Luxury, Status Symbols, Communism
Sofie Mikhaylova’s designer brand obsession starts in the U.S.S.R. and ends with a of pair of moto boots.
A few months ago, I used a fake $10 knock-off Longchamp bag to carry my things because it was big enough to fit my laptop. While I tried to own it – “Yeah, haha, it's a fake,” – I couldn't. I still feel the sting of embarrassment when I look at it, or when I see a girl on the train with a real one.
Part of the embarrassment is because the real bag isn't even that expensive – it's around $150, which is a reasonable price for a purse, or so I've told myself. Another reason is that I looked up how to tell the difference between a real and fake one, and now my bag seems even more like the pathetic imitation it is. I've convinced myself that everybody cares, when in reality nobody does. And yet, when I finally do buy a Longchamp bag (and I will, because I am, and forever will be, what my girlfriend says I am: a brand whore), I’ll no doubt be embarrassed to be carrying it, too, when I see a girl on the train with a Prada bag. I’ll want to say “I left my Marc Jacobs at home!” As if that justified me carrying this cheap, nylon bag around – even though we all know MJ is nowhere near Prada’s league.
Since fifth grade, I’ve let brands determine who I am and who I wanted to be. And of course, it’s wrong. To me, I think it all relates back to money. I live in a world where having money means you’re the best, at the top, the winner. I long to be like an Olsen twin, rich enough to be casually throwing my Prada bag on the floor and treating my couture like it’s Coach.
My love for brands is hard to control, but it is something I want to address, and maybe even get out of my system.
My parents grew up in the Soviet Union. Communism and the Eastern Bloc offered nothing in terms of luxury items. Luxury was unheard of, only to be found across the border. Even then, "luxury" meant a regular old pair of Levi's that my grandfather smuggled in his suitcase on the way home from a business trip to Budapest.
Under communism, my parents had enough money – there just wasn’t anything to buy. Now, living in what is considered an affluent (or at least, slightly upper middle-class) Jewish neighborhood, the Russian moms in the area all try to outdo each other with their brands. It started with Coach, and now my mom has one closet full of Michael Kors and another for all her winter furs. Why? Because she can.
Rising from the ashes of a grey, drab communist world, Russian communities in North America are ripe with wealth (and some, with debt). My mom wouldn't go back to live in Russia in a million years – why would she, when she can have all the fruits and Italian leather purses she wants over here? Why would she be dressing like a peasant again after all the years of wanting something better?
Perhaps my mom’s voracious appetite for brand names is what ticked me off, told me that brands were best, that anything less was simply not worth owning. I discovered fashion, or rather, couture, in Italy when I was 10 years old. My parents had “dragged” me to the country on one of my mom’s Eurotrips, and it was the first time I was exposed to high fashion and brands. Design house stores were on every corner, and Chanel and Prada and Valentino began calling my name.
My mom bought me a knock-off Gucci bag for 10 Euros off a street seller, and I carried it around with pride, convinced that nobody could tell what it was, and that I was the most stylish fifth-grader around.
When I got back to Toronto, I devoured runway shows with an insatiable hunger, collecting Vogues and flipping through issues, studying designers that I didn’t yet understand. I coveted Prada (and I still do), but as a 10 year old, I had no idea who Miuccia Prada was in the grand scheme of the fashion world. “Prada” was just another big name, a sticker I wanted to plaster onto myself: “I can afford this, and I can afford better.”
When I was in high school, Coach was the shit. Everyone who was anyone had something from Coach, the double-C logo embroidered in an all-over, interlocking pattern for all to see. Most popular were the crossbody bags, flat purses worn low by the hip. Averaging around $170 or so, they were the embodiment of fashion at the time, and I desperately wanted one. When I finally did get my hands on something from the Coach outlet store, it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. Bigger, and better. And more expensive. To show off, mostly. To flash my pricey item around. “This wallet cost three paychecks, but here it is! Look how beautiful! But don't touch!”
Rich was a good word. And I wanted to be the richest. I was brought up to think that money meant something good. My dad would always tell me, “Money is freedom.” My goal, when getting my first part-time job, was not to be a responsible young adult, but to save up enough money for a pair of Chloe moto boots, thinking that they alone would grant me status and entry into the high fashion world I craved so much. I wanted to be draped in Valentino, because I thought it made me better.
I was wrong. It took a while, but I’m pushing against what I’ve been taught about money – or, I’m trying to. I’m aware of the unequal distribution of wealth in the world. I know how it works, I know how profit exploits the worker and I know that fast fashion, that equating money with status is wrong. But I still can’t stop the pangs of lust and jealousy when I spot a girl on the train with the exact Prada bag I’ve been wanting.