Price, value and perfection – these three words define the entire spectrum of how consumer products are marketed. Marketing these days leads the entire company. From defining an available pool of buying customers who fit some criteria or other, designing a product for their tastes and budgets, advertising to said people, making some money out of selling it to them, and finally hoping they will come back for more.
Let’s use handbags to illustrate this. It turns out that the average reasonably high-street savvy 30 year old woman has 21 handbags and buys a new one every 3 months or so, to a total of 111 over a lifetime. So I shall assume women will know something about this. If you are a man reading this, this may help you understand something about those creatures from Venus.
We select for our purposes a generic small tote. You can probably find these at a local department store. Looks like colourful patent leather with bright gold buckles, nice medium-sized and square shape with some interesting folds, but at the price of SGD 200 or so, more likely a type of poromeric imitation leather with thinly electro-plated aluminium and a practical canvas lining. Stitching is a bit coarse and uneven, but nothing any typical man would notice at a non-sexual distance. Good price then.
We come a bit higher up the market. Fashion doyens who are intricately, and more likely also inextricably, steeped in the entire vertical chain of fashion, reliably inform me that the sweet spot for bags on the market come in from SGD 1,500 to SGD 2,500. There are manufacturing and psychological reasons for this – bear with me for a moment. We use the Yves Saint Laurent Downtown tote bag as an example. Black patent leather if so you choose, goldtone buckles, suede lining, medium sized, Madonna has one, SGD 2,000 if you catch a light sale.
Then we come to the stratosphere. The famous Hermes Birkin. Urban legend has it that actress Jane Birkin was seated next to Hermes’ CEO on a plane and scattered all her various womanly thingmajigs on the floor while retrieving her Hermes filofax. She bemoaned the lack of a half-decent weekend tote and Hermes CEO duly took note. All hail the birth of the Birkin. Specify the bag with black patent crocodile leather (with small scales of course for the freshly clubbed juvenile crocodile look) and American mink lining and, assuming you aren’t at least a minor C-list celebrity, it will arrive 3 years later with an invoice for about SGD 70,000 or so.
You may think a bag is a bag and as a student I carried bags by Mandarina Duck and their ilk which were the sorts of things you didn’t care about, because that is the sort of thing students do. But then I got a decent car and somehow that changed things. Not immediately, you understand. And then after friends insisted they refused to be seen with a hobo carrying schoolboy bags, I did buy a decent bag finally, the aforementioned YSL Downtown,. It was a practical thing. It fit a shoebag, some change of clothes, a water bottle and the front passenger seat. Then the carpark valet remarked for the first time in living history ‘Nice bag’. Then I realised, now I was a superstar.
It isn’t enough to have a decent car these days. At the time as a corporate slave, my car was a fairly basic BMW M3 given to me by my company which preferred to be taxed less. In London where I worked, an M3 was as common and de rigueur as a wardrobe of Thomas Pink shirts for young corporate slaves. My valet of course clearly knew this. What he knew nothing about are It Bags. So it’s funny how an off-the-cuff comment given by someone who clearly has no significant education on the subject absolutely makes your day.
It Bags, as it turns out, are bags that have made best selling history and likely spawned legions of imitators. The Downtown is one, as is the Birkin of course, and other like the Louis Vuitton Speedy, Prada’s Fairy et al. They are the ones that are continually photographed hanging off the arms of celebrities as they are busy looking cool, or ridiculously cool, or just ridiculous as is the wont of celebrities. You may also have seen them spread across gigantic billboards adorning models who clearly have spent the last 2 months eating nothing but a cube of cheese just before they faint.
The point is that when you spend a reasonable amount of money on an accessory, not only must it impress those in the know, it must absolutely also impress the clueless within about two seconds. This is of the greatest importance to any obsessive attention seeker because those in the know are always only a very small proportion of people you need to impress on a continual and daily basis.
And accessorising really is all about impressing yourself and others at least equally if not more so, otherwise a department store bag would fulfil all your functional expectations even if it may not be particularly durable. The YSL Downtown undoubtedly costs somewhat more to make in terms of materials and some amount of expertise of a level expected of pret-a-porter fashion, but the part of value it brings to you is the confidence of being known to be a person of taste, culture and some wealth. You are also clearly expected to have a substantial collection of such accoutrements.
But further up the market into perfection, it really becomes a game you play with yourself. No one but the flounciest of fashionistas could possibly know that a Birkin would cost at least five times the YSL Downtown let alone 35 times for a custom commission. Incremental steps towards perfection have always been a disproportionate ladder – you pay nearly exponential sums for diminishingly small increases in quality that most likely you would only perceive yourself. Animal rightists will carve me up for this, but no one who has ever touched fur such as mink or chinchilla would settle for any other material where it can be used and afforded. To the untrained eye however, it could look like it came off a synthetic feather boa, and its delicacy means its softness must be well hidden to all but the eyes of its owner.
The Birkin bag was certainly one of those for me. Before I knew what they were, I spotted a fairly non-descript woman on the street. You know the type, mature woman, well-fitted but conservative grey-toned clothes, well-kept hair but nothing you would call coiffed, a posture that might have indicated a childhood in the ballet studios, a hint of make-up, the sort who could have driven a vintage Volvo or a Jaguar. But it was that bag, the Birkin as it turned out, in discreet black patent, which immediately put her in the rear seat of the car. And it became apparent that the hand which casually but firmly held that bag may seldom have touched a door handle. I will never know what the lining was made of, that secret could very well be a mystery to all but herself.
Naturally all this has applicability to travelling and holidaying as well. When renting a car while on a self-drive holiday for instance, one is faced with all the usual choices of small hatchbacks, large executives and so on. The three categories also apply here. In current times, small cheap cars are comfortable, reasonably quick and safe vehicles. That is, compared to a horse cart. In fact, one could also say that a mild bout of cholera is comfortable, reasonably quick and safe, compared to a horse cart.
Try driving a 1.2 litre Volkswagen Fox or any equivalent car for four hours every day for a week across any significantly sized country and you will see what I mean. Its small size means it is vulnerable to strong crosswinds, and you will certainly feel it when a large truck passes you and your car rocks in the gusts, its relatively low engine power means you are either stuck behind caravans or oil trailers, or spend a completely unsafe amount of time on the other side of the road while overtaking in single lane country roads, and a lack of a boot means your luggage in the back seat is an open advertisement to modern day highwaymen.
I have always stressed the need for a decent car on any self-drive trips and although significantly more costly than a small hatchback, a better car means that you will end up with a holiday rather than a jail sentence to hard labour. That then is the meaning of value and its triumph over mere price. Of the easily rentable cars, I would always recommend at least a BMW 3 Series turbodiesel where possible, on a holiday for 2. The ability to lock away luggage unseen is priceless, the overtaking torque of a larger engine, especially a turbodiesel, reduces the stresses on the driver for overtaking, and the insulation and refinement of a larger car makes for effortless touring at speed. Never go below this level of car rental for your own peace of mind.
Within the value category there is also the affordable sportscar option. While they may cost more than a common cabbage BMW 3 Series, the car now becomes a highlight in itself rather than mere A-B transport. New options become available to you. You now gain the ability to park in convenient preferred parking spots at hotel and restaurant fronts especially in small towns – ideal for convenience and to save the hassle of finding parking slots. Agility and additional power makes the drive part of the experience of savouring the country’s sites especially if the car is a local brand. Affordable sportscars are aplenty, with options such as the Audi TT, Mercedes SLK, Mini Cooper S and the Porsche Boxster readily available for hire in many cities.
As we approach perfection in cars, and it is important to note that one can only ever approach perfection, you start to consider cars such as Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Astons and the like. Despite their power, today’s speed limits combined with limited driver skill will mean that you won’t be going any faster than an affordable sportscar. It may even be slower than a diesel BMW 3 Series as one must consider the greater number of fuel stops and that limited visibility out of the stylish car body means significantly less confidence in changing lanes or parking. But you really are here for the fun of it. Nothing less will suffice when you are drawing up to the lobby of your grand palace hotel, and it will add to the fun and drama of play acting James Bond while on holiday. Order your martini shaken and not stirred the moment you step out of the car and expect it waiting for you at your room. Don’t be embarrassed about getting giggle with all the boys’ toys.
This then is the overall philosophy that applies to travel itself. If your trip is ruled by price alone, you may find yourself tired out unless you are an experienced hardy traveller. Our experience suggests that the price-conscious traveller tends to spend less than 2 days per city. One must remind oneself that the idea is to experience a new culture and such a goal cannot be accomplished by being continually in the presence of other tourists in the usual tourist sights. Take time to absorb into the everyday life of the city or town.
At least four days is recommended for any medium sized city like Florence and another three days for the surrounding regions for true value. One could spend months in New York City alone partying and making new friends in a hedonistically perfectionist style – naturally in an apartment or hotel in the Upper East Side – and by the end of that you will know all that you need to know about New York City, everyone that you need to know in New York City and perhaps most importantly, feel all that can be experienced in New York City.