Call it pusillanimity, call it cowardliness, call it funk, you would be right on every count. Shamefacedly this column hangs its head and admits to having ducked the most remarkable marketing story of our time. But no more. I can no longer live with the guilt. So, belatedly, I screw my courage to the sticking place and ask, who are these crazy, overpaid women who pay £23,000 for a handbag?There. I’ve said it and there’s no turning back. These are dangerous waters into which one steps with trepidation. Compared to womanhood accused of empty-headed vanity, the razor-toothed crocs of the Limpopo are as bunny rabbits. Yet the matter must be probed since it is a remarkable example of modern marketing, consumerism and stupidity from which lessons might be learned.
First, let us look at exhibit A, the handbag. Once a fairly functional accessory, a repository for lost keys, lipstick, tissues, bus tickets, a purse, a forgotten packet of Polo mints, and other items that defy either description or analysis, the handbag has metamorphosed into a gigantic, bulky talisman, half suitcase, half sack. And as its size has ballooned, so has its price. The average designer bag sets the buyer back by about £800. Others cost more. The Beaton, for example, by Burberry, costs £1,095; The Bucket, by Versace, is £1,500, and The Fringe, by Prada, £1,250. This last is remarkable in being hairy and tasselled and having the appearance of a yak’s scrotum.
The big one, however, the bag nonpareil, the bag against which all others are measured and their owners found wanting, is the Louis Vuitton Tribute Patchwork, which retails at £23,484, almost £3,000 more than a Mercedes car. The makers justify the price (justify in this context meaning “defend preposterously”) on the ground that the bag is made from cut-up bits of 15 different Louis Vuitton bags and incorporates rare feathers and alligator skin. Rare feathers, eh? Plucked from the tail of the elusive short-legged oomigooly bird, famous for its distinctive cry?Now for exhibit B, the buyer. The Daily Mail tracked one down. Donatella Panayiotou, 23, actress and TV presenter, says her bags have to be designer and cost well over £1,000. “To me, it’s about the quality of the bag. I can always tell if someone is carrying a cheap one, or a fake, and I think they define you. If you have a classy bag, you just look better.”
Truly, the designer bag is a triumph of marketing. The materials used in its manufacture, even those cut up from bits of old bags, must amount to no more than, say, £100 at most. If, like most goods, they are made in China, the labour and transport costs together probably come to less than another £100. So the profit margin is simply stupendous.
The mystery is that women, who in other respects are recognisably human and therefore endowed with intelligence, can be persuaded to spend eye-watering sums on the sort of bag made famous by Mr Gladstone or once carried by country doctors.
Part of the answer is that the bags appeal to a preening vanity to which women, or some at any rate, are prey. Another part is that all humankind, women in particular, are imitative creatures with a deep sense of hierarchical status. Sad though true, in the eyes of many young females those who stand at the summit of human achievement are the football WAGs, women who are indeed remarkable in being able to function on far fewer brain cells than those of the average gnat. The WAGs carry expensive bags and so too must every young woman who aspires to fashionable credibility, even if the price is crippling indebtedness.
The designer bag is a classic example of what economists call the perverse demand curve, meaning that, contrary to normal rational behaviour, as the price of an item rises, so too does the demand for it. There is a certain type of person who, having made money, simply must parade his or her wealth. Drivers of 4×4 vehicles do not wish to go off-road, nor do they need the extra space “in order to carry children” or “for reasons of safety” – they want to show off their riches. Similarly, successful career women carry bags costing thousands of pounds as a display of opulence. The US writer PJ O’Rourke laments that the outcome of feminism triumphant is all too often “upscale grabbiness”.
Strange that liberated Western women, the healthiest and wealthiest in history, are obsessed with surface beauty and hard-nosed capitalist greed. Could marketing be to blame for fostering the kind of anxiety that seeks healing in a bag costing £23,000?v