Wednesday, April 21, 2010

today : I fall in love with a bag

As Howard Jones so succinctly and melodically. What is love (or in Howard's words, what is lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-ove anyway...?)?

I ask this question that has occupied the best efforts of countless philosophers, poets, songwriters, novelists, newspaper columnists and most everyone else for the whole of time because I am pretty sure that I have found an answer, at least, to what it isn't. And what love isn't, is the feelings we have for a green reinforced plastic shopping bag.

For reasons I shall not go into here, I was standing outside the 3rd Floor Cafeteria of the Huddersfield University Library the other day waiting for someone to get back from printing out some documents, and, over the course of about ten minutes I counted 4 people walking past, carrying identical green reinforced plastic bags, each bearing the statement. "I 'heart' my big green bag". It was clearly a fashion amongst some of the students. I am sure it denotes some kind of political allegiance to environmental issues. Maybe the bags were just cheap and sturdy and came from the local supermarket. But the fact that whoever produced them placed a logo and slogan on them reminds me of the fact that EVERYTHING, however workaday and prosaic, is logoed and marketed within an inch of its life.

Now I know that one of the functions of modern market capitalism is to encourage either real or fake emotional responses to objects (as such as I 'love' my new trainers, although, in spite of the marketeers best efforts, this is little to do with brand loyalty or modishness, rather the fact that their design allows me to walk comfortably. They are unique in this aspect, but I would switch brands in a flash if I found others that allowed me to walk even more comfortably. Also, within reason, supply and demand has little impact on the price I'm prepared to pay. Unless the cost of shoes is totally and ridiculously prohibitive I cannot afford to not buy shoes that are comfy, as my feet have extreme special needs and without the right shoes I just can't walk at all. I do have a couple of pairs of bespoke boots, the cost of which would make even a Sex and The City character recoil in some horror, but for everyday I want as close to everyday as I can get).

Now, even though it is pretty silly and not a little twisted to declare love for, for example, items of clothing, telephones or kitchen equipment (musical instruments are a whole different thing so I'm generally including them out, although there is more kudos attached to a Fender guitar, even though a cheaper Samick is often made by the same people or even much superior. Real musicians know this and find their instrument - like Brian May's guitar made from a fireplace, or Willy Nelson's guitar with a big hole in it - whatever the brand). I can accept that emotional projection does take place for a variety of reasons. Not least in the prestige that becomes attached, or is cynically attached pre-sale by advertising, product placement endorsements etc, to certain things in the name of fashion.

It's a powerful thing. Lucky for me that my comfy trainers are an expensive and specialised skateboard brand, as when I was teaching I noticed one of the main areas that young people will exploit to attack and undermine their teachers (and their peers) is to criticize their dress. But it's not really about how people look, as much as how their choice of labels fits in with what is acceptable. No-name trainers are a no-no, as they elicit the worst derision. Any budget brand the same. In the adult world there is much more chance of people flocking to an inexpensive, quality item. The Gap one pocket T shirt is an example from the 90s. Friends of mine brag about their 6 quid supermarket jeans (the irony here is that their children refuse to wear anything so vulgar and whilst the parents save on their own clothes, it is so they can spend premium amounts on their childrens' brand obsessions). For kids, who have no control over their own money and generally have a very vague idea of what cost and budgets mean, even a quality item that is inexpensive deserves contempt.

I noticed amongst kids who are under the defined 'poverty' level, the brand becomes more important. For them, it is about having one marquee item - a phone, trainers, shoes, a sweatshirt or T shirt, a bag or a hat that advertises its (and their) brand worthiness. This item is proudly displayed. So they don't mind contravening school dress codes if it means they can come along, even for a day, in their new trainers, or their new sweatshirt, or hat. They will take the punishment from adults, because it is a small price to pay to earn the brand respect of their peers. After all, all of their other clothing and accessories are as cheap as possible. Generic supermarket fare.

The brands that prevail are the ones that are most highly advertised, and also the ones that don't exceed a certain price. As well as bombarding kids with advertising I guess that companies like Nike very carefully price their trainers and other stuff just at the edge of what people can afford and justify. Any cheaper and they are selling their brand short; more expensive and they are cutting themselves out of the market, as parents just cannot afford them. The same principle applies to ghetto cars - usually cheap models pimped piece by piece, lower end sportier models that are cheap to run and get parts for. Hence the global popularity of Hondas and the like. I drove a 2 door Civic for a while and a guy I worked with, who'd grown up a Pakistani ghetto kid and become a teacher, was offended that I didn't festoon it with body kit and bass tubes. He himself drove a Mitsubishi that he spent weekends modifying.

Kids and teenagers also have a very narrow perception window of what is expensive and therefore worth having. Anything over £120 is deeply uncool, because it is just too expensive for most parents to afford or justify. Items priced higher than this are not really marketed to kids, so they have never really heard of them either. No mistake that that this upper price point roughly counts for most trainers, games consoles, phones, entry-level ipods and many other items. Higher-priced items risk narrowing their market too far. I have been laughed at for wearing Ralph Lauren, by people who are wearing Polo.

Many's the time, as an adult, I've experienced brand bullying from children. As I've mentioned above, the most important thing for me is to have comfortable shoes. I just cannot function without them, as due to my foot issues the pain level I experience is already close to intolerable. Without comfy shoes I just cannot work. As a teacher this was even more crucial, as most of my day was spent standing, walking and moving around. Which means that I never wear Nike. As well as a knee-jerk aversion to them, they just don't fit me and never have. Working in an inner city school with a mainly non-white student body I found that any brand other than Nike was seen as worthless by the kids. So my rather expensive DC shoes were used against me, even though I explained why I was wearing them. The black and asian kids don't do skate culture - for them it is all about Nike because it's all about rappers and American sports. The Asian kids did have a slightly different perspective and a fondness for 'New England' American outdoor gear like Timberland and Rockport boots and Paul and Shark Jackets. - specific, it seems to them in the local area.

A year later I taught in a different school in a middle class white area. My Globes were a source of excitement and respect amongst the white boys, as they were the kind of specialist, expensive, imported skate-shoes that they coveted. The irony was that I'd bought them for 10 quid in an outlet shop with no real idea whether they were cool or not (the replacement pair referred to above actually were expensive and imported - but that's just unlucky). The cool brands in the middle class areas are broader. The rules are also more relaxed. Many of the students are happy to wear mid-price uniform to school and keep their expensive clothes for their own time or non uniform days (which are like watching adverts for fashionable branded items). This is partly due to a stricter regimen of following the school rules, but also because the middle class kids have more than one expensive item, so don't feel the need to show it off.

In poorer white areas, Nike is king. But the models that are most cool are also the cheaper versions. Trainers above 50 quid are extremely rare - last years outlet mall Nikes are the standard, and as peer groups create their own notions of prestige the unaffordable models are ironically uncool. But the higher level stuff - the sweatshirts, knitwear, coats and bags are more in the department store range than the designer range. Basically, clothes that are not from the supermarket are generally badges of opulence, although I did once teach in a school where there seemed to be a local prestige attached to clothes from the newly opened Sainsbury's, ahead of the more established Asda and Tesco.

And it grips like a vice. I once witnessed a girl in my class showing off her new Nike top, whilst simultaneously selling the bag it came in to a classmate for a couple of quid. I assume it was so that the classmate could brandish the bag around school as proof that she she'd also got a Nike top, but just wasn't wearing it today.

Which is understandable. When you're poor almost everywhere you turn you are treated as a reject on a minute by minute basis. You'll do pretty much anything to try and fit in.

1 comment:

  1. I like this shoe scrap in sense of passion like what I have a passion to have better to better choice of shoes like some good trainers shoes, vans shoes and some good tennis shoes, thanks.