Casper the Friendly Ghost

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Haute couture's quixotic attitude.

My aunt Janice, who was a very smart woman, used to say, "Money doesn't talk, it shouts." She was right. Money does shout. Yet it would appear that many haute couture fashion designers are deaf. Either that or they're racist, or maybe just stupid. The latter two qualities are pretty much the same thing. Or as the Talking Heads put it: "one thing leads to another."

The reason I'm including racism and money and stupidity in the same paragraph is this: Nielsen recently released a consumer report on African-Americans. According to the report, African-American discretionary funds will attain the exalted level of $1.7 trillion over the course of the next three years. With that kind of buying power at stake, it's seems axiomatic that big-name fashion houses should be targeting vast amounts of marketing toward the African-American sector of the population. Indeed, in case anyone reading Nielsen's report missed the marketing implications of the cited dollar figures, the authors of the report went out of their way to clarify the matter by coming right out and saying it. Hey people, listen up! There's a lot of money to be made here. Maybe you should target some of your marketing toward all these rich African-Americans. Okay, that's not exactly how Nielsen put it; I admit that I am paraphrasing. But that's the gist of what they said.

The report goes on to say that last year corporations spent $75 billion on ads on television, in magazines, on the internet and on the radio. Of that $75 billion, less than 5% ($2.24 billion) was targeted toward African-Americans. And that's just in the U.S.

What's going on?

The problem is this: the fashion industry, which denominates itself 'haute couture,' is burdened by what is known as an "analogous esthetic doctrine," which is this: the tighter the discipline of an art form, the more subjective the criteria of taste. Translation: haute couture is whiter than Casper the Friendly Ghost. For the most part, fashion designers are ' how shall I put this? ' hell, why not just say it? Most fashion designers are white. And so are most fashion models. There are very few black supermodels.

This quandary is nothing new to haute couture. The entire fashion industry is aware of it and has been aware of it for a long time. Their defense is the same-old-same-old, pre-packaged panoply of alibis: aesthetics (whatever that means); the paucity of black models represented by modeling agencies; and probably the lamest of all excuses, that the bulk of their consumers are not black. At best, all these explanations are specious and, at worst, are out-and-out lies that show the fashion industry for the frauds and charlatans they really are.

Marketing studies have demonstrated over and over that blacks spend more money on luxury goods and services, including cars, apparel, and jewelry, than wealthy white consumers. In fact, blacks spend 28% more of their discretionary funds on luxury goods than their lighter-skinned opposite numbers. Wealthy African professionals, known as 'black diamonds,' whether they live in the U.S. or Africa or Asia or Europe have a soft-spot for upscale brands such as Gucci, Givenchy, and Mont Blanc. And the continent of Africa has more rich people, along with an ever-increasing number of such rich individuals, than any other continent.

And let's face it, various segments of black culture ' rappers, movie stars, sports stars, pop divas, and even gangbangers ' have greater impact on what's hip and with-it and downright cool than their white counterparts. Most teenagers in American suburbs wear 'sagging' pants, 'bump' in woofer-bedizened cars, and shuffle around in 'joints' worn by gangbangers. And this fashion consciousness carries over into later life. Fifty-year old men mow their lawns dressed in Metal Mulisha T-shirts and baggy athletic shorts. Don't tell me there's no market.

If blacks define what's cool, then how come haute couture retains its quixotic attitude?

In a word: exclusivity. Luxury goods are designed and marketed around the emotional appeal of exclusivity. Wealthy consumers want something that everyone else doesn't have and can't afford. As soon as the masses decide to move up, adopting a brand collectively, the brand loses its exclusivity, its appeal, and is diminished. The brand is now popular, which means an easy intimacy has been established, which means complacent acquiescence. What was once exclusive has become conventional ' popular. For example, BMW's 3-Series is now driven by everyone and his mother, parked in every driveway in America. If the plumber next door has one, why on earth would I want one? Elitism is fugitive.

When a brand, any brand, is embraced by rappers or hip-hoppers, and then by inner city young people, followed by suburbia, the handwriting is on the wall. The brand in question has achieved a dubious status. Young people aspire to it, which from the brand's perspective is efficacious. Luxury brands want the hoi polloi to lust after their products. But when young people actually move-up and purchase it, the brand's exclusivity factor contracts and fades. When every kid in town is wearing a $400 Bathing Apes hoodie or an $80 Supreme baseball cap or $250 True Religion jeans, then exclusivity has gone with the wind. The same is true for any brand, whether it's a $5000 T-shirt or a $250,000 evening gown. Once the proletariats start wearing it, the luster is gone.

At this juncture, the concept of racism is no longer the issue. Exclusivity rolls in and takes over, demanding attention. Put simply, it doesn't matter whether the aspiring devotees are black, white or candy-striped. Race and creed are tossed out the window. Exclusivity transcends every consideration. Observing that their formerly exclusive, and exorbitantly priced, brand has been appropriated by the multitudes, the ultra-rich move on in search of the next exclusive brand.

What the fashion designers have failed to recognize, though, is that 'black diamonds' (code for wealthy blacks) like to spend money on luxury goods and crave exclusivity, too. And they vote with their wallets. Any luxury brand that shrugs its chic shoulders and continues to target ultra-rich white people is ignoring its Excel profit and loss spreadsheet. Another aspect that most fashion writers are reluctant to mention is this: the world is changing. White people are a minority; other ethnic groups are flourishing, and making beau coup bucks. Pretending like that isn't the truth is like spitting into the wind. Not very smart and disagreeable.

Not too long ago, a number of corporations made the conscious decision to design marketing campaigns targeting the gay and lesbian communities. It paid off. For gays and lesbians are intelligent, educated, and have lucrative jobs. In other words, they have oodles of discretionary funds to spend. This portends well for haute couture designers who elect to target other races.

Remember what my aunt Janice said. "Money doesn't talk, it shouts." Any fashion house that takes her words to heart will be "making bank."

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 1:49 PM EDT | More details


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