Sisters in shame, or I bought my souvenirs after I got home
On a recent trip to Europe, I made brief stops in two places that are, in a sense, Aspens Sister Cities.They werent ski resorts or even mountain towns; they were Aspens sisters in the World of Luxury Living.One wasnt even an entire city, really just a single street: the Rue du Rhne, along the riverfront in Geneva, Switzerland. The other was Cannes, on the French Riviera and here, too, Im really thinking about a single street: the Croisette, Cannes seaside boulevard.Both streets are crammed full of luxury, of course. There are luxury hotels and, most of all, to my eye, luxury shops.Stroll down either of these two streets and you will see the usual suspects: Gucci, Prada, Dior, Louis Vuitton and all the rest.Needless to say, we werent doing any shopping. That was partly because, as Americans in Europe at this particular stage of our economys precipitous decline, we felt distressingly poor. The once-mighty U.S. dollar is barely worth half a euro these days. We hardly could afford a baguette, much less that glittzy (but slightly sleazy looking) Louis Vuitton dress with the $13,000 price tag we saw in a Geneva shop window or the $6,000 pair of shoes that went with it.And beyond the prices was the fact none of that stuff appeals even remotely to me or my wife. (Thank God!)So we bought a postcard instead. A very nice one. With a full-color photograph.And while we were in Cannes, I read a few chapters from a new book called Deluxe. (I only read a few chapters because I was borrowing the book from the friends we were staying with. I certainly couldnt afford to buy my own copy. See note above about euros and dollars.)Deluxe tells the history of luxury brands from the grand era of a century ago to the much-less-grand modern day. It recounts their painful, though profitable, evolution from small, family-owned businesses dedicated to creating high-quality goods into multibillion-dollar marketing juggernauts.Handmade quality has been replaced by mass-produced quantity, and the elite super-rich clientele has been replaced by the vastly larger hordes of the merely affluent. Those who demanded the best and didnt care what it cost have been replaced by those who demand only the logo and dont care how its made.Does it matter? Maybe not. Some people get what they want: status, as perceived by themselves and (they hope) by anyone who happens to see them pass by with their prominently logo-ed belongings. Other people get what they want: billions of dollars in profit. And still other people get what they need: a job in a Chinese factory, sewing handbags by the thousands.But maybe it does matter in some small way. Maybe it matters that our world is a little cheaper, a little shoddier. Maybe it does matter that true quality is disappearing, that true craftsmanship is fading away. Certainly, I never would have been a customer for the original purveyors of true luxury goods. And, just as certainly, I am not a customer for the new version of those old-line businesses.No Gucci for me, so why should I care?And that question, of course, brings us right back here to Aspen, Colo.As I said at the beginning, Aspen is a bit of a Sister City to Cannes and to Genevas Rue du Rhne. And you can find many of those same mass-luxe brands right here.If Id wanted Prada souvenirs of Geneva and Cannes, I could have saved myself a lot of heavy hauling and bought those souvenirs once I got home. Same label, same logo whod know the difference?Which raises the question of why anyone would travel around the world or across the country to shop in the exact same stores and buy the exact same things they can get at home.Once Aspen was filled with small, locally owned businesses catering very specifically to those who lived and visited here. There was a belief wrong, but persistent that local laws prohibited chain stores.Now the chains have arrived in force and all those unique local shops have been either eliminated or pushed to the margins of town by rents that only the chains can afford.The chain stores do provide some affordable food (McDonalds) and clothing (The Gap), along with the onslaught of nouveau luxe. But the overall effect on Aspen is the same as the overall effect on the world. Things are a little shoddier and a little more the same.Which is, in the end, the answer to the question of whether I should care that once-great companies have been reduced to mere marketing devices.I dont, of course, care about Gucci or Prada or any of the rest. But I do care about the fate of quality, and I do care about the fate of Aspen.Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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