Mega-wealth grows on the back of self-obsessed culture

The world now has three people with a net worth of $US100 billion. This is unsurprising. What is a bit surprising is that the fastest growing wallets are not those filled solely by our obsession with technology, but by companies selling hundreds of years of craft and tradition - European luxury brands.

The person joining Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos in the $100 Billion Club was Europe’s richest person, Bernard Arnault, Chair of LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy). He was not alone in building on his fortune on the back of a booming luxury brands empire. Wallets that grew fatter and faster than almost any others in 2018-19 were those of Mr Arnault’s French peers: Kering's Francois Pinault; cosmetics heir, Francoise Bettencourt Meyers the brothers behind the Chanel brand, Gerard and Alain Wertheimer.*

It appears to me there is a link between the technology multi-billionaires and there counterparts in the luxury goods business. It is our increasingly self-obsessive culture, in which the projection of an idyllic personal lifestyle in social channels is frequently supported by material evidence in the form of luxury goods.

Last year, I took a stroll through Vancouver’s Holt Renfrew retail complex, undoubtedly a place of worship for lovers of luxury brands. The most interesting sidelight of this for me was the number of ‘customers’ changing into various outfits and photographing themselves in full length mirrors - not just one outfit, but many.

What was happening with these photographs? I’m guessing many were destined for social media platforms, possibly via Photoshop, where they could be cast against any exotic backdrop.

Don’t get me wrong, there was an astounding number of real buyers hauling around elegantly branded paper bags of elegantly tailored loot. If that wasn’t the case, our Eurozillionaires would not be seeing the capital gains that they are.

But both buyers and wannabes were playing their part in promoting and intensifying the self-obsessive culture and behaviours that fuel sales of these goods. It was the pinnacle of consumerism, a machine turning want into need into purchase.

Social media platforms are the showcase for what defines our lives. If what we published on social media was true to label, then our images and commentary would reflect the good and the bad, our best and our worst moments and the context in which they occurred.

Most of us pick the moments and the images we want to project of ourselves, the times we feel and look our best - holidays, special events, experiences, camaraderie - those fragments of times when we live without a care and put on the ritz.

In exploring a recent report** that Australia had ‘slipped down the world happiness index’, I came across an article^ by Latimer Research Fellow, Kirsten Birkett, who said:

“One of the dangers of social media is that people compare themselves to others, in their appearance, lifestyle, achievements, wittiness and especially ‘likes’. It makes people put up the best version of their lives, if not a totally false version, and so the comparison with one’s own life seems even worse. The effect is insidious; social media use is strongly linked to depression and other psychological ills. When we can compare ourselves to the most beautiful and wealthy people all over the world, we are setting ourselves up for unhappiness.”

At its extreme, social media and its enabling technology is utilised to manufacture our self-image which is where, for some of us, the luxury brands become an extension of our success and happiness and shape the aspirations and, often, dissatisfaction, loss of esteem and unhappiness of the beholder.

Since the days of our earliest ancestors, visual imagery, including the written word, has shape civilisations. Logos aligned over hundreds of years with success and the happiness money can buy, coupled with enabling technology and our own incapacity to shape our own story will mean Mr Arnault and Co. will continue to top the world’s wealth league for years to come.

* Ben Stupples and Devon Pendleton, The world now has three people worth more than $US100 billion each, The Australian Financial Review, 20 June 2019

** Neil Frankland, Australia slips in the World Happiness rankings, The New Daily, 21 March 2019.

^ Kirsten Birkett, Just how happy is Australia, exactly? Eternity News, 4 April 2019.