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I've been thinking about this day since June 12, my 30th birthday and the day after I sold my first book: a collection of essays on women in pop culture and our mythologies about feminine inadequacy. As I gushed with relief about all the student debt I'd be able to pay off, my friend Natasha suggested that I buy myself one tangible indulgence with the first of my three advance checks. "You're a woman of means now," she said. Natasha is English, so to my ears everything she says is inherently convincing. Unlike the book itself, which would exist in the form of thousands of reproduced copies, a classic handbag would be a singular artifact to represent my official arrival on the literary scene.
Growing up in a solidly middle-class military family, I was unaccustomed to the allure of luxury. I didn't speak the language of designer goods, couldn't tell high- and low-quality materials apart, and scoffed at the price mark-ups for little more than a well-embossed logo. Studies have shown that a sense of accomplishment often compels people toward luxury purchases. Indeed, selling my book made this little suburban mouse with lingering Imposter Syndrome want to celebrate emerging from the grind of freelancing and odd jobs. Though it signals narcissism to the outsider, the purchase of such a bag was a signal to myself that I could indulge in something frivolous, even if just this once.
This little suburban mouse with lingering Imposter Syndrome wanted to celebrate emerging from the grind of odd jobs.
Four months later, a mere 35 minutes stand between me and the strange, secret ritual of luxury purchases. The Prada store is situated in a converted 19th-century palace on a street named after the patron saint of pastry chefs in central Paris. It sounds like something I made up to make fun of French priorities, but it's true. The stretch of street on which it's located is home to several luxury brands, but I'm on a singular mission: Go into Prada, buy a bag, and get out alive. I recognize the gold and black details adorning the store façade from photos online. Standing outside, I know that with one more step I'll be entering a world from which I can't return empty-handed.
Though I've never stepped into a Prada store, the brand and I have a long history together. My freshman year at New York University, the day before I left for Christmas vacation, I went to Chinatown and bought a fake Prada handbag. I'd spent previous Saturdays accompanying my friends to Canal Street, where shops hawked counterfeit designer gear. My friends knew precisely which bags they wanted and could discern proof-of-authenticity details that I couldn't. I settled on a nondescript, black nylon bag with a short handle and what I now realize were woefully unconvincing hardware pieces. But back home, my high school friends were entirely convinced. To them, I had gone away to New York and become a woman of unbounded sophistication. Ever since that Christmas, I've considered Prada an occupant of the most incorruptible reaches of the designer stratosphere in a way that most labels are not.
In other words, my lust for Prada has less to do with its unimpeachable reputation among luxury brands than its particular mythology in my head, developed as I witnessed peers consuming it. Research published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology shows that reading about a wealthy colleague from your alma mater or a similar background increases your expectations of your own wealth, as well as your desire for luxury goods. More than a decade has passed since I saw my classmates engage so fluently with designer brands, as I, the evident outsider, fumbled for the right questions. But now, as I walk into Prada, I feel as though I'm finally showing up to their exclusive ritual — and that I belong to it.
Inside, I'm immediately greeted with a flurry of bonjours from Prada's attractive squad of security and sales personnel. I feel like Belle in the opening sequence of Beauty and the Beast — if she were thirsty for flagrant indulgences in the basest of consumer impulses instead of the written word. The interior is dramatic, all mirrors and marble and green velvet couches. The sales associates are neatly dressed in white, collared shirts that peeked out from fitted navy pullovers, a uniform that make them look more like flight attendants than assistants to the high-fashion crowd.
The iconic fashion line's collection of handbags is housed in its own room. Prada does not have racks. Prada has displays. Handbags sit on little shelves lining the gallery and atop impeccably polished Perspex-and-steel cases displaying wallets that suddenly strike me as far too beautiful and valuable to use as receptacles for currency.
I pull a simple, black, leather bag toward me, then immediately regret it as I hear muffled gasps of horror from all sides.
I pause in front of one display and look intently at the three handbags on it, narrowing my eyes as if there's something more to discern about them and I'm exactly the kind of woman of means who can discern it. I pull a simple, black, leather bag between nine and ten inches long toward me, then immediately regret it as I hear muffled gasps of horror from all sides. A scruffy, handsome young man swoops in and pulls out a pair of gloves with which to handle the bags, expertly hiding his disgust that a wretched urchin such as moi has tainted their sacred inventory with my grubby hands. I don't get a chance to ask for his real name but I have reasonable confidence it's Henri. You can spot them, you know?
Henri begins pointing out the features of the bag. There aren't many. Luxury handbags aren't sought out for their nifty hidden compartments, after all. This bag features gold-plated hardware, a detachable leather shoulder strap, two interior pockets, a metal logo, and a little gold set of lock and keys that I can't ever imagine employing. I ask him what kind of leather it's made of and do my best to look as though the information registers as familiar or useful to me. "Calf, hmm. Saffiano, I see," I reply knowingly. It's all in the subtleties, you see.
After wandering for 15 minutes to other displays with Henri as my trusty new shadow guide, I return to the first bag. "It's just so classic, you know? Is it very popular?" I ask, genuinely admiring its sturdiness and purposeful design. He darts over to a wall display, gestures to a bag between six and seven inches long and just shy of five inches tall, and tells me that this is a very popular bag. Henri, that gauche beast, is downselling me. I'm tempted to ask if this is a handbag for ants but decide against it. Instead I look at him disappointedly and say, "Oh, but that's such a small bag," shaking my head. Less than 30 minutes inside the store and I'm already turning an aristocratic nose at more affordable options.
I ask how much the first bag costs. Henri exchanges a look of impending doom with his colleague before he announces, "This one is ... 1,400 Euros? Yes, 1,400 Euros." He says it as though questioning the price might make it land more softly. But the reality is I've psyched myself up enough that I wouldn't balk at even a far higher price. "Oh, yeah. Then that's the one I want," I tell him, grinning with satisfaction. Henri shakes off his visible surprise to fetch a brand new bag from the back while I fill out paperwork that requires my passport information and home address. "You'll ‘ave an account wiz Prada now. So eef anyzing ‘appens, you will ‘ave verification that it was authenteek Prada," the woman at the checkout tells me. An account. I feel as though the ghost of Marie Antoinette is smiling down on this decadent ritual, but Prada wasn't created until 1913.
She swipes my Citibank MasterCard and waits a moment, before frowning in the way you might frown at a child with a skinned knee. It signals sympathy but nothing especially serious. "Eet eez declined," she tells me, as though it's some kind of pathetic but inevitable truth. "That's bizarre," I declare, trying desperately not to lose my cool. "Do you think it's because I'm in a foreign country?" She tilts her head. "Or mebbe you ‘ave a leemeet?" But I'm not about to let her Pretty Woman me. "Haha. No," I say curtly before producing my phone and seeing the text alert from Citibank, which thinks it's a fraudulent charge. "Let's just put it on the AmEx," I say, producing my second card from my interior coat pocket. Cruelly and perfectly, she smiles her disappointment when the charge goes through.
After a brief moment feeling like a woman of means, now I just feel like a woman with a nice bag.
Walking back to my Airbnb with the Prada shopping bag covered in protective plastic on my arm, I feel visible and powerful, like I'm carrying the head of a conquered enemy. Eyes gravitate toward the label and look at me anew when the name registers. They don't know that hours earlier I was an earthling, weighed down by nylon and vinyl accessories. Back in my apartment, I wash my hands in the kitchen, picking under my nails with a bobby pin and drying them vigorously. I remove the plastic bag from the shopping bag, take the protective felt bag into my lap, and gingerly pull out the handbag itself from this Russian nesting doll of ceremonial armor. It's notably sturdier, more immaculately stitched, and adorned with shinier hardware than anything I've ever owned. And then there's the tasteful little "Prada" logo sitting between the handles and the certificate of authenticity inside to prove that it's real. I examine the bag using just my fingertips, trying somehow to occupy the world more elegantly than I have until now, so that I might handle it with a lighter, more graceful touch.
Back home in New York, I field compliments on the handbag from friends, many of whom have understandably grown tired of the dingy canvas bags that were my wardrobe staples. But as the rush of the initial purchase wears off and I wear it with my everyday clothes, I begin to crave more luxury items. After a brief moment feeling like a woman of means, now I just feel like a woman with a nice bag. In one study from the Marketing Journal of Research and Management, the authors took a constructive approach to this mindset, positing that "any product or brand has the potential to become a luxury depending on whether consumers perceive it as such or not."
Maybe that's true. With each use, I feel that luxury is bleeding out of the bag, even as it remains in pristine condition. I still adore it, but the same impulse that occasionally grips me about my work — that I'm a literary fraud, despite publishing hundreds of stories and selling a book to a major publisher — also tells me that no matter how much I play dress-up in this world of luxury, I'll never be one of its citizens. For now, I keep writing, hoping that one day I'll actually believe myself when I speak about the writing process with the same authority that my college friends spoke of rivets and patterns on Canal Street counterfeits. And while I'd like to say that I focus my energy on being more at home in the literary world than the one of luxury, I am more intoxicated by the thrill of the latter. I find myself up late at night, diving into the infinite scroll of designer goods online and wondering when, if ever, this alleged woman of means will be foreign to them no longer.