[Outlook]Luxury goods cost a lot. That’s it.There is a sudden craze for luxury goods these days in Korea, and it takes ordinary, middle-aged people like myself aback.
We lived a frugal life and believed it was a virtue. Rolex watches and Burberry trench coats were the only luxury goods we’d ever heard of. That was it.
But these days, luxury brands have become the talk of the town.
It is not only about whether you have enough money to purchase such goods.
Luxury goods have become a new culture or lifestyle, and pop up everywhere ― on television programs, in newspapers and in daily conversations.
Luxury brands have foreign names, so it is hard to pick up and make out the meanings of those brand names.
You often feel like you aren’t smart enough when you haven’t heard of a certain luxury brand that others know.
Besides, they are unthinkably expensive, so you wouldn’t even think about buying them at first. But people say the item is fashionable, so you feel sorry for yourself. You feel like you are behind others.
People who don’t possess luxury items feel frustrated. They feel poorer than others and intellectually inferior. This is also true for the younger generation.
However, owning luxury goods does not necessarily make the owner feel intellectually superior or confident.
It is often said that people express their unique style and taste with luxury items.
But here is the news: wearing or carrying luxury items is far from extraordinary.
Actually, it is much closer to something very ordinary.
When one purchases and wears luxury goods, he or she feels relieved, no longer left behind by the others and finally a member of the luxury-purchasing, chosen group. That seems quite a flimsy sense of bonding.
Luxury goods are valued because of their scarcity.
By purchasing a scarce item, one demonstrates that he is special and different from the commoners.
One is always conscious of other people when buying luxury goods. Whether to demonstrate wealth or to become an object of jealousy, people spend lots of money to buy the luxury goods of a certain brand for an extremely high price because they are worried about what others think.
That means the item has more than just a practical value. It has values as a sign or a symbol.
Symbol-value is a special type of value. It is only valid when others notice it.
When a certain good becomes fashionable, and many people have it, the item is no longer a luxury good because it does not have a symbol value that says its owner is different from other people.
Thus, for the people who bought a certain luxury product after everyone else already did, it is like drinking flat beer.
Those people will always be the underdogs. They will never win the game of buying luxury goods.
In any society, only a small number of people can enjoy the symbol-value of luxury items. There is a small group of rich people who don’t care how much it costs and keep buying luxury goods to be different from the others.
Buying luxury items is a way to demonstrate wealth and a lifestyle shared by a limited number of people.
However, many people join the game of buying luxury items because of the illusion such goods create.
In our society, there is the illusion that luxury goods increase the prestige of the consumers.
Without any foundation, but also without any resistance, the purchasing of luxury goods is considered elegant and trendy. Dazzled by the splendor of affluence that luxury goods send off, people perceive affluence as happiness and good virtue.
However, if we realize this belief is baseless, we can find out that consuming luxury goods is merely a consumption pattern so one can demonstrate wealth, as Thorstein Veblen, an American socialist and economist, pointed out.
A person who owns luxury goods has a lot of money. There is nothing more to say.
It doesn’t mean the owner has elegant style or refined taste. It is understandable to envy the rich, but it is hard to agree that luxury goods are trendy.
On the contrary, luxury goods are not trendy. They are just expensive.
Even today, many ordinary people take a long, hard time, deciding whether or not to buy a luxury item.
Some will decide to go for it and take out their wallet. But the purchased item will most likely not contain the value they have sought.
The craze for luxury goods in our society shows a depressing portrait of our life today.
*The writer is a visiting professor at the Donga Institute of Media and Arts and a cultural critic. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kwak Han-joo