Last year the blogger Venkatesh Rao coined the term “premium mediocre.” He was referring to a segment of economic activity largely dreamed up by marketers to give the masses the illusion that they are consuming luxury, when in reality they were doing nothing of the sort. Some examples of what is proving to be a highly profitable sector – craft beer, artisanal pizza, $25 “signature” burgers, and my personal favorite, premium economy on domestic flights. The idea is simple – by dressing up something mediocre as premium with a few extra touches, real and imagined, companies play on people’s aspirational drive to give them the illusion that they are purchasing into something elevated. The marketing-speak created around the premium mediocre sector uses terms like “preferred,” “signature,” and “collection” – best used piled on top of each other to make say “signature collection.” Here, the paradox of providing an air of exclusivity without excluding anyone is key.
This is an old story in fashion, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Starbucks and Delta executives have taken a page out of fashion’s playbook. What’s relatively new is how pervasive premium mediocre fashion has become. Take a look around, and it won’t be hard for you to spot premium mediocre fashion virtually everywhere – from Uniqlo cashmere (that doesn’t feel like cashmere at all) to Balenciaga baseball hats and Gucci headbands, from logoed Burberry keychains to pretty much anything at the fragrance counter in Bloomingdale’s.
The major purveyors of premium mediocre fashion tend to be American – Michael Kors, Kate Spade, and Tory Burch are the super stars here. They have built highly successful businesses by peddling goods in the mid-hundreds-dollar range to the masses, and by marketing them with the oxymoron “affordable luxury.” Of course what they are selling is not luxury, but luxury dust sprinkled on top of mediocrity; but the point is that to many people it doesn’t feel like it.
Premium mediocre extends to the higher echelons of fashion as well, largely at its entry level product range. Premium mediocre is the Prada nylon backpack, the Louis Vuitton bag in coated canvas, the $375 Celine card holder. This segment of luxury fashion has been doing extremely well, because the margins in the premium mediocre segment are uncommonly high. As far as 2015, according to Euromonitor International, luxury small leather goods accounted for $5.7 billion in sales, projected to grow to $7.5 billion by 2020. On Lyst.com, the fashion shopping aggregator, plastic sandals by Givenchy and Gucci routinely top the most sought after product category.
Premium mediocre in fashion is not a new phenomenon. During the ‘80s some Parisian couturiers licensed their name to mass market manufacturers. All of a sudden office workers could buy fifty-dollar Pierre Cardin button-up shirts. What followed was brand dilution and the perception that those names were no longer associated with luxury. During the ‘90s licensing was broadly reigned in and the image of those luxury houses had to be rebuilt.
What’s different this time around? Several things, such as the culture of entitlement of the millennial generation (and everyone else), its impact on consuming experiences rather than products, democratization of fashion, and the rise of the curated life on social media.
We live in a world where many people feel entitled to luxury. Treating oneself has become the norm. Saving money to buy, well, pretty much anything, feels like an outdated notion. And that’s where premium mediocre swoops in – you still need money to buy premium mediocre fashion, but not too much. With a $250 Balenciaga baseball hat, a Chanel perfume, or a pair of acetate Tom Ford sunglasses, you are still buying into the brand.
The impact on shopping as an experience also plays well into premium mediocre. Smart stores know this. You go to Dover Street Market to buy a Comme des Garcons PLAY t-shirt as much, if not more, for the experience as for the t-shirt itself. The new 10 Corso Como store in New York feels more like a gift shop with a high-end boutique attached to it. The first half of its space is devoted to 10 Corso Como merch, where you can buy a $5 Bic lighter ($1 at your local convenience store, but without the logo). You can also buy a bunch of coffee table books that you could get in your local bookstore or on Amazon, only on Amazon you won’t get a nice shopping bag to go with it. At Gucci Garden in Florence, nominally a museum, but really a show space attached to a gift store and a restaurant, you can buy a $20 box of matches and a $90 box of pencils with the Gucci logo on it.
The logo is key, because in the age of Instagram, where people curate their lives in two dimensions on a small screen, the logo is more important than the product itself. And the best part about consuming premium mediocre today is that no one will scoff, because it’s no longer in good taste for the rich to turn their noses up at the rest of us. Democratization of fashion is trendy, and provides us all with a therapeutic illusion that we are somehow more equal. Of course it’s only an illusion – all you need to do is stroll on Madison Avenue in New York or through Mayfair in London to feel the difference between real luxury and premium mediocre.
The underlying point of the factors outlined above is that premium mediocre feels good, even if this feeling is fleeting and illusory. We’ve all fallen for it. As a matter of fact, fashion probably wants us to feel that way, so next week we can go out and buy premium mediocre again.
All photos by Julien Boudet.