Vanity conquers all
By Jun Ji-hye, Baek Byung-yeul, Rachel Lee
Many Korean women have red hot love affairs with designer label handbags. Regardless of their income levels, they crave high-end luxury bags in order to satisfy their obsessive vanity and make a social statement.
Sensitive about how they appear to others, they want to decorate themselves with expensive accessories. The mocking moniker of “three second bag” for Louis Vuitton, one of the most popular designer bags here, reflects the fixation for luxury bags ― it’s called a “three-second bag" because it can be seen every three seconds on the streets of Seoul.
Jun, a 27-year-old freelance teacher, is obsessed with buying designer bags in a belief that having one will make her appear to be special or different from others.
“I think accessories best represent who I am and bags are a fashion item that expresses my personality,” Jun said. “Sometimes I just forget how many bags I have in total. I just buy them whenever I feel like it without worrying about my financial situation.”
“I have always been very straightforward with my previous boyfriends. When they ask me what I want for my birthday, I say ‘a designer bag’ without any hesitation. I know it is expensive, but I would never date guys who cannot afford to get me these bags. End of story,” she said.
“I travel a lot, at least twice a year. I mostly visit European countries because I can find many exclusive limited editions there at lower prices. I don't care much about money anyway,” she said.
Stupid but can’t help it
People on low incomes also can’t resist the temptation to buy designer bags to burnish their image, even if it means spending more than their monthly salary and having to take out loans.
Kim Jin-sook, a 31-year-old office worker, earns about 1.5 million won ($1,400) per month, but half of her salary goes toward saving to buy a new designer bag. She hardly eats out or enjoys other leisure activities.
“The price of a women’s designer bag starts at 2 million won, which seems a bit too much when I think about how much I earn. But to be honest, it is the only joy in my life ― it has always been and always will be,” Kim said.
Kim started saving money when she turned 18. This was when she first got to know about many different international fashion brands from her friends.
“My high school friends in my class had at least two Louis Vuitton or Gucci bags. So I always envied those from wealthy families because my family was going through financial difficulties at that time. So I decided to save money and buy bags by myself,” Kim said.
She said the number of handbags they own is a kind of competition among her friends. “Whenever I meet my friends, I try to carry and show off a new one every time. I know it’s stupid but I just can’t help it. And all the women will know what I am talking about,” Kim added.
Many female consumers say they want to have luxury bags because they believe the bags will make them appear richer than they actually are.
Yoo Ga-young (alias), a 28-year-old factory worker in Ansan, earns 1.5 million won ($1,400) per month, which is comparatively lower than white-collar workers’ monthly salary.
Yoo says she doesn’t want other people to know about her income level, so buys designer bags to look like “rich.”
“I always try to save money. I don’t eat expensive food. I don’t drink coffee either. When I am home, I even don’t turn on the light and the boiler to save money,” she said. “I am doing this is because I have to make monthly payments for the designer bags I bought with credit cards.”
She said she buys designer bags because people tend to judge other people’s social status according to the brands of handbags or clothes they hold and wear.
“If somebody has a Chanel bag, people will immediately notice that she is rich. It is like women’s pride. That is why people, including me, cling to such bags and clothes,” she said.
Male victims of craze for designer bags
Choi Joon-seok, a 29-year-old salesman in Seoul, has a sad memory regarding a designer bag. Referring to this experience, he calls himself a “victim of a sophisticated fraud.”
Two years ago he was dating his girlfriend who was then a university student and five years younger than him.
“I just fell in love with her although it hadn’t been long since I started dating her. I wanted to do everything to make her happy,” he said.
He said the girlfriend’s birthday fell just a month after they started dating.
“Ahead of her birthday, I asked her what she wanted me to buy for her birthday present. I was ready to buy her anything that she wanted,” Choi said.
“At first, she just smiled and said she didn’t need any gift, which made her appear to be even lovelier. I kept asking her what she needed, and finally she answered: a bag made by Mulberry.”
He just jumped to the department store to buy her such a bag.
“I had to buy it through a six-month credit card installment plan because it cost as much as my monthly salary. When I thought about her happy face, money was no problem at all,” he said.
But, as soon she received the gift, his girlfriend disappeared without a trace.
“I couldn’t understand why that happened to me. I tried to phone and text her a million times. I even went to her house and school and waited for her. But, all those things were useless,” he said.
He said he realized soon that she approached him for the purpose of getting a bag because he was earning money, while she was just a student.
“When I realized that all of her words of love were lies, it was all a letdown. Even after breaking up with her, I had to keep paying off the monthly installments, which made me feel so stupid,” he added.
Chungang University sociology professor Shin Kwang-yeong pointed out that the abundant self-glorification and narcissism apparent in Korean society is a clear example of how immature the society we live in currently is.
The professor said many female Korean consumers showcase “The Veblen Effect,” which refers to the phenomenon that the higher the cost of an item is, the more people want to buy it.
“Koreans are very sensitive to praise from others. In a sense, it is good because it makes people behave well toward others, but it can also be problematic because it can arouse ostentation," said Shin.
He said such conspicuous, blind and irrational consumption behavior reflects the immaturity of our society.
“There is awareness that the designer bags can make people appear to be different from others in Korean society. We need to put more value on personal character or ability than on appearances,” he said.