Reflections is a series of essays embracing the power of introspection, taking on personal topics and rooting out what is just below the surface.
“Nothing could convince me that spending £750+ on a bag when I had no savings and no plan was a bad idea. Plenty of other people were buying them online, so it couldn’t be that foolish.”
The year is 2016. I’m bent over a large black box in my Nan’s spare bedroom, the space I’d been living in since I finished university 6 months earlier. There isn’t enough room for a wardrobe so I’ve erected a plastic clothes rail which is beginning to buckle under the weight of one too many teddy coats, and tucked into every available corner are boxes of books and bags and the scrambled remains of student living.
I’d been working as a marketing assistant in my hometown for just over a year, remotely while I was away at uni finishing my degree, and the usual 9-5 otherwise. I loved my boss and I was learning a lot, but I worked for a small firm and as a fresh graduate I had no industry experience, so I started on a very entry level salary. But being 22, living at my Nan’s house and having existed on student loans for four years, any salary was a good salary.
Plus I’d tapped into an alternative income stream – the infamous #sidehustle. After sharing blog posts and outfit updates online for around three years, I was beginning to be offered paid work, the dawn of the influencer age reaching its FaceTune-smooth arm out over the horizon. For the first time in my life, I had disposable income. And a decent amount of it. Enough to buy my first designer bag, in fact.
If you harboured even an iota of sartorial interest in 2016 or you spent longer than 15 minutes on Instagram, you’ll know about the Gucci Marmont Bag. With its flat bottom and oval top, loud gold monogramming and chunky chain to match, the Gucci Marmont was THE it bag of the moment. The neutral black, white and beige leathers were astronomically popular, but you earned extra fashion points if you leaned into the jewel-toned velvet options. It was one of the first luxury cult items to pique my interest, and incidentally, the first that I could afford.
“This was the first time that I had money in my bank account which needn’t extend beyond the end of the month or be meticulously counted out and rationed, and I was delirious with excitement.”
I say ‘afford’ with a pinch of salt; I had a whopping student debt under my belt and a few credit card bills too, but nothing immediately important. This was the first time that I had money in my bank account which needn’t extend beyond the end of the month or be meticulously counted out and rationed, and I was delirious with excitement. I felt rich. Is this what it was like to be one of those people who just adds stuff to their basket without keeping a running tally of cost as they shop?
I lifted the lid on the svelte black box to reveal a smaller white box within, a simple statement printed across the top in embossed black ink: GUCCI. With the tender touch of a mother to her child, I gently slid the cool black leather out from its protective dust bag. There she was: all butter-soft and beautiful. I ignored the fact that the strap was far too long and I couldn’t fit anything else inside other than my purse, phone and keys. Nothing could convince me that spending £750+ on a bag when I had no savings and no plan was a bad idea. Plenty of other people were buying them online, so it couldn’t be that foolish.
Of course, I wouldn’t admit at the time that peer pressure had steered my first designer purchase. It felt like a rite of passage in the blogging world, whether you coveted a Chloé Faye or a baby Gucci. The pièce de résistance to any outfit was its cult accessory, and this was all unfolding at a time when luxury items were beginning to be seen as more ‘accessible’ (yep, we’ll get to that later). Brand clout was on the up and it was in vogue to indulge in logo-mania, whether your budget allowed for a belt (you know which belt I’m talking about) or a bag costing twice your monthly pay cheque, or more.
“Didn’t I deserve the chance to have nice, shiny things like other people? Why not me?”
Since the Marmont days of 2016, I’ve bought four more designer bags, mostly inspired by their cult-popularity online. The J.W. Anderson Pierce Bag, the Gucci Dionysus (which I quite ironically wrote a ‘no-regrets’ article about), the Loewe Puzzle Bag and most recently, a Ganni crossbody. The latter was an impulse buy while I waited for my boyfriend to have his blackheads extracted by a skin technician in an an underground studio, but in comparison it was by far the least expensive and, probably, one of the most-worn. That was a year and a half ago now, and the more time passes, the more I concede that what I feel about my designer purchases is largely regret.
I have two cases to make here. In my defence, I’d been working in some capacity since the age of 13 (my first job was a chief order-taker and tea-maker on a roadside burger van), and until I left university, my money had always been for living. For buying glasses and contact lenses, for bus fare, for my phone contract and shoes and books and – obviously – booze. I’d never bought anything huge and expensive because I’d never been able to afford it, and so when I found myself in a situation with disposable cash for the first time, I was somewhat drunk on the perceived power.
I grew up working class and designer clothes were a frivolity reserved for people whose parents took them skiing or bonafide celebs. And yet here I was – albeit living in a shoebox with nothing to my name – and I too could buy this expensive thing. It was a status symbol and it made me feel powerful, like I’d achieved something which granted me access to the cool-crowd above.
I was also very aware that this post-university era I was living in was one largely unburdened by financial responsibility. I paid a couple of hundred quid in rent and I had a phone contract to keep up with, but other than that, bills who? Even at 22 I had the foresight to understand this was temporary, and not something that would extend into my late twenties or thirties. If not now to indulge in luxury purchases, then when? Didn’t I deserve the chance to have nice, shiny things like other people? Why not me?
My last point leads us seamlessly into our counterargument: not me because I simply couldn’t afford it. Not if ‘affording’ relies upon some semblance of financial security. Social media can be a beautiful melting pot of unique perspectives and individual creativity, but it can also entirely remove context where context is plainly needed. When you see someone you like online showing off a designer purchase, you don’t see the history that has brought them to that point. You don’t see the many manifestations of privilege which have leveraged their buying power, nor do you see how they are handling their money to maintain it. You don’t see how different their disposable income looks to yours; or the things they haven’t had to spend money on in order to be able to treat themselves, and you don’t even know how much of a ‘treat’ this special thing is. All you see is a desirable, high-end item on a ‘normal’ person in a ‘normal’ setting, and you think: I can do that too.
“When I ruminate over my own designer purchases and the knot of regret sitting in my stomach, I think about what I could have done with that money if I wasn’t so intent on solidifying a certain status online.”
I wanted to buy into the kind of lifestyle where brunch, lunch and beautiful bags were normal, even if that didn’t mirror my reality. That’s not to say that those of us working a 9-5 shouldn’t buy expensive things because we aren’t yachting it up in Cannes, rather that buying those expensive things in order to garnish an otherwise ‘ordinary’ life for clout only works to harm us. I think at the time I saw it as some kind of financial liberation, being able to afford these expensive things that I never thought I’d have access to, but all I really did was overspend on a material thing when I could have invested in something more meaningful.
If it sounds like I’m slagging off designer items across the board, I promise I’m not. We all deserve to have nice things, and if nice to you looks like a Fendi Baguette Bag rather than a holiday, then so be it. But particularly when I ruminate over my own designer purchases and the knot of regret sitting in my stomach, I think about what I could have done with that money if I wasn’t so intent on solidifying a certain status online.
I come from a working class background, and I never shake off this fear of wasting money; every spend is a potential deposit contribution, a pension pot, a rainy-day-fund or savings for something big. I always think about money in terms of what my family could spend it on or how useful it would be in an emergency. I always consider money as something which I might not have again one day, and now, being a little older and thinking about mortgages and financial crises and how important a good pension is, I can’t help but feel that I was foolish to splash the cash for clout. Especially on the bags that haven’t been outside of their dust bags for years.
Do I regret buying designer items entirely? It’s a complex and multi-layered answer. On the one hand, why not indulge in the expensive while I had no other responsibilities to account for? On the other, what a waste to spend so much on lumps of leather. I still use some of them regularly so the cost-per-wear argument holds some weight, but I can’t help feeling like I’ve been duped into paying over the odds for a name, and the faint whisper of cultural prestige. Either way, I can’t see myself splurging the big bucks again, not least because the pandemic has highlighted how fragile job security and income can be.
Designer items may be accessible insofar as one day, you might be able to afford them, but are they a wise purchase? I guess I’d say: only for those with a solid safety net beneath them.
Illustrated by Anna Jane Houghton, a Liverpool based researcher and artist. Drawing influence from the ‘motel’ aesthetic and beatnik literature; her illustrative style combines florals and fruit, amongst plant-life and mid-century interiors, to reimagine the classic still life.
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