Shopper Showdown: Karl Marx vs Karl Lagerfeld

May 9, 2014 • Fashion

The University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business recently revealed details of an upcoming study, to be published in October, suggesting that snobbish sales assistants may actually be motivating customers to spend more in their stores. The study, rather creatively titled “Should the Devil Sell Prada? Retail Rejection Increases Aspiring Consumers’ Desire for the Brand,” demonstrates that if the salesperson appears to be representative of a brand (a tall, thin, white woman instantly comes to mind), treating the customer rudely might heighten said customer’s desire to make an expensive purchase. Sauder professor Darren Dahl contends that, like a suburban high school cliché, customers are eager to buy their way into the cool kids’ club. Dahl also notes, however, that rude salespeople are ineffective when they represent mass-market brands, or when their rudeness is extended over multiple store visits. Shocker.

The two most important Karls in fashion (sorry, Karl Templer).

The two most important Karls in fashion (sorry, Karl Templer).

These findings struck me as odd. After all, isn’t excellent, personalised service one of the pillars of modern luxury retail? In a volatile atmosphere where every customer has an axe to grind about loose stitching and coarse lining, isn’t a friendly, obliging sales assistant the very least we can expect when we (not me, obviously, but some people) drop an entire month’s rent on one article of clothing? One of the few reasons Chanel has been so reluctant to embrace e-commerce beyond its cosmetics line is that it still believes in the magic: a store with finesse, where customers are able to walk through glass doors, talk to real people, and invest in real products. On the rare occasion that I get to splurge, I like to be greeted with exceptional kindness and hospitality, even if the weather is dismal, even if the salesperson’s favourite Game of Thrones character has recently been killed off.

German philosopher Karl Marx left behind a great body of work denouncing the capitalist mode of production. He died in 1883, some fifty years before another great German man named Karl—Lagerfeld, that is—entered the world, though his birthday, and even his status as an actual human being on planet Earth, is still subject to suspicion. Marx died the year Coco Chanel was born, and never saw her company become arguably the most important brand in fashion. Marx never saw the rise of Bernard Arnault and his multi-billion dollar empire; he never saw H&M and Zara become two of the biggest names in mass retail; nor got the chance to witness, and decry, the atrocious human rights abuses surrounding increasingly unstable supply and demand in the production of counterfeit goods. As far as I’m aware, the fashion industry was never Marx’s primary area of investigation, precisely, but neither would it have escaped his notice.

In Marx’s theory of alienation, the worker experiences alienation in four ways under capitalism. Firstly, they are alienated from the product of their work, as the design and manner in which a product is created is determined not by the worker, or even by the consumers, but by the capitalist class. Secondly, the worker is alienated from the labour itself, which is a series of discrete, repetitive actions that offer very little psychological satisfaction—the meaningless motions slowly dehumanise people under capitalism. Thirdly, workers are alienated from themselves as producers, as they become mechanised by the capitalist mode of production and turned into a commodity with an exchange value. Finally, the worker is alienated from other workers, as their labour is traded in a market that pits employees and brands in endless competition against each other to maximise profits.

Chinese garment workers in a Romanian factory. Image source: International Herald Tribune.

Chinese garment workers in a Romanian factory. Image source: International Herald Tribune.

In her book, Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, Tansy E. Hoskins asserts that the fashion industry is adept at hiding human labour behind a glamorous façade, which alienates consumers from the reality of harsh human labour. “People become alienated not just from themselves but from products,” she writes. “It is this distance that provides space for the idea that commodities can have special powers. Consumers are far removed from the production of goods like shoes, handbags and clothes. Items appear in shops without revealing a trace of the manufacturing process, seemingly independent of people. This gives the illusion that there is a source of wealth separate from human labour.” To a certain extent, consumers are able to trace products back to their mythical origins via tags and labels that denote authenticity: “Made in France” or “Made in Italy.” Even the figures that denote the year and place a brand was founded, as in “Prada Milano Dal. 1913,” is a psychological bridge that helps us better understand how products came to be. The product itself, regrettably, is valued infinitely more than the process that enabled its creation. The “chain of designers, cotton pickers, sweatshop workers, dye technicians and freight drivers,” as Hoskins notes, are pushed to the background, in favour of the beguiling banner of “high fashion.”

To claim that snobbish sales assistants are healthy for business, however, requires a closer look at Marx’s third element of alienation—that workers are alienated from themselves in a capitalist society. According to Marx, humans possess gattungswesen, an innate sense of “species-being.” The capacity to work is part of a person’s sense of being and purpose, so long as that work engages their human spirit. This is clearly the most nebulous of Marx’s four elements of alienation, but if we consider how brands have slipped out of families’ control over the past four decades into the laps of tycoons like Bernard Arnault and François-Henri Pinault, context can pull lofty theory into focus. Indeed, before the formation of luxury conglomerates like LVMH and Kering, it was the designer themselves who would source their own fabric, set their own hours of trade, engage in personal interaction with their clients far and wide. The creative studio itself was an extension of their own personal living space, often just one or two storeys below the home. If the frustrating game of designer musical chairs (and nobody enjoys it quite as much as Jil Sander) has made one thing clear, it’s that people are just as a commodity as the clothes they produce, with an exchange value, influenced by supply and demand.

Crowds waiting to shop outside H&M in Melbourne, Australia. Image source: Homme Styler.

Crowds waiting to shop outside H&M in Melbourne, Australia. Image source: Homme Styler.

The snobbish sales assistant, then, is simply another replaceable cog in a global, gigantic, impersonal production machine. If they are created to be “representative of a brand,” as the study suggests, then their every move is controlled by a higher authority. Every side-eye, every sneer, every snort of derision is a projection of brand values, a way of saying, “This is far too expensive for you,” without having to utter those words. The snobbish sales assistant experiences alienation, often without realising it, in that they carry exchange value, just like the $3000 handbags they sell, working eight hours a day, five days a week, to generate surplus value for the store. With “the right look” and a “genuine flair for fashion and style,” they embody and impart brand values, like a svelte magazine advertisement in kitten heels.

Marx never got to see the fashion industry grow into capitalism’s favourite child, its best friend, its pride and joy. He never got to shop on Rodeo Drive or Oxford Street or in the Ginza district, to have snobbish sales assistants turn up their noses at his wild, unfettered beard. He would almost certainly denounce their behaviour as a display of classist, exclusionary brand values, reminding them that their roles as brand ambassadors has alienated them from their being, rendered them puppets to someone else’s whim. Working to make the obscenely wealthy even wealthier, he would argue, is exploitative at its core. And had he lived to see the lines outside H&M, where thousands lined up to buy the new Margiela collaboration last year…well, I can only imagine him falling to the floor, curled up in foetal position, sobbing uncontrollably.

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  • Firpal Tony Jawanda

    Karl Marx, the system of fashion ect.. is exactly what ive been exploring in my work. ill be studying womenswear at csm next year and they were thrilled when i talked about all of this at my interview a couple of months ago. great article.

  • Daniel

    I think part of the psychology of snobbery driving sales up is that customers who feel wronged may find the need to prove to the staff that they can actually afford to buy what they want. A customer could go to great lengths to save him / herself from humiliation only to realize later how foolish it was of them. The ego of the staff could have a huge influence on the customers spending.

  • yen_d

    that snobbish sale assistant is also a worker though, and I’m sure marx had his own tailors.
    but this is really interesting haha

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