Olsen Caught With Handbag! What Does It Mean?

You may or may not have heard about this, but last month one of the Olsen twins was photographed with a handbag. I’m not making this up. And this is not like those other times that one of the Olsen twins was photographed with a handbag. No, forget about all those Yves Saint Laurents, Balenciagas and Chanels (as shown here). This specific handbag on this specific Olsen (Ashley) was an as-yet unreleased handbag from The Row, the Olsens’ own fashion line. Additionally, this specific handbag retails at $39,000.

No, I’m not lying. Not only was it on the Internet, it was all over the Internet: A picture of an Olsen walking, head down, aviators on, the crocodile backpack in question slung purse-style over one shoulder.

Whatever the strategy was intended to do, it worked. I conducted a highly scientific poll of friends and acquaintances, waitresses and baristas, as well as my wife, and three-quarters of those polled had heard of the specific $39K item. This was an event that captured some portion of the national attention span, at least of the fashion-minded. And a universally held sentiment was, “How much?” It’s a fascinating little dollop of not-quite news, containing as it does elements relevant to everyone: celebrity, economics and things in which you carry other things.

$39,000 is, as they say, a lotta cabbage. Not only is it as much as you could expect to pay for a European luxury handbag, like, say, a Birkin, it’s also the median household income for the 7th Congressional District of Wisconsin, which happens to be currently represented by Sean Duffy, who you might remember not only from “Real World: Boston” but also as having famously complained that it was difficult for him to make ends meet on his $174,000 salary (on which salary he could only afford four The Row Crocodile Backpacks per year). Think of it as a happy accident, or a confluence of unrelated but meaningful data—short of, “Let them eat cake,” but approaching.

Duffy, however, was hoisted by the petard of his own carelessly spoken words. The story of the very expensive backpack—a public figure, a product and a dash to the hired car—is a different story, a by-product of the gossip industry. Celebrity is now an opiate of the masses, and many, many people are employed tracking their every moves, for the various gossip outlets that seemingly make up half of each of the television/print/digital media. We all know this, and that knowledge does not lessen celebrity’s narcotic appeal. It could be Hollywood royalty, it could be a TV drama star, or even a failed reality-show contestant—celebs are tracked and documented to the extent that it makes you wonder if any of it is not staged.

Take for example Ashley’s Handbag Perpwalk. Note that all of the links to this story cited above focus on the bag, and who is selling it and how much it costs. Note also that the bag, in the photos, is without logo and price tag. Not that its make is unidentifiable, just not readily so. How this ordinarily works is that the story is the work product of a publicist. This is conjecture, but most likely the publicist of Ashley, or more likely of The Row, contacted a site or two and alerted them that the bag carried by Ashley in that photo that just hit the wires is in fact an exclusive new handbag that is manufactured by Ashley’s own line and retails for an awful lot of money! News manufactured, as the story makes its memetic way across the Internet. Accordingly, handbag duly publicized. So the Handbag Perpwalk is not intended to be a conspicuous display to a nation that is living paycheck to paycheck, but rather as an advertisement. Of course, the advertisement is aimed at the same discretionary income-less nation—which may make you wonder if that is such a shrewd move after all, lodging a shiny object in the hearts of a bunch of people who absolutely cannot afford it. Not to spoil it, but it is a shrewd move.

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Ashley and Mary-Kate are not exactly new at this game, but they (or whatever team it is that comprises the entity that is “the Olsens”) are relatively recent arrivals to the world of high-end luxury accessories. Post “Full House,” they quickly leveraged their ABC TGIF popularity into a cottage industry of dolls, chapter books and other merchandise aimed at the fans roughly the same age as the Olsens (who were born in 1986). In 2001, their marketing and licensing company entered into a deal with Walmart for tween apparel and accessories, and the line expanded to juniors in 2006. It was during this time that the twins began to be known for their fashion sense (or “bag lady chic,” depending on the beholder). In 2007, the Olsens started another brand, The Row, which was intended to differentiate from the Walmart labels. Initially they vended apparel and accessories, all designed to reflect the personal style of the Olsens. But even though The Row has been in existence five years now, the Olsens’ long association with Walmart may be the source of some of the dissonance when a $39,000 handbag gets floated: Walmart and luxury are not exactly concepts that are friendly neighbors.

There’s some skepticism within the industry regarding the cachet of the Olsens. I asked a fashion director of a luxury media outlet (who wished to go unnamed), of what she thought of the Ashley Handbag Perpwalk: “My initial reaction is to roll my eyes,” she said. “Not because I don’t think the bag is worth $39,000. Gucci’s price point is higher this fall because materials are more expensive and the details they’ve chosen are more intricate, however, they have earned the right to a higher price point. I roll my eyes because the Olsen twins are cocky and vain and their bags are too.”

The sentiment is by no means universal. Reporter Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, sees nothing to stop The Row from taking a place alongside accepted high-end houses. “Plenty of luxury brands are doing the opposite, designing for H&M or Target,” says Thomas. “The lines between high and low are already very blurred. Since the Olsens have a strong fan base—many with money to burn—they can make that leap. From a business standpoint it would be dumb for them to do otherwise.”

That’s a fair point. While the country is gripped in recession and the retail industry generally is not seeing a lot of growth, luxury retail is having a good go of it, with luxury goods “flying off the shelves.” Granted, that bit of data predates the most recent wild instability of the stock market, but it’s a symptom of what everyone knows but rarely says out loud: the recession is not evenly distributed, and the upper classes, the “rich”, are dancing through the recession relatively unscathed. And as the big dip of 2008 recedes in the rear view, even humility is not stopping the wealthy from consuming again, without the slashed prices and promotions that the middle of the retail sector (Macy’s, Sears) has to resort to in order to keep sales from falling.

The Row has a relationship with the department store Barneys, which is now in the middle of a mild retool aiming at the higher end of the luxury market. And as of now, the partnership is a successful one for the parties involved, as The Row merchandise is moving well. “Barneys is a retailer that is known for taking on new designers with an edge. I don’t think there is anything wrong with Barneys taking a risk like this,” says the fashion director.

And even if the success of the $39,000 handbag does not lead to a years-long waiting list, The Row will be in a comfortable position. While the bag in question would carry a NYC sales tax more than most make in a month, it’s the top-of-the-line model. The first bags to be released cost more like $4,000. That’s still a lot of money, but much closer to the amount that a young fashionista could afford. And how better to participate in the casual, meticulous style of the Olsens, as evinced by the Ashley Handbag Perpwalk, then by purchasing one that’s an eighth the cost?

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What is the mechanism that will inform the new generation of overconsumers have heard about this aspirational opportunity? Gossip sites, and the daily browses thereof. It’s ingenuous, actually. And I’m not making the argument that handbags should not cost so much money. I’m not a luxury goods fellow myself, but that doesn’t mean no one gets to be. I gave a recent issue of The Robb Report a peruse, and was shocked by the number of full-page ads for wristwatches. It struck me as funny, as a mundane object to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on. But it’s a signifier, denoting that the wearer is truly a successful man. Same goes for handbags. And if these signifiers are popular, whether watches or knapsacks, it’s not anybody’s business but customer zero.

But what The Row is doing, capturing marketing bandwidth by exploiting a culture’s already unhealthy fascination with celebrity, is notable, both for what it says about their business acumen and about consumers—a mute acceptance (if not glorification) of the concept of buying a $39K bag, a fetishization of wealth that is passive and counter-intuitive and responsible for so much personal indebtedness as normal folk spend beyond their means to purchase the lower-end-but-still-exorbitant versions of wealth-signifiers that our celebrity class sport.

It’s a predictable result of what Thomas writes about in her book: luxury is not what it used to be, and the exclusivity that used to exist amongst the labels that were once literally unobtainable by anyone other than the fabulously wealthy is now being wielded as a come-on to increase the profits across the board. “Yes, of course the Olsens are trying to elbow their way into the luxury market,” Thomas said. “And shouldn’t they? It’s mega big business. Like McDonald’s: billions sold, billions earned.”



Brent Cox is all over the Internet.

Photo by AshleyCooper.