Everyone has a dream shopping list of unaffordable items. Sharon Lam purchased one of hers.
A late spring Sunday in Hong Kong. A woman is walking down Canton Road. From north to south: Armani, Hermès, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen, Prada, Bvlgari, Gucci, Louis Vuitton. The guardian angels and mean girls gilding Asia-Pacific’s most expensive street for retail rental. At Fendi, the woman stops and walks inside. An hour later she leaves with a golden shopping bag.
The woman goes into the toilets of a nearby shopping mall. When she emerges, a nondescript tote has replaced the label-emblazoned shopping bag. She meets her family for dinner. When asked about her day she says “fine”. In truth, her heart is still screeching from dropping a cool $3,000 for the centre of the bag babushka now sitting between her feet. The woman has never spent so much money on a single item before. She feels dizzy. She wants to throw up, laugh hysterically, then throw up some more. She feels powerful: a purveyor of luxury, Machiavellian, defying the risk-averse notion to “live within one’s means”. She feels idiotic: suggestible, falling for every trick of consumer capitalism. It is $3,000 worth of self-love. It is a $3,000 cry for help.
I never expected to own a stupidly expensive handbag, let alone buy one for myself. I had always scoffed at these kinds of things – I was Kourtney retorting that “there are people who are dying”, rather than Kim, crying over losing diamond earrings to the sea. But somewhere between 12-hour work days, Covid-catalysed claustrophobia and one too many spaced-out ambles in luxury shopping malls, the spores of designer desire were planted. And because of those work day-nights and Covid, the only thing I was splurging on was $2 Cornettos at 7-Eleven. A never-before-seen bump, boosted by a new year bonus, had slowly but surely been accumulating. Was this what expecting mothers felt like? It had yet to be flattened, it could actually be possible. It was financially unwise, considering I still had to pay rent in a city where a single parking space can go for $1.8 million – unwise, but possible.
I tried to fight it off by systematic analysis. I wrote out a sad little pro-con list, already overthinking what others would consider a simple, fun, frivolous thing. Cons: It will be basically one million dollars and you’re not rich / probably has some slave labour involved / definitely bad for the environment and animals / imagine the good the money could do elsewhere. Pros: No ethical consumption under capitalism anyway / makes no difference if it’s a banana or a bag / it’s your own money / be real, you’re not Bill Gates or Oprah, you’re not going to donate thousands to charity!
When the desire didn’t go away even after an extra-attentive period of reading extra-depressing world news, I went deep into research instead. My brain and bank balance hoped I wouldn’t find anything I actually liked while my heart hoped to find The One. Precious hours of free time were fettered away with my nose pressed against the windows, both glass and virtual, of Prada, Jacquemus, Loewe and Celine. In the end, it was Fendi.
I narrowed it down to two bags. A striped Baguette – Fendi’s signature, deemed by some as the first It bag, hung on the shoulders of Carrie Bradshaw and Paris Hilton. The other, a black Mon Tresor – a more subtle, less recognisable, more “me” bag. It was now completely impossible to wean myself away. It had a face, a heartbeat.
The dream of the bags and the knowledge of their exact price tags added surrealness to my days. I wondered if I would really take the plunge. But when The Day arrived it arrived with all the naturalness of childbirth. It was time. I showered, dressed in black, made a rare application of perfume. My socks were bought from a tarp-walled street stall. I wondered if the store staff would be able to tell.
My fears were assuaged when the glass doors were breezily opened by the security guards. A dignified chorus of welcomes came from the sales assistants, none of whom pounced on me. This was no Lush. After some pseudo-casual browsing, I was comfortably sat at a table with two staff members bringing me bags of all fabrics and styles to try, me the star of my own shopping montage. I held them this way and that, in disbelief that they let me touch them with my poor person hands. They offered glass bottles of Italian fruit juice, which I drank too quickly. When the Baguette was larger than I envisioned, they didn’t try to upsell me on it even though it was more expensive. In the end, they produced an orange and white Mon Tresor that hadn’t hit the website yet. It was love.
Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised by any of this. This was their job! Who they saw wasn’t someone messing around in the store, nor were they looking at some heiress, but a sucker who had walked up to those glass doors perfectly in tune to the middle-class march of consumerism. A long, sad, march that stands at attention to hot pink Supré tote bags, half steps to Nikes and iPhones, right turns to Bang & Olufsen and Aesop, then salutes to Tesla and Fendi. Of course they didn’t kick me out, I was a starry-eyed believer, eager to gulp down the free juice made from pomegranates.
After all of this, the most stupid thing about having a very expensive bag is being too embarrassed to use it. I am not a member of the Roy family, which my non-Roy family and friends know. Seeing me with a Fendi is seeing a pauper with a Fendi. It isn’t the worry of being seen as vapid that is embarrassing, but the bag exposing my need for help. The promise of consumerism is self-improvement, and the bag screams that a) I am gullible enough to believe that promise and b) I will spend a disproportionate $3k trying to fulfil that promise.
It is also embarrassing because I have never been good at being kind to myself. Spending so much on something for me raises the question if I deserve it, to which my inner voice replies: NO. This is the real emotional crux of all my overthinking and guilt, not concerns over inflated designer prices or the ethics of leather goods and labour in a world of systematic corruption.
My only virtue was that at least I knew I didn’t deserve it, and therefore consciously led a sans-Fendi life. No one was going to accuse me of thinking that I thought otherwise. Ambient suffering is the norm, to expect more is selfish gluttony. Buying the bag pried open a glimpse of a life where this didn’t need to be true. The magic was as much in the sight of “payment accepted” as the bag itself. As the disgustingly long string of digits gave way to a perverted high, I saw a brave new stupid world. I held the golden shopping bag in my hands and was consumed with illicit joy. For at least that moment, I had nothing to hide, neither my Fendi nor my big dumb grin.