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Young luxury shoppers explain why they’re willing to pay $500 for sneakers

Nike Off-White Air Jordan 1 sneakers are seen at the KICKIT Sneaker e Streetwear Market in Rome, Italy, September 23, 2018. Picture taken September 23, 2018. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi - RC1888B9FDB0
Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi
By Marc Bain
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Luxury goods are a social signal, as psychologists and economists will attest. They broadcast a message about status and taste, in part through their high-end materials, craftsmanship, and of course price tags.

But what exactly motivates someone to line up for a $500 pair of sneakers, or a $400 hoodie? These items carry the weighty cost of luxury goods, and may be made at top-level factories with high-quality materials. But when people have traditionally imagined luxury, sneakers and hoodies were not what came to mind.

Highsnobiety is a digital publisher, creative agency, and soon an e-commerce company whose young, fashion-centric audience—mostly men—includes a lot of people who will shell out hundreds for sneakers, hoodies, and t-shirts. Its main areas of coverage tend to be subjects like streetwear, music, and designer fashion. To get a sharper picture of its audience and what motivates it to buy, it surveyed about 5,000 of its 16- to 34-year-old readers and followers around the world, and nearly 2,400 other consumers in that age group in key markets.

More than a third of the Highsnobiety users surveyed, it noted in a new white paper, said they had purchased clothing, footwear, or an accessory costing over $500 in the past 12 months. But the price wasn’t the point: The “vast majority of them see these purchases as a way to convey a value system they share with like-minded consumers,” the authors note. The key takeaway was that these young shoppers, whatever their spending levels, aren’t just buying products, they’re “buying into a lifestyle or community”—one which often exists in a nexus of brands and people talking to each other through social platforms such as Instagram and events including product drops and festivals.

It’s by a brand or designer I like
It’s better quality than the more affordable alternative
It’s limited edition, so only a few people will own it
It has a history to it
It’s an undiscovered brand or product, so only a few people will have it
It’s associated with an artist or celebrity I like
It has an image associated with it
Fewer people can afford it, so not as many people will buy it
Others will see that it’s more expensive

The meaning behind a product has always been an important facet of fashion and luxury. “The context is so important, and, let’s face it, when you’re selling luxury, you’re not selling a product,” Ian Rogers, chief digital officer of LVMH told Wired UK recently. “No one is buying a Dior handbag for €3,000 because of its incredible utility. You’re buying it because the culture of Dior has meaning.”

But what’s shifting is that conveying one’s values and insider knowledge is becoming as common and important—or more—for younger shoppers as showing off qualities like status. The result is that they’re putting more emphasis on brands that align with their worldview, or on products that suggest a sense of belonging to a community—usually because they’re so exclusive you have to be part of the community and willing to pay to get your hands on them.

“Those with the knowledge of drop dates and access to exclusive product are able to buy in for a reduced price, and later adopters usually have to settle for the inflated aftermarket value,” the paper notes. “It creates a feedback loop where those in the know are serving a consumer base of people who don’t, but are willing to pay extra for that validation.” To the community, a rare Supreme sweatshirt or a pair of limited Nike sneakers carries as much cultural currency as a Dior bag. (And that community keeps growing as streetwear and sneakers increasingly become mainstream fashion.)

That doesn’t mean brands can simply stick a high price on a logo t-shirt, put out limited numbers, and expect consumers to jump; 89% of Highsnobiety users said they can tell when the people behind a brand are part of the culture they’re representing or just co-opting it. And when young luxury shoppers do drop hundreds on a limited-edition product, they want it to take unexpected creative chances. Inspiration matters more than aspiration.

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