[Outlook]Luxury cravingThere is a craze for luxury goods in Korea these days. Female college students work part-time to afford brand-name bags and shoes. Young women office workers form savings groups with friends to pool money to buy Louis Vuitton purses or Prada shoes. Men buy Ermenegildo Zegna or Hugo Boss suits on installment.
But it is not only about clothes. It seems that whatever the item, if the word “luxury” is added, it sells. We have luxury education, luxury apartments and even luxury suburbs on offer. When an outlet for luxury goods opens, people queue up to shop.
Moralists lament this trend. They say that it is not only the suddenly rich who crave luxury, but that the society itself is becoming vain and hollow.
But nobody can blame someone for spending money to satisfy his or her tastes. In a capitalist society, there is nothing wrong with people spending money as they see fit. Under capitalism, this is what makes the engine go. The problem is when people without money try to keep up with these trends.
Beneath the craving for luxury goods lies a desire for personal satisfaction. Through demonstrating wealth, a person may feel more satisfied with himself. Thus, luxury goods have come to symbolize wealth, which means the price must be high; otherwise anyone could afford the baubles and trinkets of prestige. Without a steep price tag, the people who consume luxury goods might feel that they were just common consumers. Manufacturers understand this psychology when they set prices, so they factor in the need to make something special enough to justify the high price. They create a new vogue each season so that poor creatures can be excluded from the club of the rich.
Generally, the fixation on luxury goods is supposed to be a passing phenomenon that predictably occurs when a nation’s per capita income is about $20,000.
As purchasing power increases, the purchasing patterns of the wealthy spread into the middle class. But when per capita income passes $30,000, meaning the economy is officially “advanced,” luxury goods are no longer quite so special.
However, this theory is not sufficient to explain our craze for luxury. It seems that many Koreans are ostentatious and pretentious. We often feel jealous when close relatives or friends are better off. The fixation on luxury goods here does not seem to be a passing phenomenon that will resolve itself when per capita income reaches $30,000 or even $40,000.
Just preferring luxury bands, of course, does not fully explain all purchases. In many cases, cheap products are of bad quality and more expensive goods tend to be of better quality. People also appreciate and treasure expensive goods. Some even argue that luxury goods are more practical because they last longer. Even if all of that is true, though, there is still something wrong with the Korean luxury frenzy.
Recently, I visited Helsinki, Finland. In that city, I could hardly spot designer boutiques for international brands. There were a few, but people said these catered to new-rich Russians who travel to Finland for shopping, and that few local people go to the stores. That is mostly because of a social attitude that frowns upon people who cover themselves with luxury goods.
Even though Finland’s per capita income is over $40,000, the people I saw were dressed unpretentiously and looked modest in their habits. They seemed to think that what is important is who you are, not what you wear. That is, a person is judged by his qualities, not his belongings.
In Korea, there are many people who have luxury only on the outside. They may be dressed in expensive finery, but on the inside they are not so nice. Draping yourself in luxury will not make you a better person. Instead, you may just be an imitation of a better person, just like a pirated item that looks like the real thing on the outside. Politicians also claim to be the real thing when they ask for the people’s support. Careful. We might be fooled. It is not easy to distinguish the fake from the authentic, and we must learn to do so.
We must not be fooled by a luxurious fake, otherwise we will not make Korea an advanced country. This is the task we face in the presidential election. The future depends on our ability to separate the fakes in the field from the real thing.
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok