For years now I’ve written about fancy-schmancy clothes, shoes and bags. I’ve visited factories and ateliers across Europe to observe artisans make Hermès bags, Kiton suits, Berluti jeans, Tod’s loafers, Mulberry luggage, Private White VC jackets, John Lobb Oxfords, Brunello Cucinelli sweaters – and much more besides. I love watching skilled craftsmen going about their business, then trying to explain the process in print without resorting to hype.
But buying the stuff? Despite my privileged access and my love of beautiful things, whenever push comes to shoving my hand into my pocket and slapping down the moolah, I tend to cringe: £600 ($750) for a pair of shoes? A £900 coat? A £3,000 watch? Uh-uh.
I tell myself that my hesitation is based on prudence. I’ve got kids to feed, after all, and the closest I’ve come to planning for the future is booking a hotel in Paris. Yet when it comes to another retail category that dominates this golden age of consumer capitalism – personal technology – it’s another story.
Ever since my childish paws first caressed the orange plastic contours of my beloved Texas Instruments Speak & Spell, I’ve been a sucker for a screen, a shutter-click or a bleep. From my first computer (an Amstrad CPC464), first camera (a Pentax me Super) and first mobile phone (a Sony Ericsson whose model number eludes me – maybe it fried the relevant synapse), I can chart each period in my life according to the hardware I was using. And I’ve never felt anything but virtuous about forking out when the cash was, briefly, in hand. Why? Because personal tech is the toolbox of 21st-century life. It empowers. It frees. It improves.
But last month I had an epiphany. It happened as I sat in the Genius Bar of an Apple store feeling stupid, paying £300 to repair the suddenly blank screen of a laptop purchased not much more than a year earlier. The cheery Genius at hand had told me that in my position, he’d probably just buy a new computer: “but that’s just me”, he said, “I always want the latest model.”
Briefly, that technophile, Pavlovian response kicked in: woof! Lead me to the newest, most expensive version! But it was swiftly replaced by a howl of inner fury.
More and more, I observe technology companies adopting the marketing strategies of luxury-goods firms. Sure, their narrative focuses not on heritage or trends, but on incremental upgrades in processing speeds, peripheral capabilities and software compatibility. Yet many companies talk just as enthusiastically about design as functionality, and propose that owning their products is a declaration of personal identity. Each new launch inevitably presents whatever product is being pitched as the ne plus ultra of its type – a big fat lie that becomes ever more glaring as the cycle of enforced obsolescence spins faster and faster.
I’ve spent the last week or so sifting through my personal archive of the obsolete: à la recherche du tech perdu. From tangles of cable and brick-like batteries I’ve excavated minidisc players (Sanyo!), BlackBerrys, Nokias, ThinkPads, iMacs, a Google Glass, Coolpix and more. None, of course, is fit for purpose now, unless you’re going to a “Back to the Future” party.
At the same time I’ve pulled down bags from the attic and reacquainted myself with items of clothing I’d long forgotten I owned: a grey flannel Giorgio Armani shirt I was given 21 years ago; some 2005 vintage Church’s cordovan brogues bought after I’d got a promotion; a 1970s Baily’s of Glastonbury jacket (pristine), bought on eBay for a snip; and a green tweed Moncler coat I wore all winter five years ago but then shoved to the back of a cupboard and forgot about during the summer. Each of them is a delight – and I can easily imagine continuing to wear them for years to come.
Even though the fashion business relies on passing fads to keep the consumer interested, many of the products sold under the flag of luxury are built to last. Personal tech, conversely, is built to be surpassed. A top-of-the-line iPhone 7 currently retails at just north of £900, but next year it will be last year’s phone – an anachronism.
Tech is perishable. Luxury is for ever.