This one... out! I’ll take the rest.” Shelley Long’s Phyllis Nefler in 1989’s Troop Beverly Hills was the epitome of the ultra high net worth individual. She was how I imagined myself shopping when I grew up to be a 30-something trophy wife. But the dream is gone. The reality far less elitist. Today, our luxury isn’t limited to places such as Rodeo Drive, but is instead Instagrammably accessible. It’s a click away and it doesn’t end with couture.
In the past, luxury was reserved for the elite few who could afford it – now, even if you don’t have the plastic, you can still buy a part of luxury without committing to the full debt of it. Nowadays, you don’t need the new ‘It’ bag each season; a decorative strap with appliqué (à la Fendi) will do. Today, a woman doesn’t dream of lush, dyed fur coats, but instead of monogrammed fur-ball key chains to promptly show off her affluence.
The truth is, 15 years ago, you didn’t have to be a millionaire to buy real luxury. Purchasing designer handbags for under $1,000 was the norm, not just a good find at a sample sale. We inflated our designer goods when luxury itself became the trend to end all trends. Unfortunately for trend followers, the economy has not been backing up the seasons’ must-haves. And now, in this new ‘straight-to-staff-sale’ era, we have shaped the new face of luxury: she’s young, millennial and annoyingly flawless (thanks to Botox, microblading and fillers). She’s no longer in a league of her own. She’s not a one-in-a-million girl, but rather there are a million girls just like her. And she doesn’t care about heritage or even quality for that matter; it’s all digital anyway. Her priority is what logo looks good in Lo-Fi.
How did we get here?
Most of us want to blame the usual suspects: Instagram. Snapchat. WhatsApp. Influencers. Millennials. But the truth is, those assumptions are shrouded in ageism and digital bias. Retail reports from the last two years focused on phrases like ‘360 luxury experience’ and ‘knowledgeable sales staff’, or, my personal favourite, ‘storytelling’. The Chalhoub Group even opened a speciality store, Tryano, based in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Mall to provide the new luxury consumer with all of their diva preferences. But all of those millennial-oriented strategies mean nothing if you don’t have a customer to physically sell your ‘stories’ to, which today happens to be the case. Foot traffic in malls and specialty stores has significantly dropped. New malls, such as Boulevard in Saudi Arabia, look pristine and empty. Even luxury car sales have seen up to a 90 per cent fall in sales in 2017 compared to last year, according to showroom insiders. What happened to ‘Arab Money’? Or more importantly, what happened to the Arabs who actually spend it? There are various anomalies currently shaping the luxury market and few of them require a broadband internet connection.
With the Middle East in the middle of geopolitical uncertainty, what the future holds in the region has greatly affected the way we are spending. From Saudi Arabia, which is involved in conflicts, to your average cautious Qatari and Kuwaiti skipping Beirut and Cairo as summer destinations due to domestic instability, we’re seeing Gulf citizens spend less money in the region. Muslim travel bans and musical chairs of international politics also have Arabs bracing themselves for the worst. Add to that the hysteria of a depleting oil-based economy and an overall decrease of tourism affecting local businesses, and you have the perfect formula for the cultivation of the frugal Middle Eastern consumer.
The Importation of Consumer Caution
The idea of credit cards and debt has definitely been one of the greater imports from the West, but perhaps even greater has been the anxiety of overspending. Even if not literally affected by the economic downturn in their bank accounts, we are seeing the remnants of the 2008 fall-out, which originated in the US, but the aftershocks were felt in the abandoned Bentleys and mansions on Dubai’s Palm. In Saudi Arabia, we are witnessing declines in cash withdrawals, according to Riyadh’s central bank. ‘Ramadan Rush’, as the festive season of overspending is often nicknamed, has severely slowed down, with local designers and international super-brands reporting sales down 40 per cent on the same time last year, according to many retail managers in Jeddah.
This year, 30 per cent of government spending was reduced in Saudi Arabia, indirectly affecting the entire region. As the largest Gulf state, with almost 32 million people, most under the age of 30 years old, Saudi is your perfect millennial sampling. How this generation shops, saves, and justifies purchases is a great litmus test of what to expect from the entire Gulf. A few years ago, we witnessed the new luxury consumer attach herself to affordable luxury; she was that head-to-toe trendy Michael Kors/Tory Burch/Coach shopper. She wanted a recognisable logo without paying two-Gs for two-Cs. Today, she’s barely willing to pay outlet prices for those brands. Now, she has either been humbled to settle on Zara and Topshop, or lucky enough to imagine herself as part of the one per cent. The middle class of the Middle East has suddenly disappeared, leaving lonely sales staff behind merchandised-filled glass displays, desperately WhatsApping their jetsetting VIPs in a bid to make a single entry-level sale.
So what does this mean for the state of luxury?
It means we are in for another major shift in the luxury market. In the past, fast fashion would steal looks right off the ready-to-wear runways and make them available for the masses; now our designer runways seem to want to skip the middle man (and tap into that fast fashion money: see now, buy now), and as a result, we are witnessing watered-down ready-to-wear lines that seem more Zara Basic than Dior. Designers are accommodating this new luxury consumer: an aspirational buyer who still has an Instagram profile to maintain. This individual propagates a sense of ‘fake luxury’ in the form of bespoke prêt-à-porter commissioned dresses in place of couture. She’s not into the 360 luxury experience, or even the story. She’s selling her own narrative; and it’s not based on truth, but rather a gifted outfit she is obligated to tag on Instagram. From an industry that gave birth to the genius of John Galliano-esque theatrics and McQueen’s wearable art, to today’s basic vintage-styled T-shirts emblazoned with Gucci horsebits and Saint Laurent’s boyfriend jeans, the new ‘luxury’ consumer is here, and much like her Botox-frozen face, she’s not moving any time soon.
Marriam Mossalli is the founder of Niche Arabia, a Saudi-based luxury consultancy firm