The recession may be behind us, but affluent consumers still want to appear thrifty—albeit at inflated prices
Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Christian Northeast
In 2009, during the global economic downturn, the U.K.’s Daily Mail ran the headline “Bike sales jump 50 per cent as recession inspires people to cycle to work,” citing a trend that had taken root in cities around the world. Six years on, urban commuters seem intent on staying true to their trusty bikes—or, at least to hugely expensive versions of them.
Matt Holland, a salesman at the upscale London bike builder Condor, says it barely registers these days when a customer wants to drop the equivalent of $16,000 on a pair of wheels. “We probably sell one of our top models every week,” he says. “Then there’s all the kit to buy—the specialist clothing, the lights. It’s pretty competitive on the streets.”
This scenario has become familiar in other fashion-forward cities, where Pashley Carrier Cycles leave valets twiddling their thumbs and folded-up Bromptons are handed in at coat-checks. Millennials fetishize this low-rent mode of transportation the way their parents once drooled over roadsters.
It’s not just bikes that are getting a post-slump upgrade. More and more, restaurants are serving up beggar’s food at banker’s prices: In London, city workers tuck into $20 fish-stick sandwiches; the trendiest food in Manhattan right now is bone broth, a quintessential peasant meal. And when it comes to presentation, the chicest eateries are eschewing fine china in favor of slabs of wood or slate or manhole covers from the former Rust Belt.
The well-heeled people eating at these places, meanwhile, are starting to dress accordingly. A decade ago, Burberry was reborn as a high-end designer brand. With its new Patchwork, Pattern & Prints collection, the British firm now resembles the Little Fashion House on the Prairie.
It’s as if, having gotten used to making do during the lean years, the newly prosperous are unwilling or unable to break old habits, and the luxury brand industry has quickly caught on. Thanks to some mysterious marketing alchemy, the affordable has become aspirational. As a JWTIntelligence 2015 Trend Report points out, even the humble tin can has undergone a makeover, with boutique graphic designers producing “sleek food-packaging devices” to grace gourmet market shelves.
Meanwhile, Airbnb, that paragon of post–Lehman Brothers frugality, is quietly moving away from its couchsurfing roots. The home-renting service recently launched its own glossy travel mag, and it has created a portal specifically to showcase its fancier lodgings, which, of course, do not come cheap.
“It is not that Millennials are cutting back on spending,” says David Campbell, who heads the hospitality division at financial services firm BDO. “What has changed is an emphasis on quality rather than the trimmings.”
But a desire for quality is only half the story. The marketing of all aspirational goods relies on a dual appeal: what a product can do for a person, and what that product says about a person—or, in this instance, what it doesn’t say about him. Because, given the role wealthy fund managers played in bringing the global economy to its knees, no one wants to be the guy parking his Bimmer outside the flashiest joint in town. It’s much better, says Mitch Baranowski, co-founder of Brooklyn-based brand consultancy BBMG, to pull up to the fish-stick joint on a brand new Cervélo bicycle.
“We are definitely at the beginning of a new order,” Baranowski says. “You get on an expensive bicycle, and you’re the person who wants to save the planet and look after your health. It is no surprise that businesses are looking to leverage that.”
But what exactly are these businesses leveraging? An aversion to ostentation or an appetite for the better things in life? The answer is a little of both. Splashing $500 on a bicycle helmet or $40 on a burger does tend to ensure that these purchases will be high quality, but it also creates the illusion of financial common sense, the kind that prevailed during the darkest days of the recession. In this sense, the trend is rooted in nostalgia.
One successful seller on the peer-to-peer retailer Etsy is Farouche, a company based in Santa Cruz, California, which offers prints of inspirational messages in old-school fonts. An especially popular item is “Make Do and Mend,” from a World War II pamphlet issued by the British Ministry of Information. Farouche makes this directive available as a giclée “printed on archival paper with high-quality pigment inks,” which will set you back about $20. Or you can print up an array of similar posters from the Internet, which will cost you nothing at all.
Boyd Farrow is a writer based in Berlin, where any bicycle that still has two wheels is considered a luxury.