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Let’s Talk About the Louis Vuitton Heist

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We’re all familiar with Louis Vuitton. Despite its luxury status, the brand is everywhere. If you haven’t heard the name dropped on a hip hop track, then certainly you’ve seen the signature LV monogram on passing handbags. The authenticity of the bag doesn’t matter much. The logo speaks for itself. 

On Friday, November 19, shortly before 9pm, I was walking along Union Square. I noticed that Stockton and Geary Street were blocked off by police cars, lights flashing silently. Apparently, I had just missed some serious action. Less than an hour earlier, more than a dozen people had engaged in a smash-and-grab at the Louis Vuitton store on Geary Street, completely clearing the place of merchandise. It appeared to be a calculated effort. According to CBS, multiple arrests have already been made. 

A few days earlier, on November 17, 14 people ransacked a Louis Vuitton store in Oak Brook, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. On Saturday, November 20, 50 to 80 people targeted a Nordstrom store in Walnut Creek. The following evening, thieves mobbed Southland Mall in Hayward

Louis Vuitton at 233 Geary Street. Photo courtesy Hunter MacNair.

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Although multiple luxury stores were targeted last week, I’d like to focus on Louis Vuitton. The brand was established in 1854, when a young Louis Vuitton recognized that the rapid evolution of travel in an increasingly industrialized Paris called for sturdy travel bags. In 1892, when Vuitton passed away, his son Georges inherited the brand and created the iconic LV monogram, in honor of his late father. Last year, over a century later, Forbes reported that Louis Vuitton was worth an estimated $47.2 billion, and holds the title of “the world’s most valuable luxury brand.” 

$47.2 billion is a comical number. It’s also a slap in the face for many people. Last year, KQED reported that the Bay Area has the highest income inequality in California, citing research from the Public Policy Institute of California that “top income earners in the Bay Area make 12.2 times as much as those at the bottom of the economic ladder.” This research was based on 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data, so the disparity is likely even more glaring in 2021. Given these numbers, it’s understandable that some people have little sympathy for the luxury brand and its losses. Whether or not you sympathize with Louis, though, it should be acknowledged that the brand’s retail employees shouldn’t have to fear for their safety at work. 

Considering the latest string of heists, I felt it might be interesting to revisit our cultural understanding of capital and consumerism with the help of a few lauded writers and theorists. At risk of intellectualizing mayhem in uniquely desperate times, here are a few points that seem worthy of consideration. 

Products are secondary to the brands they represent. 

(No Logo, Naomi Klein) 

In No Logo, Naomi Klein writes, “The astronomical growth in the wealth and cultural influence of multinational corporations over the last fifteen years can arguably be traced back to a single, seemingly innocuous idea developed by management theorists in the mid-1980s: that successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products.” When thieves target Walgreens, they steal products. When thieves target Louis Vuitton, they steal branded symbols of prestige, of aspirational wealth. 

Robbing luxury brands simultaneously robs them of their untouchable prestige. 

(The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord) 

For most people, Louis Vuitton is an untouchable entity. The price of one of their iconic monogram handbags is comparable to the average monthly rent for a studio apartment in San Francisco. Louis Vuitton carries prestige precisely because it is not attainable for the majority of the population. When Louis Vuitton is robbed, the illusion of its unattainability falters. Its elusive brand finds new hands. Guy Debord writes in The Society of the Spectacle, “A product acquires prestige when it is placed at the center of social life as the revealed mystery of the ultimate goal of production. But the object which was prestigious in the spectacle becomes vulgar as soon as it is taken home by its consumer—and by all its other consumers.” The “vulgarizing” of Louis Vuitton may seem to be a somewhat radical act on the surface, but let’s continue to think through this. 

Robbing luxury brands both insults and affirms capital. 

(Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher) 

To balk at the Louis Vuitton robbery arguably affirms capital. To applaud the thieves involved also arguably affirms capital. In both cases, we affirm the value of the brand, and its place within the hierarchy of brands. We affirm the value of branded products. In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher offers some food for thought, 

“To reclaim a real political agency means first of all accepting our insertion at the level of desire in the remorseless meat-grinder of Capital. What is being disavowed in the abjection of evil and ignorance onto fantasmic Others is our own complicity in planetary networks of oppression. What needs to be kept in mind is both that capitalism is a hyper-abstract impersonal structure and that it would be nothing without our cooperation.” 

To honor the inflated value of luxury brands—as if their value is an inherent fact and not a product of celebrity endorsement—is to honor their powerful allure. 

Consumerism is encouraged as an alternative to protest and rebellion. 

(The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch)

In spite of our nationwide wealth disparity, painting these robberies as radical acts is pretty misguided. Not only do they affirm the existing system, they amplify the seduction of consumption. Christopher Lasch writes in The Culture of Narcissism

“Consumption promises to fill the aching void; hence the attempt to surround commodities with an aura of romance…The propaganda of commodities upholds consumption as an alternative to protest or rebellion…The tired worker, instead of attempting to change the conditions of his work, seeks renewal in brightening his immediate surroundings with new goods and services.” 

High-level heists may be a symptom of wealth disparity, but they’re hardly a productive step towards addressing the issue in a meaningful way. 

Robbing physical commodities in the digital age may be increasingly anachronistic. 

(Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse?, McKenzie Wark)

This point may be somewhat out there—out of line, even—but hear me out, if only for the sake of a thought experiment. In Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse?, McKenzie Wark makes a compelling argument. She states, “The dominant ruling class of our time no longer maintains its rule through the ownership of the means of production as capitalists do. Nor through the ownership of land as landlords do. The dominant ruling class of our time owns and controls information.” 

When even Forbes is celebrating the virtues of minimalism, one wonders where capital is taking refuge, if not in stuff. How about covert data harvesting, revealed to be rampant within massive companies like Google and Facebook? In the digital age, we observe wealth moving increasingly towards the intangible (Think NFTs), and away from physical commodities. If this current trend continues, it’s not difficult to imagine a future in which the desire to own a designer handbag is laughable, even nostalgic. 

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Lydia Sviatoslavsky

Lydia Sviatoslavsky

Lydia Sviatoslavsky covers culture and curiosities for Bay City News and Broke-Ass Stuart. She publishes artist interviews and experimental writing at thought-rot.net. You can find her on Instagram at @rot_thought.

6 Comments

  1. Moi
    November 25, 2021 at 5:38 am — Reply

    I am not sure that I understand your point. But isn’t stealing, well, stealing?

    And, if so, that suggests that your conclusion (that “it’s not difficult to imagine a future in which the desire to own a designer handbag is laughable, even nostalgic”) seem problematic.

    Why so? What are you planning to build on the rubble of what came before? You suggest an egalitarian utopia. But that is hogwash. A utopia is no place. Etymologically, happy? Sure. But still.

    A better place? Fairer wages. Better jobs. More equality. But that takes a lot more than a ‘thought experiment’. So you provide a suggestion of a better place, but you do nothing to suggest a reasoned path. In the process, you provide fodder for those who prefer an easy answer to a hard solution. You also give credence to those who might think you a liberal ‘space-thinker’. You know, up in the clouds. Dangerous. Then again, being edgy while pushing against those you dislike is akin to doing nothing while saying something (or is it the reverse?).

    I applaud your thinking, on some levels, Sviatoslavsky. But I think you have to offer a better path forward than cherry-picking from the literati while speaking to those who don’t care for, understand, or actually consume/live/breathe that poignant air. You run the risk of being a disciple of Emerson, providing suggestions of equity, all the while ensconced in your chapel of protected illusions.

    Which is a shame, as it is clear that you have a passion for those who seek to acquire that which they don’t need. So don’t let your enthusiasm for championing them run up against the problems of speaking to their needs. Our world needs saviors. But we don’t. We need practical solutions.

    All my best (and I truly mean that).

    • Lydia Sviatoslavsky
      November 25, 2021 at 11:51 am — Reply

      I really appreciate your thoughtful assessment.

      I don’t endorse stealing, nor do I imagine an egalitarian utopia is attainable. My intent was not to offer solutions or conclusions.

      Instead, my hope was to encourage critical thinking, and it’s clear that you’ve engaged in that here. I’d like to challenge those who settle in “chapels of protected illusions,” but your point is a fair one, which is why I acknowledge the risk of “intellectualizing” in the article. These media stories are often reduced to narratives about “good” and “bad” actors, and I felt it might be worthwhile to circle the issue with slightly more nuanced consideration.

      That said, thank you for engaging with my writing in a thoughtful, critical manner. I’m glad you contributed your thoughts.

  2. Bob
    November 25, 2021 at 11:42 am — Reply

    This isn’t robinhood stealing from the rich for the needy. There is zero altruism here. The thieves are strictly doing it for the profit. Let’s not pretend there are any other motives.

    And if we’re really going to talk about this why are we not talking about the elephant in the room that makes people uncomfortable. Namely every perpetrator in this and other similar crimes is black. Why are community black leaders and celebrities staying quiet. These perpetrators are making a mockery of black civic rights and BLM. The thieves are destroying their own communities work.

  3. Hyper Progressive
    November 25, 2021 at 1:05 pm — Reply

    We should exterminate everyone who isn’t already dirt poor. And for good measure exterminate everyone to the right of Pol Pot. It should only take the death of 280 million evil counter revolutionaries.

  4. Moi
    November 26, 2021 at 6:41 am — Reply

    Sviatoslavsky, I appreciate your reply. I really do.

    I suspected, and still do, that you and I share similar hopes re: relentless consumerism and the shifting tides that tend to swallow up those who could be better served by turning away from that which they don’t need.

    And you are right: the either/or echo chambers (people pick their bubble) do nothing to solve the problems. So casting about for a bit of response, a bit of reply, helps stokes the fire. That said, one wonders who is listening/reading or actually taking steps to do the things that are suggested?

    Here, too, I am guilty. I am an observer twice removed. I love The City, even if I never lived in it. And I an now just a frequent visitor to the town (nearby) that I once called home. So please understand that I was casting about for your thoughts. But I was also casting about regarding my thoughts on a city that I love from afar.

    I have commented here, now and again, on items that I thought deserved a response. Till now, nothing. So that speaks to your thinking and willingness to engage (then again, this site doesn’t get as much feedback as it deserves, as it does service to several things that journalism should aspire to do). I hope people like you keep shining a light on the issues. And I will, as I see fit, respond.

    But, Sviatoslavsky, I thank you for taking the time to respond. It is, as I noted, appreciated. Please keep shining your light on these things.

  5. Moi
    November 27, 2021 at 4:43 am — Reply

    Turns out, Sviatoslavsky, others made your point (and mine) while I was waiting for my previous response to post.

    And I hope that one was ironic and the other was simply angry. Speaking of which, if you are angry about looting and willing to call out others, I have to assume that you champion alternative measures that don’t make such acts of desperation so tantalizing. Right? Right. I also liked the reference to Pol Pot. Reminded me of listening to the Dead Kennedys when they were young and edgy, not sullen and a bunch of older men who now file lawsuits, chasing the crumbs of their originality and finding none (to be clear, on _both_ sides).

    I wonder what a response by “Hyper Bob” would read like. You know, a merger of two POVs that might shed some light on points of common ground. Which, I still assume, is what most people want to work towards, even if their ire often trips them up as they stumble toward the finish line of some preconceived answer. That was more about Bob that Hyper. But it stands to reason that there is more ire in Bob’s arsenal than there is in Hyper’s! Not a criticism. Just an observation.

    And I also apologize for being so eager to initially respond that I ended up using “casting” too much, no less “shining a light” twice. A good editor would fix things. That’s enough though. I am tired of posting.

    Wish everyone well.

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