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How to charge an absurd amount of money for a terribly mundane item: Slap a snobby logo on it

Would you spend $1,600 on a non-waterproof umbrella? It might help to know that it will probably keep out the sun. On the other hand, the fact that it has the bare minimum functionality to qualify as an umbrella might not be enough, just as it was not enough for the Chinese social media users who recently trolled the Italian luxury label Gucci, which had created the item as part of a collaboration with Adidas. Gucci responded by changing the “umbrella” in the product name to “parasol” on its official China website. Whether anyone would still want to spend all those dollars on something that could easily turn inside out on a windy day is, of course, the $1,600 question.

Even those who shop at discount stores and fill their closets with two-for-one deals know that once you slap a high-end logo on it, the most mundane item can be sold at an eye watering price. Why else would luxury labels produce skateboards (as French fashion house Chanel did) which are too expensive to be anywhere but in a bank vault, or brown paper bags that retail for $290 (as the ones created by German design house Jil Sander did)? Sometimes, a logo is not even needed, like in the cashmere baseball caps (as seen on Succession) which are worn to telegraph the wearer’s 1-per cent status and not just cover up a bald patch or a bad case of dandruff.

One might be tempted to draw parallels with the Gilded Age in 19th century US or late 17th century France as it was under Louis XIV, “The Sun King”, to make a point about how the rich have always spent absurd amounts of money on fripperies . But the only real comparison is with what happened at the Independents Exhibition in New York City in 1917. Marcel Duchamp brought in a porcelain urinal, turned it upside down and displayed it as an art piece called ‘The Fountain’. If money is to be flushed down, it might as well be for a joke.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on May 25, 2022 under the title ‘The $1,600 question’.

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