Let’s Talk About the Louis Vuitton Heist
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.
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.