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Hunger for luxury brands grows ravenously

By Dinah Chong Watkins  (China Daily)

10:07, June 05, 2012

I call it my gangsta watch. When I strut down the street, even a legally blind man can make out the big, bold numbers on the crystal face, surrounded by rings of 24-karat gold. It's bling-on-a-stick and status with a capital R.

Does it bother me that this Swiss timepiece needs to be wound up every day? Is it highway robbery when something breaks and the repair bill costs a week's salary? Isn't my battery powered Timex with the glow-in-the-dark hands more functional?

Yes to all the above. And, sure, I'd switch watches if I lived in Okeefanokie, Nebraska - population 537.

But in China, even villagers in the most remote places in Gansu province pay attention to luxury goods like Louis Vuitton with its flower and quatrefoil monogram.

So with the increasing disposable income of the middle class and the rising aspirations of blue-collar workers, luxury goods are no longer the exclusive realm of the uber-wealthy. Burberry, Prada, Chanel - whether real or fake - they're as common everywhere as ants at a picnic.

Luxury goods sales have now reached $12.6 billion in China. Since the opening of the economic reforms in the '80s, there's been a mad race to leave the generic blue and green cotton uniforms that marked those years behind. Even though import taxes on luxury goods mean prices are 30-70 percent higher than other countries, the market in China, already surpassing that of the US, is forecast to take over Japan's number one rank in global luxury consumption within the next five years.

When I was young, marketing types had yet to come up with the idea of the human billboard and labels were sewn on the inside, out of view. Yes, there was that little crocodile tennis players often wore, but until Ralph Lauren's polo pony came galloping onto the scene, wearing clothes that blared out the brand was unheard of.

Sure, status symbols still existed: the size of your home, whether your membership was at a private club or the public pool, the make of your car - domestic I might add - but signs of rank took years to achieve. Now, it's as easy and fast as putting on a shirt or carrying a handbag.

Has the advent of jet travel, television, and the Internet allowed us to grasp more precisely our relative significance in the world? Or should I rightfully say insignificance? In these globetrotting times, it's even more important to differentiate ourselves from the masses. And outwardly labeling ourselves with things is an efficient and quick way to tell others "I am important. I have money. I have taste."

Luxury brands almost always come with a back-story, a heritage, a convincing campaign to distinguish themselves from their competitors. So, the real value of the item lies less in the actual product than the emotional reward it offers the buyer. Many will own a fake bag, watch or scarf, but none will brag about it unless it's the genuine thing.

It's only been in the past 40 years that the significance of the brand has entwined itself into our culture. Why do we allow Gucci, Cartier, Hermes and Rolex to become a barometer of our identity? The blame for the growth of this superficial mentality would cast a wide net, from celebrities to advertisers, media, CEOs and, finally, the shareholders, people just like us. Whether it's aspirations or acquisitions, the hunger for luxury goods here only seems to grow.

On March 5 every year, Lei Feng, a legendary selfless and modest soldier who was devoted to the Communist Party is celebrated with the hope that present-day citizens will emulate his Good Samaritan deeds. Success in this program has not been overwhelming.

Maybe Lei Feng just needs a makeover - banish the army greens and faux fur cap and slip into some Giorgio Armani couture. Then, he would be the kind of guy people today can aspire to.

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