Recently my wife received a branded handbag as a gift from a relative. Honestly, I didn't have the courage to check its price tag or the authenticity of the brand.
She was so thrilled about her new possession that she told me that from now on she would want only branded items as gifts. Alarm bells in my head nearly deafened me. They turned into a cacophony when my children joined in the chorus rattling out the names of Italian fashion labels on their wish list. My head sought escape from the din. When I was growing up I hardly knew any of these names. Now even the toddlers are talking brands.
It's ironic that former communist and socialist countries which once shunned luxury as a social sin are now in the forefront of the consuming world's top luxury brands. In China conspicuous consumption seems to be flourishing as a form of revenge against the ‘revolutionary' hypocrisy of the Cultural Revolution.
This weekend Shanghai — the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party and now home to shops selling Ferraris, Hermes and Louis Vuitton — will host Italy's high-profile fashion event, the Milano Fashion Global Summit, attended by top executives from the biggest luxury names.
Recently I was reading an essay, A Colony of Blue Ants: Consumerism, Cultural Revolution Style, by Wang Jian, a Chinese writer who grew up during the Cultural Revolution. (The full essay is available at http://www.theasiamag.com). Here's a passage from his memories on fashion of the time.
"Everyone wore blue "zhong shan fu", or a short blue or black jacket. Not even women's clothes were colourful. If you could look down and see China from a satellite at that time, what could you see? Nothing, but a colony of blue ants!" In sharp contrast, today China is on the verge of becoming the world's biggest luxury goods market, fuelled by increasingly wealthy and brand-conscious consumers.
It is tipped to become the third-largest consumer market by 2015, as 75 million households join the middle class and total urban consumption hits 13.3 trillion yuan (Dh7.34 trillion), according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Global sales of luxury goods may climb this year to the highest level since 2007, led by demand in China, according to a recent study by Bain & Co., a Boston-based business-consulting company. Luxury goods sales in mainland China will probably rise 30 per cent.
Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH), the world's biggest luxury group, has said the growth of its business in China in the third quarter was about the same as during the first half, or 26-27 per cent in local currency. Burberry said last week that the retailer's largest customer group in the UK is now Chinese consumers visiting the country. In the second half of its financial year, Burberry will increase its selling space by 25 per cent, of which about 15 per cent will be in China.
Carmakers such as BMW, Audi and Mercedes Benz have also been enjoying strong demand for their premium saloons. China is on course to become the world's largest market for Germany's Mercedes Benz cars in the next four to five years, company chief Dieter Zetsche said last week.
By 2015, the brand's manufacturer Daimler AG hopes to be selling 300,000 of luxury cars a year in China compared with about 120,000 this year. Also reflecting China's booming car market, German-owned Audi said last week that sales in China had breached the key one-million mark more than 20 years after it moved in.
The consumption binge seems to be taking over the whole of Asia, where new wealth is pushing up the purchasing power and the craving for the once forbidden luxury. Even though I obviously have another test in front of me, I didn't have the misfortune of enduring the Cultural Revolution. But I can relate to Wang's passage as to both the Maoist era and the new age of consumption revolution in China. I suspect even if Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung was alive today, he would have probably said, "Let a thousand brands bloom."