LA'S ARTS DISTRICT: Culture and the Consumer

(or the death of the American luxury retail giant) 

"The world is changing faster than ever before." A phrase that is as much overused as it is true. In 50 years, I think we will be looking back on the decade between 2010 and 2020 and regard it as one of absolute cultural revolution and reimagining. One where human behavior proved, yet again, to be ever evolving and ever so complicated. 

There's something funny about the dollar. It's unappologetic propensity for telling the truth makes it our best friend and worst enemy. If you want to know a person's insecurities, their fears, their hopes, just look at their bank account. We can also discern a great deal about humanity by looking at urban movement and changes and how a culture's psychology is reflected in where (and how) it's people choose to live. 
Of the many defining characteristics of Millennials, one that is proving most characteristic is our rapid return to major urban centers. In America, we've sloughed off our suburban subdivided beginnings and taken up 5 floor walk-ups, subways, overexerted freeways, and astronomical housing prices. Our dollar has spoken and we want to be in the center of it all. 

"...The giant American fashion/luxury conglomerate is dying. And we're not mad about it."

The evidence for this shift is showcased all across America, but what I want to look at specifically is how the Art's District of Downtown Los Angeles and the culture it fosters is the ultimate indicator that the giant American fashion/luxury conglomerate is dying. And we (the consumer) are not mad about it.

When I was in high school, all the girls were lusting for Michael Kors, Coach, and Juicy Couture. The guys were all over Polo RL, Hollister, and Sperry's. And of course everyone was losing their shit over that infamous Abercrombie moose. To say that these brands are now irrelevant is a gross understatement. They are all in one capacity or another apart of a larger parent company and based on the shelves of Ross and T.J. Max, are struggling to maintain their former exclusive status. But take a walk down 3rd street in DTLA and you won't find a single conglomerate. Nothing mass-produced. And almost everything manufactured in America (maybe even just down the street) or in Europe. Sustainable fabrics, ethically produced, ecologically minded, narrative driven. 

As an outspoken believer in the power of narrative, I'll be the first to say that I believe that human's are inherently drawn to anything tied to story. We like the idea of a character or cast of characters behind what we are consuming. Look at the popularity of coffee shoppes and locals-only juice bars. The idea that you are walking into a story and the people pulling your espresso shot or cold-pressing your carrots and kale are the characters is something we millennials have embraced with reckless abandon and ephatic hashtags. We've seen the corruption of Big Money, and decided we'd rather have Trevor with the handlebar mustache and depression-era overalls brew our pour-over than a scantily clad mermaid touting her over-roasted beans and two-year-too-late reclaimed wood aesthetic. The idea that the beans in my Chemex brew were sourced from across the equator and have been loved and romanced into giving their all for my caffeinated enjoyment is a much more compelling story. Now how much of this is actually true versus how much is just self-congratulatory indulgence is up for debate. But this trend isn't just relegated to coffee. 

I think what this cultural shift is also telling us is that our individuality and identity is more important to us than ever, and proving that we are different is paramount. The under-side of this could be telling us some uglier truths as well.

Take a look at the everybody-gets-a-trophy generation and you'll find millions of young people striving for individuality, sometimes manically trying to prove that they are indeed truly unique, as though someone has called it into question. Like a guilty conscience or a guilty-until-proven-innocent court, millennials can sometimes be proactively defensive about their identity, often reminding others via social media, that there is no one like them. Whether explicitly stated or more subtly implied, as a group they have figured out that sharing their experiences and purchases in an integral part of conveying identity. If your goal was to prove that you were like no one else, then drinking the coffee, buying the clothes, and listening to the music that no one else knows about means you're ahead of the curve and "not like everyone else." Solid logic, right?

While I don't believe that this rhetoric is what the multi-million dollar growth of Downtown LA's arts district is based on, I do think that it helps stimulate it's progress. It certainly proves that even though we have started to move away from mass-production, the consumer age is still strong. And when your identity is expressed through everything from the pepper grinder in your kitchen to the shoes on your feet, you will never be done finding new ways to "express" yourself.  

Is this an exhausting merry-go-round of peacocking and social media showmanship? Or do these changes offer a glimpse into the mind of a more empowered and contentious consumer? I believe that as millennials grow older and earn a greater living, build families, and mature, we will see how the narrative driven imagery of independent brands fares. I personally believe that if it propels people to towards awareness, then goodness can surely come from it... Even if the "likes" you get on the way are as transient and meaningless as the 300 dollar jeans you just had to have in high school (now only 6.99 at Goodwill).