When I was younger, I loved staring at images of beautiful celebrities in glamorous outfits on red carpets. Although I never deeply contemplated who owned the clothing they wore, I always assumed it was the celebrities themselves. Confessions of a Shopaholic was a movie I would watch religiously. It was probably the inspiration for my dream of a color-coordinated walk-in closet, complete with an entire wall just for my shoes. In my mind, wealth and its power resided in the clothes it could buy me and nothing more.
It was quite a shock to realize that celebrities, the ones whose clothing I so deeply envied, didn’t even own the dresses and suits they wore. For the bigger events like the Oscars or the Grammys, celebrities wore the dresses for free, and for the smaller events, they rented them. Even stranger to me was the realization that, more often than not, it was designers who would pay celebrities to wear their clothes. At the time, this concept was utterly counterintuitive. I had yet to realize that celebrities were selling their relevance, in other words, our attention, to designers. In exchange, designers could market their products to the masses in a way that cemented their elusive, communicating that theirs was a product for the wealthy, glamorous elites of society. The irony is, of course, that we were the ones they were marketing their products to.
It’s often an uncomfortable moment to realize that we are being sold to; something about that market exchange feels inauthentic and manipulative. While this discomfort rarely occurs in the produce section of a supermarket, it is almost always present in the advertising and purchasing of luxury goods. In economics, the common logic is that demand for a good generally decreases as the price increases, i.e., fewer people can afford to buy expensive things. This rule, however, is untrue for designer handbags. The more expensive a bag is, the more we want it. This irrational behavior can only be explained by the marketing agency’s proficiency in convincing consumers to buy things they don’t need.
An even more disconcerting realization is that we, the fans, are the products being sold. The way that the fashion industry interacts with celebrities is unpleasantly similar to the business model of most Social Media apps. Facebook, for example, is free to users because the company profits off user engagement by selling access to our collective attention through ad space. The more time we spend scrolling, the more money Facebook makes.
Celebrities use their fanbases similarly. They can sell their image and relevance to luxury brands, and in an effort to emulate them and their lifestyles, we buy the products they are paid to promote. In the U.S, a society where social mobility is increasingly unattainable but wealth is highly admired, what becomes more important than actually obtaining wealth, is buying products that communicate the image of wealth. Celebrities, with their allure, popular favor, and influence, become vital in selling that image.