of the few pluses of watching the economy crumble is witnessing the demise of
the phenomenon marketers call “masstige.”
In case you don’t know what masstige is, or was, I hadn’t heard of it either before I read an article in New York magazine online last year. As Wikipedia explains, “Masstige is a marketing term meaning downward brand extension. The word is formed from the words mass and prestige and has been described as prestige for the masses.”
A product with “masstige” can also be described as “aspirational.” It’s an item that is purchased by members of the middle class to make them look and feel richer than they are -- a luxury handbag, for example.
Over the past eight years or so, the vast moat between the rich and the middle class in terms of North American style looked like it was drying up. Popular magazines encouraged us regular folk to buy up-market, by listing which star had bought what, where. Meanwhile, former nobodies who had catapulted to fame by appearing on, say, American Idol began strutting around in Manolo Blahniks, encouraging dangerous fantasies in anybody who had ever crooned a Motown song in the shower.
With Karl Lagerfeld designing for H & M and Isaac Mizrahi for Target, with the wealthy Olsen twins being photographed by paparazzi buying the same Starbucks coffee as the rest of us, and with fancy bakery cupcakes within reach of both Suri Cruise and our own sweet angels, champagne dreams suddenly began to seem more available to the perfectly ordinary.
Prestige was that easy to come by, or so it appeared. But it now looks as though “masstige” was another symptom of an economy gone wrong. In the same way that the current financial crisis was triggered by banks lending mortgage money to people who truly could not afford to own houses, goods that were thought to lend prestige to the bourgeoisie were often things that sensible people would always have considered out of reach.
As a matter of fact, Louis Vuitton luggage is not a must-have for somebody in North Vancouver insurance sales. Nor do my own abbreviated locks require pricey Kiehl’s shampoo. Truth be told, a $2 coffee is probably good enough for the likes of us. Who were we trying to kid?
“You had a lot of people who graduated to a level of consumption they could not really afford,” retail analyst Adrianne Shapira told the New York Times in January in an article called Thinking Twice About That $400 Handbag. “Two-hundred-dollar pairs of denim were plausible when home values soared, but now $100 jeans are looking more reasonable.”
It’s fascinating to watch a trend wane. A local restaurant flack told me, for instance, that top eateries in Vancouver are now feeling the pinch. My guess is that those many couples for whom a $300 dinner actually is a big stretch are finally recognizing the fact and staying home.
Even the style- and prestige-crazed are, at the very least, feigning an interest in frugality, wanting to be down with the rest of us. In a Times article earlier this month headlined Extravagance Has Its Limits as Belt-Tightening Trickles Up, socialites in Atlanta reported hauling out 10-year-old gowns to wear to charity fund-raisers. As one lawyer married to a wealthy heir pointed out, “It’s disrespectful to the people who don’t have much to flaunt your wealth.”
In addition, as Juliet Schor, an economist at Boston College and the author of The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting and the New Consumer told the Times, people no longer need to compete with each other when everybody around them has stopped spending. “You can stay right where you are without falling behind,” she said. At the same time, Schor noted, keeping up with the Joneses may have become less gripping than observing the financial ruin of the Smiths.
Since not everybody is hurting, I expect the economic downturn will lead to more of what is known as “covert couture,” which means designer clothing made to look less posh. Even if one’s own fortunes are flourishing, the tactful sartorial hint that they’re not may become all the rage.
For instance, you may have noticed that dresses and jewelry for the Academy Awards this year were less over the top than usual. Some of the presenters, like Jennifer Aniston, even looked like they’d done their own hair, though that probably wasn’t the case. If she had done so and made it known, however, people would have been applauding her pluck.
I think the Oscars were a bit of a bellwether generally. The show suggested that it’s better to take the approach of Hugh Jackman’s amusing shtick, pretending to be rising to the challenges inherent in the times, than it is to flaunt your privilege. Case in point: At the Vanity Fair party after the Academy Awards, trays of In-N-Out burgers and chicken pot pies reportedly replaced the traditional fancy finger foods.
The new frugality has all kinds of applications. Over Christmas, the New York Times’ wine expert Eric Asimov wrote a story that appeared under the headline Let the Good Times Tiptoe. It pointed out that industry-wide, despite the festive season, consumers were choosing cheaper wines.
Meanwhile, the most recent Food & Wine magazine contains a feature called How Good Is a Wine List’s Least Expensive Bottle? In it, writer Lettie Teague claims she has never before read a wine list by focusing on its prices, which certainly makes her one up on everybody I know. In sampling the lowest-priced bottles on the lists of several good restaurants, she was surprised to discover they weren’t half-bad.
So she is spreading the word, and no doubt the rest of us will follow suit. Being the one who can identify the most enticing bargain will soon confer cachet. Already the media is getting on the bandwagon. The March issue of F & W also includes a story on how to recycle Sunday’s leftover roast beef into Tuesday’s fajitas -- as if most of us haven’t been doing that forever, but just not pointing it out.
Such tips will surely become ubiquitous, with boasting rights seized by those who cut their costs while retaining their flair. Good on them. It’s neither snobbish nor “aspirational” to pursue an affordable lifestyle, which is what makes the idea such a wonderfully welcome change.