The power and seduction of luxury (and the underlying attractiveness of luxury goods) is no question for those of us who are regular readers of TFL. We seek out the highest quality garments and accessories from the most gifted emerging and established designers. Few of us think anything of a day spent cultivating the newest incarnation of Our Look because we know personal style is everything. Even more importantly, we hold ourselves to a higher standard than most consumers in terms of the distinctive nature of what we purchase and the ethics of what we decide to put on our bodies or hold in our hands (No Forever 21 here!).
Not all shoppers are as lucky and have the same resources available (financial or otherwise). Even fewer understand what fashion, as both a utilitarian aesthetic and as art in its own right, means in the greater schema of the world. As a result of this, combined with a troublingly pervasive belief that every American deserves "luxury" items in their closet at all times, we are seeing a rise in what I like to call “mall couture.” In other words, the mainstreaming of certain higher end brands, rendering them available in mass forms to mass audiences. Brands that immediately come to mind are Coach and Polo, as they are becoming fixtures in malls nationwide, as well in the halls of upper middle class high schools everywhere. It is not uncommon for a fifteen-year-old girl to carry a small Coach wristlet as a rite of passage. Similarly, we see boys of the same age range wearing Polo shirts on their dates with those very girls who bear Coach’s “C”-adorned wristlets. Mothers tightly gripping Michael Kors purses wait at bus stops for their children. This is accessible luxury.
I dare to ask the following question: What happens to luxury in practice and idea when one can easily pick it up at the mall? I am not referencing malls that cater specifically to the high-end shopper like the Gardens Mall in Palm Beach or South Coast Plaza in Orange County. I am referencing your average malls in places like Grand Rapids, Michigan or Syracuse, New York. Part of the lure of luxury items is their limited accessibility, high price tag, and the very fact that not everyone can or is meant to have them. Capitalism clearly dictates the rules for this, whether Middle America wants to believe it or not. With luxury becoming more and more accessible and thus, commonplace, will it be a thing of the distant past? If this dystopian vision becomes a reality, what will happen to the best part of fashion, it’s function as both deeply plastic and metaphoric? Could this be the last moment of fashion as truly interactive art? I certainly hope not.
JULIETTE ARICO is a Ph.D. student and teacher in Global Gender Studies at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, NY. Her current work, which addresses constructions of the female body in cinema and literature lies at the intersection of critical, queer, and feminist theories. She is a regular contributor to The Monolith, where her weekly column, Fraud or Freud?, addresses issues of sexuality and cinema.