Privilege Blog

Are Luxury Goods “Fleecing” Us?

Just a t-shirt. Or is it?

Readers have recently commented, on a couple of posts, about pricing of goods like jeans and blue French jackets. We might add t-shirts to the mix. Duchesse said,

I always wonder when institutional clothes like this are offered with hefty price tags- is this an improvement on the original functional piece- or is someone fleecing us?

Let me say right up front, I don’t think we’re looking at fleecing. That term implies an unfair market transaction, and I don’t see too many of those in today’s online, legitimate brand, American, e-commerce. At bottom, I believe in Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand theories, as long as we acknowledge the associated known market failure types. In Smith’s framework, the free market is fair, absent coercion, secret information, or promises made and not kept.

So, is the luxury good market free, and therefore fair? Let’s try a few deconstructing questions. (Note to self: why is deconstructive not a more popular word?). We ask:

  • Is there physical or legal coercion? Luxury good retailers do not hold us in thrall, they cannot take our first-borns. Tony Soprano’s guys will not ice us, if we back away from Blahniks. Nor do we live in Bill Gates Oligopolyland, where if we buy gold all silver suppliers immediately refuse our trade.
  • Do insiders have access to secret information? I imagine that on today’s Internet you can find anything you want to know about luxury goods. Admittedly, they may never behave like commodities, all percentage-point margins of value and exchange. Closest is eBay auctions for widely held Louis Vuitton bags, which are not too “thinly traded,” as they say on Wall Street, for true transaction transparency.
  • Is the business rife with false promises? While laws prevent deception around quantifiable facts, one might argue that luxury branding relies on false emotional promises about our identities. But that calculus is imagination, which we do not legislate, and economics doesn’t deem unfair.
  • Does the concept of “fancy” or “dressy” or “formal” subsume all of luxury, and if so, is any workaday good by definition non-luxe? If luxury is personal, rather than societal, that cannot be true.

A little more economics. If I’ve got any of this wrong, actual economists, pipe up please. There’s even a theory that luxury goods have inelastic pricing. In standard elastic pricing, the lower the price the more demand. Inelastic pricing means that the higher you price a luxury good the more people will want it. Sturdy Gals think that’s dumb and show-offy. But we do believe the right question is:

“How much do I desire this good, and how often after the purchase, and how strongly, will I experience the satiation of said desire?”

No more, no less. It’s a pretty substantial question, one that often requires some soul-searching around unmet needs for comfort, recognition, and beauty. On beyond fleecing.

We price on desire alone – it all depends on what the market will bear and we are the market.

None of this is to say that luxury goods are actually Good. I’m not addressing the question of morality of purchase, only the market fairness, en masse, of the sellers. Neither does any of this imply we ought to spend money on clothes. It doesn’t feel right, for some of us, all deconstruction and economic theories aside.

And finally, returning to fashion, it turns out luxury jeans , jackets and tees are happening. Vogue’s most recent issue had an article on casual luxe. I can’t find it online to save my life, and my paper copy has gone missing, but it’s there. The fashion world wants to fancy up our sneakers, our jeans, our workout gear, etc.

One can imagine a cartoon CEO pounding a terribly cool mid-century desk saying, “Damn you Casual Fridays!” and in the next frame a designer presenting a wall of Japanese machinists coveralls.

Wait. Maybe I want them. And with that, what might be the only emoticon I’ve ever put in a post.


Tee by Kenzo, via Nordstrom. Art, contextual fashion moment, or money wasted on a t-shirt? You decide. This post contains affiliate links which may generate commissions.

52 Responses

  1. Their prices are based on human frailties!!!! snobbery etc… if we did not buy , they would have to drop their prices …

  2. You know me – I often go into shock looking at the prices of items you post. But, having said that, your understanding of the economics of the matter are pretty spot on. Of course, the vast majority of our clients are independent, high-end apparel retailers, so we hope they don’t go away any time soon, even if we can’t afford to shop in their stores. ;)

  3. Luxury goods are about status, not fulfilling a practical need. Therefore defying the normal economic rules of supple and demand. And as luxury becomes more and more available, such is the need to “up” the exclusivity: A mere logo on the handbag won’t do – to be truly exclusive one needs a non-logo bag, as a known-to-insiders-only mark of status. There will always be a need to distinguish one’s wealth, even if it’s by going against all trends. I often joke that I show my out-of-place in Malibu, dressed in nice casual clothes, where rich locals compete who is the frumpiest. And it gets to extremes with – who purposely design their uber-lux pieces to look like old worn pieces – but those in the know – will recognize, admire, and most of all – desire – to belong one day to the tribe of can-afford-it. And could that desire be ever fulfilled?

  4. Hi Lisa, I think the problem is equating luxury goods with their purported equivalents. If for example, you are debating between a Toyota and a Honda, the cachet is about the same, and you can compare price, features, etc. However, this shirt is not the equivalent of a $7 “I Love Golden Gate Bridge” model. While one might admire this design, what is really for sale is the announcement that you can spend over $100 extra for an apparently trivial purchase.

    Although we can guess what drew you to this Tiger design, you showed great moderation with this selection–the other Kenzo shirts were a lot uglier and more expensive.

  5. As I [a non economist] see it, class A fleecing would occur in a separate connotation of “invisible hand,” for example in the negotiations around sourcing grades of silk for a, say, DesignerX Pure Silk Blouse. We know there are grades of silk, we know about margins, we know some silks can degrade along stress points on seamlines, we know merchants can’t tolerate being swamped with seam blowout returns, we know there are vendors hawking manmade miracle fibers guaranteed to stabilize silks, but do we know if Carolina Herrera purchased a grade of silk with X% miracle fiber content in her as-advertised 100% Pure Silk Shirt, indeed do we know/wonder/care whether the designer clothing industry has invented a secret defensive “perfectly legal” fabric glossary in which the Pure Silk designation can now include X% of miracle fibers, because what we don’t know is that the highest designation of pure silk is now secretly called “Virginal Silk.” Yes I know I sound crazy, but this kind of subterranean fool-the-blind-consumer is what constitutes fleecing to me, ie the “invisible hand” behind luxury price points given mid grade sourcing and deceptive promotional language.

    This is too long, sorry.

  6. Because you are always clever with words, Lisa, I thought this column was going to be about how fleece items are getting the luxury treatment (more on the $200 sweatpants theme, etc.)! :D Several things to add to the discussion mix: 1) ‘luxurification’ of simple items has been going on for — well, probably forever (we’ve come a long way from loincloths, baby; although they will no doubt recycle back into fashion at some point). Remember when Gloria Vanderbilt first elevated blue jeans, decades ago? 2) The human instinct to differentiate is a key driver in fashion (as well as in a lot of other things). 3) As more and more wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of the already wealthy (and there is much research to support this fact), the luxury market is expanding disproportionately. So we may be seeing disproportionately more ludicrous offerings than usual.

  7. The luxury market covers a lot of territory. Entry level fashion luxury is just one piece of real estate. The recession has made it a huge, and extremely important.

    Entry level fashion statement luxury items, like the T, must be expensive to maintain an aura of exclusivity which justifies the price to the targeted segment of the market, for example, 15-25 year olds who will pay (note I didn’t specify ‘afford’) $100 for a T. This is the business model for entry level products from ‘luxury brands’. When the entry level consumer has more income they will spend it on mid and upper level luxury items because they had such a good memory about how special that $100 T made them feel back in the day.

    Sturdy Gals who think consumers in that segment exhibit lack of intellect and a desire to show-off are perfectly correct, but that should be considered separately from the maker’s pricing strategy. I’m willing to bet Sturdy Gals are only a blip on the radar for entry level luxury fashion marketers in that they may be coerced into purchasing items for their peer pressured teenage offspring or nephews. In full disclosure, I like to think I have one foot in the Sturdy Gal camp. The other foot is planted solidly in the classic 3.5″ heeled pump (with pointed toe, thank you) camp.

    Luxury is subjective and is not universally synonymous with quality. But I’m sure you’ll do that in another post if you haven’t already!

  8. Your viewpoint has swayed me in the abstract, but somehow I’m still rumbling with discontent. I think what bothers me–with any goods, not just luxury ones–is erosion. Let’s say we’re salivating over Item X. Several years ago it cost $150; today it costs $300 due to skyrocketing desirability. Market forces prevail: fine–if the quality of materials and workmanship remain the same. You wanted it? Shoulda gotten in on the ground floor. However, all too often the materials and workmanship have eroded, at the same time the price has jumped, and this just chaps my hide.

    As for the lofty prices that practical (to us) things like T-shirts and jeans now command, maybe we’re left scratching our heads because of a generational shift. When our cohort was coming of age, there were more clear-cut distinctions between which clothes were worn for which activities. Those currently in their 20s and 30s grew up in a culture where t-shirts and jeans (casual or dressy) were far more acceptable in many more situations (I know, I know–there are regional differences in dress code to be accounted for here). So, if jeans and T-shirts are the uniform, how else to proclaim your eliteness than with an offensively priced status T?

  9. This is such a wide issue that I applaud your succinct manner in discussing it. I don’t even know where to start in commenting on it…Balmain is notorious for its pricing and yet there is still a reseller market for it and yet Primark sells dresses for ten bucks and the margin of profit is higher at Primark and they have a notoriously bad code of business practice. I used to attend the monthly meetings for the American Luxury Brand Council when I worked in the marketing department of a high end American brand and psychology has everything to do with it. The luxury market is very fair and reacts and inches forward with caution and the customers are the ones who keep pushing the benchmark…

  10. I’m retired and live on a fixed income now. I can’t say I won’t spend money on things I want since I did spend a month in Paris last summer–and paid cash for the entire trip. But I don’t waste money on stuff I don’t need, let alone on $100 t-shirts (?!).

    Assuming I needed a new one, and could afford it, I’d rather buy a cheaper shirt and give the difference to charity.

    But that’s just me.

  11. Hi, Lisa! A small correction, if I may. :)

    Actually, with inelastic demand, an increase in price still leads to a decrease in demand; it’s just that the decrease in demand is not as great as the increase in price. Think of oil – even when price has skyrocketed, demand hasn’t fallen by much.

    Many economics textbooks cite luxury goods as examples of “Veblen goods” instead. With Veblen goods, an increase in price leads to an increase in demand. This violates the law of demand. An example of a Veblen good might be a Hermes handbag – as its price increases, more people want one.

    Inelastic demand, on the other hand, doesn’t violate the law of demand (unless the good is “perfectly inelastic”, which means neither an increase nor a decrease in price affects quantity demanded).

    The distinction is subtle, I know, and in real life, most luxury goods are probably more likely to exhibit the characteristics of inelastic demand (as price increases, demand does decrease, but only by a little) than to exhibit the characteristics of Veblen goods (as price increases, demand increases).

    However, it’s definitely inaccurate to say that inelastic demand means that a price increase leads to a demand increase. :)

    Lastly: I’m not an economist; I just studied it in college. I welcome the actual economists with the PhDs to nitpick my generalizations above.

  12. I think people are pointing out a separate but related and important issue.

    Just what is “luxury” after all? And is it for outward show? Or derived from the materials and craftmanship in its production? Maybe something, as suggested, for another post.

    1. @Lisa, Very interesting topic. To me luxury today is as much about accessibility as it is about price. An item that can be easily procured, no matter how high the price tag, is not necessarily luxury.

    2. @Lisa, Yes, another post would be very interesting. When a bag or piece of clothing is priced significantly higher than what seems ‘reasonable’, does that reflect the quality of materials, craftmanshio, details, etc? Or not? And how to tell, especially when buying on line?

  13. You’ve got some good thoughts, but I’ll chime in since you asked for an economist’s opinion. The demand for luxury goods is actually price elastic (not inelastic, which is the case for “necessities”). When the price of a luxury good decreases – think “sample sale”! – people who normally don’t buy then buy like crazy. When the prices are high, people look for more affordable substitutes because they really can go without that Chanel handbag. The reason why the prices are so high is because designers exercise some amount of monopolistic power (due to control over a brand, reputation for exceptional quality, etc.), and being profit-maximizing, they take advantage of what consumers are willing to pay.

    1. Exactly. Since I am the originator of the term “fleecing” in that post, this best represents what I meant.

      I see this practice all the time in the world of jewelry. The price of the raw material and fabrication, in a design that has been ground out for decades, does not merit the cost.
      Those “Return to Tiffany” items supply a good example.

      1. I’m just wondering if “monopoly” is the correct term, for the barriers to entry that branding builds. It’s not the same as actually fencing off an oilfield, for example.

  14. There is an interesting intersection between “status” and “luxury”, isn’t there? And every person’s perception of the relation of the two is bound to be slightly different. Personally, I think “status” goods for their own sake without (my perception of) high quality construction, some sort of artistic value (highly personal also) or high ethical criteria (labor, material procurement) is silly. I’m also not keen to pay a company for the privilege of doing its advertising for it by wearing its logo across my chest. That said, I don’t feel that one needs to “get” someone else’s purchasing decision for it to be right for them. People buy what they are willing to pay for (what they can truly afford, notwithstanding). As long as demand is not generated through false advertising, I say it’s a matter of “caveat emptor”.

  15. Another viewpoint is that of the book collector. Well, any collector, really, but books are my weakness. Best Beloved may not credit it, but I can walk, empty-handed, out of a secondhand dealer. Admittedly, that only happens if there’s nothing I want in stock and most of my preciouses are reasonably priced and unlikely to cause shock. But when The Book is there – either physically or via a catalogue, I am helpless and it is only a question of whether or not I can scratch up the money, not how much that amount is (or if they will let me do lay-by). Tremors, dry mouth, palpitations, the lot. Until it is mine, at which point there is an uninhibited happy dance and much gloating.

    I do limit my browsing and hunting habits. Yes, I can undoubtedly put a lot on my ebook (and I do, it’s a very convenient format, especially for travelling). But it still comes down to choice and what the market will bear. Much of the time, a good, readable copy is enough. There are a couple of writers I like to collect in first editions. And there are some books that were only published once, have very desirable provenance or are hard to find.

    And a real issue is defining luxury. Definitions will vary depending on circumstance and what you’ve been brought up with. Books are not a luxury for me, they’re a necessity. Being able to collect first editions or rarer volumes – that’s a luxury, along with being able to wear perfume every day and enjoy good food and coffee. To me, luxury should be something that brings pleasure and grace to my day. It doesn’t have to be about cost – it’s hard to beat the luxury of sitting outside with a good cup of tea or coffee and just listening to the birds.

  16. I have to admit – the “luxury sweatshirt” trend from this season has been such a joke to me. Absolutely ludicrous. Some thing I will love, but sewing some Swarovski jewels, slapping your label inside, and calling it luxury makes my head hurt (because it gets me mad!).


  17. What I want to know is this—why are certain luxury goods important to some who can afford them and not important to others who can also afford them.? I

    1. Just because people have the means, they do not necessarily have the desire for luxury goods. And some who don’t have the means want luxury goods anyway, and will go into debt or make other compromises to get them.

  18. Some years ago a friend of mine called me to say she had just bought a fur coast from somewhere fairly important, can’t remember (wonder if she still has it?).

    I asked her how long the thrill lasted.

    She said it was gone before she got home.

    Now that’s wasting money two ways!

    Sometimes a new magazine totally satisfies my acquisitive nature.

    Other times I want that blue jacket.

    xo J

  19. I will admit to privilege, having enough money, having discretionary money, but not having what my mother would call “that kind of money”, which meant a “price is no object” mentality. Price is a serious consideration to me, because having money, not yet spent or committed to be spent, presupposes options, endless options at that. I would always and ever weigh those options, consider the possibilities: that $100 could be a sterling star key ring from Tiffany that would give me pleasure every time I unlocked my front door, lunch with my dearest at the Marine Room in La Jolla, or if you are lucky enough to live in San Diego a membership to the Safari Park/San diego Zoo, that includes guest passes and is tax deductible. Or, you could save it and savor your options,…or buy that t-shirt…your choice, all depending on what value you place on money…and on t-shirts.

  20. I would pay $100 for a the holy grail of a good tee shirt but haven’t found any for the last few years. I am looking for good cotton, not uber thin fabric, no spandex, no modal, no rayon, not too long, not too short, not too tight but not shapeless, feminine Vee and GRAY – impossible to find. My last two were Talbots from 4 years ago now. I hand wash them to make them last as long as possible.

    1. @Vera, I hear ya. I too once had the ideal cotton tee from Talbots, I reordered to find the fabric halved in weight/heft, if not quartered. “Now in pima!” they brayed, so I ordered one, it was thinthinthin, no shape/body. So I pulled my old one back out of the donation stack and got another year out of it :-(

  21. we moved from the Bay Area to the very, very cold east coast. I just gave zappos $115 for patagonia wool-ish “tights/leggings”. And you know what – I was so warm today! and they will last. so while I see that as a luxury item because of cost not label but I am sure it will be a staple of my October to April wardrobe. They would be lovely in the Bay Area as well just less useful. I also just ordered a few pairs of 7 jeans — because if it fits perfectly, then I can have one pair — it may have cost close to $200 but if I wear it 3 or 4 days a week — 8 months of the year — totally worth it. I did not buy it because of the 7 but that every pair of those I have ever tried on at a consignment shop (too big or too small) felt great. We’ll see what I think when they are in my hands.

  22. When I wrote “fleeced” I was thinking of items like $400+ Balenciaga ‘distressed’ jeans, “Return to Tiffany” silver jewelery and handbags made with only fair workmanship (fabric lining and unremarkable plated hardware), but which sell for many thousands because they bear a conspicuous prestige logo.

    I too have an interest in beauty, comfort and high levels of workmanship; those values influence me to buy some luxury goods and enjoy them. Others, I have assessed as a shuck: the quality and the price tag are way out of synch.

  23. During my life, I have bought tee shirts (and overalls) costing more than $100 and my pleasure in them was well worth the price. Perhaps because I was fortunate enough to have a mother and two grandmothers able to create any kind of garment I could imagine and describe, my idea of true luxury is that it is unique… not “sort of” unique or “really” unique or “very” unique… which sort of disqualifies most goods available. In the blog world, Beatrix Ost seems to me (from what little I’ve read) to exemplify one version of the luxurious life.

  24. This is such an interesting post. My personal view has always been more of a pffftt… I do understand that the quality of material and workmanship must be essential to the luxury brands and also the price itself in a way is added value.So this post is quite educational for me. It is also probably one the best things I’ve ever read on the topic of luxury goods. But still, I find it very difficult to ignore the sociological aspect (your fourth bullet point). You so rightly say luxury goods function as objects of desire, for different reasons; the marketed lifestyle, ability to afford equals success, or just simple beauty. Casual (as a lifestyle and clothing as its extension) belongs into the category of every day, informal. It’s every-person sort of thing. Everyone can be casual. There is nothing every-day or even every-man about luxury itself. That’s why it is a luxury. So, you see, casual luxe moves into the territory where it doesn’t actually belong. And so, by selling a T-shirt at $100+, or a pair of jeans with a hefty and for the majority prohibitive price tag can feel so unnecessary, so over the top, so much like fleecing.

  25. Oh dear, just reread my posted comment. Does it seem like I’m criticizing your point of view? Hope not, It wasn’t my intention. But I just don’t know anymore because it’s midnight here on the European side of the pond and I’m out of my favourite cocoa and I just saw a photo of Tilda Swinton in the most beautiful coat which I want but can’t have and now I just want my cocoa.

    1. @TanjaK, Recognizing, at least, the true luxury of cocoa- within reach, widely available, ahhh. Really, in the end, luxury is a feeling, isn’t it?

    2. @TanjaK,

      “it’s midnight here on the European side of the pond and I’m out of my favourite cocoa”

      …I’m here in southeast-storm-central-USA, my electric power just went out, and I swear I want a back up generator more than I want anything in the WORLD right now. There, I said it: my idea of luxury is a full house Generac back up generator. And you know what? I’m gonna get one.

    3. @Flo
      Oh no! I hope you’ve already got electricity. Perspective on luxury does shift with circumstances, doesn’t it? Hope you get a nifty little generator soon.

    4. No, not at all! I welcome civil disagreement, and robust discussion. You expressed yourself very well. Thank you.

  26. Even though I stopped wearing jeans a decade or so ago, the idea of spending more than $75 on a pair (even then!) is unfathomable to me. On the other hand, spending $3,000+ on a Rolex doesn’t raise an eyebrow. A tee shirt? I have half a dozen ones I wear to the gym or beach, but that’s it. Not one of them cost more than $20, and most less. As far as I’m concerned, men over the age of 50 (such as I) shouldn’t be seen in public wearing a collarless shirt. I say that because I spent several hours waiting for a flight this afternoon, and I did not see one man over 40 who looked good in a tee shirt. Not one. The only ones who looked decent were wearing polo shirts, or button downs. A bit off point, I know, but I needed a bit of a rant. I spend money on goods where it makes a difference: shoes, watches, coats (hate cheap coats), and suits. The other stuff I will pay for quality (always looking for those perfect all cotton khakis), but not exorbitantly.

  27. A message to Flo — me too! I am determined to get a full house generator installed this spring, and fortunately I am able to, as I don’t waste my dollars on stupid $300 tee shirts!

    1. @Reggie Darling,

      We shall look forward to a future generator selection and installation post, Reggie! Given the new norm of extreme weather, you and Boy must take defensive care of The Darling House Museum Buildings and Gardens, one tripped switch causing a buildup of humidity for days on end means unhappy antiques and fabrics. I’ll never get over the photo you took of the blueberry cobbler, THAT’s my inspiration photo for getting our defenses established! xo

  28. Luxury to me is something that is very well made and will last years and years. I don’t particularly look at brands (anymore), but how well something is made, and how well it will stand the test of time. Where something is made is also a factor for me. I prefer to buy items that are made in Canada or the US.

    1. Welcome, everyone! If comments cease to work on this post, as happens occasionally, mysteriously, please feel free to email me as I can comment from my WordPress editor.

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