxury logo band wagon but not in the paradigm of paying $400 for a sweatshirt, are now prone to buying counterfeits or parody items as well because the price of loud signaling luxury goods have gone up to cater to a patrician clientele.  Through these parody items, the poseur and parvenus classes can identify with the patricians, giving off an “I know what Kenzo is” vibe, without paying the actual steep price of the luxury logoed items.

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These parodies have become so egregious in the fashion industry that fashion house Givenchy poked fun of Les Plus Dore’s t-shirt capitalizing on the designer’s names and birth year on cheaply made jerseys, with their own labeled, PERVERT 17.  These parodies have created a “gap between the fashion players and the fashion fans” creating a gray area between the identity of the parvenus and the poseur, arguing against the four-class consumer system discussed by Han, Nunes, and Drèze.

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Logos are not the only way patricians are utilizing loud signals to build a personal identity.  In recent seasons the “griffes”, a word described by Han, Nunes, and Drèze as “a set of special signatures [of a brand]…that identify their products as their own even in the absence of an explicit logo or brand name”(Han, Nunes, and Drèze 27), of luxury brands have been so popular that they have become synonymous with the brands’ names.  Once allowing patricians to subtly signal associative desires to each other, eye-catching griffes such as the prominent Rottweiler graphic of Givenchy, are instantly recognizable to all consumers due to the heightened publicity fashion collections now receive via the internet and social media.  Thus the graphic of the griffe registers on the same visual level as the logo itself. This heightened conspicuousness of luxury griffes causes patricians to not only signal desires to each other but also sends the dissociative messages that parvenus usually do when they signal using loud products. With the rise of the Internet and social media all consumption has become conspicuous if it is intended or not. And because of the loud-signaling nature of these patrician worn griffes, many counterfeits, inconspicuous in comparison to the Louis-Vuitton bags that saturate the counterfeit market, are now being produced to appeal to the “poseur” market, thus making it harder to identify the categories of patricians, parvenus, and poseurs accurately.

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A way in which patricians are still able to differentiate themselves from other classes in the “logomania” world we live in today is through unique and exclusive luxury logoed items. Although Chanel’s double C logo has always been a staple of the classic luxury brand, Karl Lagerfeld’s innovative utilization of the logo in fun and new ways on extremely expensive merchandise such as the Spring/Summer 2013 “Lego Bag” appeals distinctively to a patrician’s identity.  While the classic black quilted Chanel bag is a stereotypical purchase of a parvenus (thus mimicked and counterfeited by the poseur) because it loudly signifies wealth yet is utilitarian in the fact that it can be carried everyday, the Lego-Bag’s impracticality, the loud block colors of the chunky clutch is so distinguishable and trendy that it would be “out” by the next season, and price (£5,730) is so extremely conspicuousness, that only a true patrician could and would purchase it.  And while the Lego Bag epitomizes the loud signaling ways of the often-identified parvenus, it represents the new identity of the patrician: unique, fashion forward, and logo loving.

Works Cited:

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984. eBook.

Bubble, Susie. “Logo-a-Gogo Continued.” Style Bubble., 1 4 2013. Web. 16 Apr. 2013.

Han, Young , Joseph Nunes, and Xavier Dreze. “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods:The Role of Brand Prominence.” Journal of Marketing. (2010): 15-30. Print.

Pinson, Laurel. “Anatomy of a Fad: How Kenzo’s Tiger Sweater Sold Out in Two Days.” StyleCaster. N.p., 21 11 2012. Web. Web. 16 Apr. 2013.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, 23-70. Print.

Viteri, Bobby. “PLEASE STOP MAKING THOSE IRONIC FASHION T-SHIRTS.” Vice. Web. 16 Apr. 2013.

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