Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Adventures in bargain luxury

Luxury retail has one guiding principle: "If you ask how much it costs, it means you cannot afford it." Some luxury brands even push the limits of this maxim going as far as taking a blank check from the customer and filling it themselves: A case in point is Rolls Royce. Other brands use this motto in a different way: The house of Louis Vuitton does not have any "sales." You are to pay the same sum for your product, regardless if you're getting it at the beginning or at the end of the collection. Being "scarce" is also one such technique used. In 2003, when launching the sporty Lexus SC in Saudi Arabia, we wanted to give a gift for the first one hundred buyers in the shape of two Vuitton weekend bags complementary of the dealership. The Vuitton people were categorical: One bag only, never two. Sometimes it is the small details that matter, Lebanese luxury youth oriented Aizone (A declinaison of Aishti – Lebanon's answer to Neiman Marcus) issues two different bags: A transparent red thick plastic one for those buying at the beginning of the collection (that yuppie youngsters and early adults love to show off while walking in malls), and the cheap paper ones which are reserved to the sales period. Little do people realize however, that it is once taken out of the bag that the product either stands on its own as one of good design, or does not. Bargain hunting, alas, is not a technique in which the Lebanese specialize – the more the sticker price, the better it is for the shopper's ego. I once distinctly heard a teenager bragging that she got the same bathing suit as her friend but she "managed to get it before the discounts." Speaking of bargains, I once had a serious discussion with a friend of mine if my "Americanization" process happened when I went to Hooters' (Yes, the place where young women are scantily clad) or when I got to Filene's basement – the place that actually made out of bargains an institution: The "bridal race" in the miscellaneous news on TV where soon-to-be-wed women go to pick their dresses for a meager fraction of the original price actually takes place in Filene's basement. Whereas we never managed to settle on an answer, I must admit that I take pride in my sharp eye when it comes to bargains – not when it comes to bargaining though! (At such cheap prices, it is unethical to bargain!) An excellent place in Lebanon to find such treasures is Souk el Ahad – or the "Sunday market" which is our own flea market. With a big of culture and patience one can unearth gems there. Yes, one has to go through stacks of haphazardly piled stacks of clothes, but delve in and one can never know what is to be found. Just last week, I fished a Dries Van Noten shirt for 5,000 LBP (That's 3,33 USD at the current rate), a Trussardi tank top, and a handmade artisanal cardigan – I had seen the same earlier this year in Syria for 25 USD but got it for free as a bonus for buying the two shirts in question. The Levi's overshirt I got late last year – which has proved exceptionally handy in the village winters – was a piece the vendor had no idea he had in his stock. This is a line of clothing which Levi's has stopped making, and so vintage wool shirts are notoriously difficult to come by – so far I stopped counting the offers for resale by interested individuals. One thing luxury shoppers are oblivious of is that major designers get inspired by retro fashion to make their new "upscale" lines. Fashion house Dsquared2 has been almost single handedly credited for the revival of the "blue collar" 80s look – so instead of purchasing one their reissues (A checkered front shirt with off-white sleeves handsomely priced at 600 USD) I went to a retailer with old stocks right above the American University of Beirut and got the original shirt their based their copy on for 13 USD. Very recently, when the "Comme Des Garcons" guerilla store closed its doors in Beirut (Comme des garcons opens outlets for exactly one year in different cities of the world, and Beirut's turn came and went – the strategy gives them so much media buzz and coverage), I was invited to the closing party because I had participated in the original pitch. The point is that, for a few years now, Comme Des Garcons has been specializing in African-styled shirts and baggy pants, that day I so happened to be wearing a shirt a friend of mine got me from Ghana. And so upon my entrance, someone quipped that it was "awfully nice of me to wear a Comme Des Garcons shirt for the party." To which I replied, "No, this is the original deal – it only costs 3 USD." Early this year, I got a tuxedo shirt from the flea market for the whooping sum of 2 USD, since it was huge in size, I got it to the village couturiere – Malvina – who fixed it for 3 USD. So, my made-to-measure dress shirt actually cost me 5 USD. I once wore it to one of the universities where I teach, and coincidence had it that I was brainstorming with students about the correlation between luxury marketing and social status. And so I asked them: "How much do you think my shirt costs?" The most conservative estimate was 60 USD, the most outrageous 130 (Naturally, the student who had put that price tag assumed I got it from Aishti during sales). When I revealed the correct sum I saw looks which embodied sheepishness. However, to get the morale of the troops up again, I added: "But look at my cufflinks, they cost 90 USD from Paul Smith in Stockholm – and that's during sales!" Somehow, a sigh of relief propagated through the audience.
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