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Yvonne Abraham

A luxury hangover

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / November 16, 2008
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NATICK - I spent an afternoon at the fancy end of the Natick Collection recently. People there seemed awfully happy to see me.

The sales clerks at Tiffany & Co. greeted me with delighted smiles. At Nordstrom, I asked to try on one pair of shoes and the sales assistant came back with three more possibilities.

At Burberry, a nice salesman was thrilled to show me a $2,350 checkered bag encrusted with black marine motifs, even though my own bag - a $16 Target number encrusted with baby puke - screamed, "You are deluded, sir."

"This has a pocket for your cellphone," he offered, hopefully.

The airy, wood-and-stone addition that turned the Mall into the Collection last year was practically deserted. One or two well-heeled women browsed. Many more sneakered mothers sped past the windows with strollers. On close inspection, a nattily-dressed man sitting outside the dressing-room in one dimly lit store turned out to be a mannequin.

This part of the mall looks like a giant diorama, documenting an opulent, archaic culture. Developers spent gazillions on this place so they could charge luxury retailers ridiculous rents to sell pricey fripperies to suburban status seekers.

Only it turns out there aren't enough customers here to keep the place hopping, their slim ranks falling away as the bottom drops out of the economy. And the luxury market is in serious trouble everywhere.

Serves it right.

It has been nauseating to watch the consumption explosion at the top end of the economy over the last decade or so. We have reached a level of indulgence so conspicuous that it makes the '80s look positively ascetic.

Nakedly cynical pitches have turned brands into fetishes, expanding their grip up and down the economic ladder.

In addition to filling magazines with ads, Louis Vuitton puts this season's "It Bag" into the hands of Lindsay Lohan or some other train wreck. She gets photographed with the purse and the image is everywhere. A legion of pinheads see it and scramble to get one of the bags, whose supply is strictly controlled.

Before you know it, the $3,360 Vuitton Surya bag - a monogram-covered calfskin tote named for the Hindu god who rides through the heavens on his chariot - seems perfectly normal.

This aspirational marketing targets not just the small number of people who can afford to buy these products, but also a much larger group who cannot - 16-year-olds who beg their parents for just one ludicrous bag a year, or older consumers willing to dig themselves deep into debt to buy others' envy.

As I held the Surya in Natick's empty Vuitton store, I thought: If this recession brings those consumers to their senses - if it renders an obscenely expensive hunk of monogrammed leather rare again, or even ridiculous - then good.

That gave me a feeling of satisfaction that lasted about 30 seconds.

Because the fortunes of those impossibly stylish sales clerks, staring out wanly at the fake birch trees and brown leather chairs on the promenade, are bound up with those of the ridiculous luxury goods market. As are those of the couriers who deliver the merchandise, the cleaners who make the display cases sparkle, the women who work the mall's information kiosk, the kitchen hands in the food court.

This recession doesn't target the people who made billions from our insane, devil-may-care economy. It doesn't single out the greedy lenders who amassed billions giving people mortgages they couldn't afford, or the short-sighted manufacturers who refused to develop fuel-efficient cars, or the insanely rich corporate chieftains who soared to even more dizzying wealth on those handbags.

Their houses aren't being foreclosed. They're not losing their jobs on the lines. And they're not standing in empty stores at the Natick Collection, looking worried.

There is one bright spot at the Collection, though.

A kiosk in the food court that sells scratch tickets is jumping.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is Abraham@globe.com

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