Conspicuous Consumption Grows Along With Capitalism's Contradictions

As the twin phenomena of regulatory capture and decrepit political structures controlled by a small plutocracy enable a small class of rentiers to accumulate an ever larger share of the world's wealth, our patriarchal society spawns status-obsessed males seeking glory through gaudy displays of finery.

Or, as the New York Times Style section puts it, "Designers Are Waking Up To a Men's Luxury Fashion Market."

The lexicon describing male shopping has been lately enriched with newly minted acronyms and portmanteaux, following in the vaunted (and derided) footsteps of "metrosexual." Bain & Company calls this spender-to-be Henry (High Earner, Not Rich Yet); the bank HSBC, more cringe-worthily, calls him a Yummy (Young Urban Male). But if you christen him, will he come?

The post-Reagan divergence of wealth accumulation in America in which the top quintile, led by the top 1% and the top .01%, take an ever-larger share of our nation's economic pie for themselves, continues apace. With post-recession wage gains and stock market gains accruing almost exclusively to the upper class, and with a tax system that favors the income of the wealthy over the standard wages of labor, it is only natural that businesses attempt to maximize their own revenue by catering to the insecurities of a monied ultra-elite.

"We see clearly a big potential for men," said Jean-Marc Bellaiche, a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group, where he leads the firm's luxury, fashion and beauty sectors. "This segment of what we call metrosexuals — those men, living in cities, making a lot of money, taking care of themselves, buying cosmetic products, buying the best brands for apparel, even wearing luxury bags — this is a growing segment."

He added, with a chuckle: "I'm not the only one in meetings now with a luxury branded bag."

The theory of "conspicuous consumption," as articulated by Thorstein Veblen, holds that competition for social status and prestige among the wealthy will inevitably manifest itself in the showy display of expensive luxury goods. More intense concentrations of wealth will cause this dynamic to spiral into increasingly grotesque exhibitions of splurges. The contrast between the luxury on display and the far more widespread neediness of the lower classes, ironically, only makes the display that much more impressive.

So many companies are moving so enthusiastically into that niche that it's tempting to see a sartorial arms race. "There are more brands that try to play in the high-end market," said Francesco Pesci, the chief executive of Brioni, where a suit can cost up to $17,000. "Of course this is a challenge. We like challenges. It's good to have competition in life, eh?"

Piketty has warned us of the long term consequences of an economy like ours, in which owners of capital see their assets appreciate at a faster rate than the underclass which has only its own labor to offer: wealth flocks to to the top of the economic spectrum, and with it, purveyors of goods and services. This leads to a distortion of the socioeconomic balance, in which the most elite firms in all fields turn their attention to a small group of the very rich, leaving the bulk of society to flounder, lacking funds with which to tempt the most skilled artisans to serve them.

Guy Endzweig, 35, a real estate investor, spent his 20s in conservative labels before discovering Tom Ford and Brunello Cucinelli. He is emblematic of the customer these companies would be happy to court: fashion-forward, ready to spend.

The only remaining question: how long until the underclass rises up to realign the social order with the economic order? One fears that the longer they wait, the more grisly the inevitable revolt will be.

[Photo: Getty]