'Aspirational Shopping' Endures

July 12, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

It was a time warp, for sure, but I couldn't decide if I was hurtling back to the past or off into the future.

I was wandering through the Louis Vuitton store that opened last week at Towson Town Center, a jewel box of a shop in the mall's "luxury wing" that was quiet as a museum on this particular weekday morning.

Museum, indeed. During what seems like the permafrost of this recession, I wonder if someday we'll go to museums to see the kinds of luxuries we used to buy, or at least imagined buying.

Or maybe the recession will end, and we'll all go back to those designer desires that fueled the whole shopping-as-entertainment phenomenon of decades past, not to mention all that credit card debt.

In its first week, the Louis Vuitton store seems as much gallery as retailer: Exquisitely crafted handbags are on display, perfectly centered on recessed shelves or under glass. Every variation of the theme, the famous LV logo, is explored, in leather, silk and even fur. With light traffic on this particular day, it felt very Breakfast at Tiffany's, minus the pastry.

There are no back-to-the-real-world price tags anywhere. After a nice saleswoman showed me a pair of sunglasses, she had to go into a drawer to get the price, which she discreetly murmured to me.

Suffice to say, it was more than anything currently in my closet, with the possible exception of my wedding dress. If you include the alterations.

But then, I guess you could call me a recessionista, except I think I was like that before the recession came along to give bargain-hunting some cachet. Suddenly there's a certain reverse chic to not flaunting the latest designer duds.

"I think there's social pressure not to spend now," says Janet Wagner, the associate chair of marketing at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Which made the opening of such a high-end store as Louis Vuitton during such down-economy times such a "huh?" moment. Given ever-rising unemployment rates and wallet-freezing fears of the future, it's been a long time since I've heard much talk about having to have this year's It bag or this week's shoe. Does anyone shop till they drop any more?

It really does seem like another era, when even the modestly salaried hankered for and sometimes spent a couple paychecks on, say, that Dior that Carrie wore on the last Sex and the City episode, or at least a pretty good knockoff. Observers even came up with trendy names for the trend: "masstige," the masses trading up to prestige brands; or "aspirational shopping," buying a bit more upmarket than your station in life's economic continuum.

But now, the whole shopping-as-entertainment thing seems akin to overdressing at a soup kitchen. Maybe the recession has killed off trendiness, at least for now, if not forever.

"The aspirational market doesn't have as much disposable income now," Wagner tells me. "But that doesn't mean it won't come back."

That is why she and other marketing gurus say the store's opening at the height, or depth, of the recession isn't quite as crazy as it might seem.

For one thing, while the overall luxury market is, like other sectors, down at the moment, Louis Vuitton has managed to buck that trend: According to an article in the Wall Street Journal in April, first quarter sales at Louis Vuitton and a couple of sister labels were up 11 percent, boosting revenues at its parent company, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

"There's a critical mass of wealthy people in the Washington-Baltimore area," said Milton Pedraza, CEO of the marketing company, The Luxury Institute.

While I always assumed that much of that was old money - who might wear their clothes until they were threadbare and were loath to flaunt their wealth too much - Pedraza tells me that if we're like the rest of the country, that's an outdated image. Some 85 percent of people worth more than $5 million are self-made richies, not trust-funders, he says.

Pedraza says Louis Vuitton has ridden out the recession better than other luxe labels because it's quietly stuck to its core strengths rather than stuck its logo on anything and everything. "In general, many luxury brands have been cheapened," he said, citing brands like Coach and Giorgio Armani that will "put their label on a piece of canvas and call it a designer product."

While there's "real economic hurt" out there, Pedraza says, people are starting to look toward the future.

"Can we see a future in front of us that is brighter? Well, unemployment is up, the stimulus hasn't taken an effect that we can see," he said. "But we are seeing the bottom of it."

Wagner thinks Louis Vuitton is also looking to a better future, whenever it arrives.

"I think they want to be poised for the recovery," Wagner said.

Through thick and thin, one thing is permanent, she said: "People find a way to indulge themselves. If you don't buy a big handbag, you can buy an accessory."

While there are signs that the wealthy are a bit abashed at being seen spending too much - The Daily Beast Web site recently had a story about how some shoppers in New York were asking for plain wrappings for their pricey purchases instead of Hermes' trademark orange bags or Tiffany's robin's-egg blue ones - for many, being seen with a recognizable label is the whole point.

As Pedraza says, "We're all peacocks."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.