One million dollar handbags, $500 hot water bottles, and towels for skirts — was 2023 the year luxury fashion officially became a spectator sport for the masses?
“Fashion has always been at the forefront of culture and a spectator sport for the masses in one way or another. These viral ‘spectator’ designs will only become more relevant to capturing attention and driving cultural conversations in the future, as hype-fueled digital moments increasingly bleed into online conversations in the spaces we spend time,” Alison Ho, strategist at trend forecasting firm WGSN Insight, tells Jing Daily.
Today, the luxury fashion market is cluttered with novelty pieces that command public attention. Only last month did Louis Vuitton, helmed by menswear creative director Pharrell Williams, cause a global stir with its latest iteration of its Speedy bag, priced at $1 million.
“Today, you don’t even need an item that is just beautiful. You need an item that gets people talking,” fashion commentator Hanan Besovic, and the name behind prolific Instagram account @ideservecouture, tells Jing Daily. “If you have an item that is going to spark polarizing opinions, for brands, that’s a match made in heaven.”
The canary-yellow “Millionaire Speedy” will be reserved for the crème de la crème of Louis Vuitton’s clientele once it’s released in January 2024. But the general public hasn’t shied away from weighing in with opinions.
“It’s just so ugly. Even when he [Pharrell] described it, there was no reference, no inspiration other than a self-indulgent way to make bag trims overly expensive,” one Instagram user wrote under @ideservecouture’s related post.
Louis Vuitton’s divisive bag joins a roster of high-end gimmicks that have piqued media interest this year. The antithesis to the prevailing quiet luxury trend, many of these products typify a new wave of cultural artefacts dividing audiences – and driving brand exposure.
Besovic outlines how behind each controversial product is a carefully calculated publicity strategy designed to elicit a response. “All of these items are meant as a marketing strategy,” he says.
Balenciaga, under the direction of Demna Gvasalia, is widely recognized as the blueprint.
“We see the product on the runway, then when it launches on their website, all of a sudden there’s numerous news articles asking ‘would you pay $925 for a towel?’” says Besovic. “It’s a brilliant way of marketing for them, because they don’t have to do anything. The public who’s expressing their discomfort, or dislike on social media is doing it for them.”
@guyfieri.superfan #greenscreen does it “count” more as art if we dont see it go viral? #bellahadid #coperni #copernidress #runway #jacquemus #courreges #parisfashionweek #EndlessJourney #fyp ♬ original sound – Alexandra Hildreth
The trend has accelerated both on and off the runway. For brands who may have fallen off the public’s radar, it’s a means of regaining cultural relevance.
And it works. After Mschf’s big red boots went viral earlier this year, Google searches for “Mschf” reportedly rose by over 100 percent across the month of February, with resale prices peaking at almost $1,500 on StockX (the shoes were originally available for $350).
The pace of gimmicks skyrocketed following the success of Coperni’s explosive spray-on spectacle in 2022, a performance that put the French fashion house front-and-center of the cultural conversation.
“Today, you don’t even need an item that is just beautiful. You need an item that gets people talking. If you have an item that is going to spark polarizing opinions, for brands, that’s a match made in heaven.”
“It feels like everybody’s trying to outdo everybody,” Besovic says. But when the media continues to devour these provocations, why would brands stop creating them?
With luxury labels quantifying their success via metrics like ‘Earned Media Value’ (the dollar amount of all exposure generated from social media), how much buzz their collections can create online is just as critical as offline sales.
Subsequently, Ho believes that certain products are designed to ignite online response, rather than honor craftsmanship. “Viral products will continue to help brands build hype and drive impactful moments that accelerate cultural conversations and cut through during an attention recession, but are not likely to have lasting power,” she says.
Whether it be towel skirts or supersized stompers, when a new gimmick hits social media, comments are often swamped with the same question: “Who’s buying this?”
Burberry, for example, found itself in hot water across China after the launch of its check wool hot water bottle. The accessory, which made the rounds online last month, was slated by consumers as a “scam for rich people,” thanks to its $500 price tag. Overnight, the hashtag “Burberry won’t get a penny from me” peaked on Weibo’s Hot Search list, accumulating over 42.44 million views and 20,000 engagements.
Yet, despite receiving widespread criticism, Burberry’s winter warmer remains in high demand. On November 24, a new Burberry-related hashtag surfaced: “#Burberry shop says the 3,300 RMB hot water bottle is very popular.”
In Louis Vuitton’s case, the million dollar Speedy has already been spotted hanging off the arms of members of the upper echelons, including NBA star PJ Tucker.
Naysayers remain unconvinced, claiming that these gags are nothing more than a way for brands to “troll rich people.” Meanwhile, proponents argue that fashion’s newfound meme-factor is needed to lighten up the industry.
“Meme-like products that tap into absurdity and surrealism will continue to stay relevant in 2024, especially as youth and pop culture become synonymous with digital culture and memes continue to emerge as social currency,” WGSN’s Ho says.
As luxury brands become more digital-savvy, having their collections recontextualised into memes is the holy grail. “Balenciaga’s long-term commitment to absurdist products has earned the brand meme-like status,” Ho adds. How “memeable” a product is, is now a common indicator of success.
Besovic, the Instagram-based fashion critic, notes that controversial products aren’t made with everyone in mind, and often exclude 99 percent of the population. But if these products aren’t designed to target mass audiences, why does everyone feel compelled to share their two cents?
“I think it’s just the way that the internet is at this point,” Besovic says. “We’re going to talk about everything, it’s just our culture.”
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