The mystery of the $2,000 Ikea shopping bag

By Silvia Bellezza & Jonah Berger

Why does the luxury brand Balenciaga sell a $2,000 purse modeled after a $1 blue Ikea shopping bag? We tend to think of status symbols starting out at the top tiers of society, among the glitterati and trendsetters, then trickling down to the rest of us.

But a new trend seems to contradict this pattern. Instead of percolating through the middle, some signals seem to leapfrog directly from low culture to high. What might explain this different trajectory?

As traditional luxury goods, such as the iconic Louis Vuitton monogrammed bag, become more attainable, the wealthy need alternative ways to signal their prestige and power. In this context, elites can experiment with lowbrow culture and downscale tastes without fear of losing status, while middle-class individuals, whose position is more tenuous, have to stick to more clear-cut status symbols.

But there is a catch. When adopting low-end trends, elites combine them with high-end items to make sure the signal is still clear. Sarah Jessica Parker may wear a flea-market jacket, but she does so in Louboutin heels.

High-end brands can stay relevant by incorporating select downscale styles and trends in their collections. Indeed, several luxury brands already use this strategy. Brands, such as Prada and Gucci, have produced luxury versions of traditionally low-key or unremarkable items, such as pool slides and leg warmers. Rather than revisiting downscale items, Louis Vuitton’s recent initiatives and collaborations seem to reveal a similar interest in edgy subcultures and kitsch artists. In recent years, the brand has launched a collection with Supreme, an American skateboard brand, while collaborating with the artist Jeff Koons, known for his reproductions of kitschy, banal objects.

Our research has shed light on how status symbols evolve in a world where luxury goods are becoming more mainstream. As the traditional markers of superiority lose their signaling value, high-status consumers and brands may purposefully choose to mix and match different types of signals as an alternative strategy.

Silvia Bellezza is a professor at Columbia Business School. Jonah Berger is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.


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