The problem with 'aspirational' fashion


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When our news feeds were flooded with this month's coverage of the Oprah Winfrey/Pretty Woman saga, there was one piece of analysis missing -  no one chose to examine, scrutinise or slam the price of the bag itself - $38,000 - for those playing at home.

As anyone who’s ever picked up a copy of Vogue could tell you, the price of keeping up with fashion can easily eclipse a month’s rent. I haven’t even reached the centrefold yet and I’m already losing sense of what ‘expensive’ means.

Currently on high-end fashion website Net-a-Porter, there are 140 pairs of shoes priced over $1,000, not to mention a visually offensive, dyed, racoon-fur coat by Roberto Cavalli that’ll set you back $19,195 (a figure roughly equal to an average stylist’s annual salary). 

And just last week, Hermes released a basketball priced at $12,900, which we think would go nicely with their $11,100 folding chair, no? These products may be marketed as ‘aspirational’ but that doesn’t make it okay. As Colin McDowell writes in The Business of Fashion, “What an affront to society and civilisation it presents.” 


Those RRPs may ridiculous, but the demand for astronomically priced clothes and accessories is there. Last Christmas, the Olsen twins' label The Row released a $55,000 backpack adorned with prescription pills, which the entire internet poked fun at – that is, until it sold out in under a month and well, look who’s laughing now.

Why are we willing to spend an exorbitant amount of money on labelled goods, when reasonably priced alternatives are so readily available? How do we justify it? And can we really have respect for an industry that charges five figures for a non-descript bag?

Though many of these brands only cater to a tiny sliver of the population, we, the right-minded people of this world, are just as likely to spend outside of our means in pursuit of luxury. How many times has love for an item instantly intensified upon catching a glimpse at a coveted name on the tag? 

These products, priced the way they are, are designed not to shock, but to entice customers enough that they become determined to buy them. And the sad thing is, at least in my own experience, it usually works. As Lauren Sherman writes, desirability and perception are playing an ever-increasing role in determining prices. “The more expensive something is, the more exclusive and, therefore, desirable it becomes.” Any fashion-conscious person can concur.

“The problem is that so many people spend so much money unnecessarily because they're insecure about things,” says industry expert (and catnip for street style paps) Nick Wooster. “They feel that if they spend thousands of dollars on something they're somehow going to be better dressed ... I know that I spend money for reasons of insecurity, whatever it might be.”

Brands have played on this insecurity for years. In March, Burberry announced that it would raise its prices to increase its appeal to the upper end of its customer base. The product range itself won’t change, just the prices. Consumers are so accustomed to seeing hefty price tags or the dreaded ‘price on application’ label placed on seemingly banal items that we’ve lost our ability to gauge their value. Worth is equated with cost, regardless of quality and distinctiveness.

Those brand execs have done a stand-up job in convincing us that differences beyond mere label and price exist between their clothes and the ones you can buy at, say, Saba or Cue. When you wear exxy designer wares, you feel like you’re wearing something unique. You feel special. Their clothes give you an identity and confidence.

Yet the reality is, you don’t have to spend an exorbitant amount of dollars on things in order to be well dressed and feel good. There is so much great stuff at every price point, though we often lose sight of this. Ask the best-dressed girls outside fashion shows and on the street, and you’ll find a great deal of their get-up comes from ASOS and Topshop, or their mother’s wardrobes. And it’s important to remind ourselves of this from time to time, especially now with fashion magazine September issues pouring onto newsstands making us feel poorer and more under dressed than ever.