K-shaped aspiration

Aspiration increasingly means different things to different people

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For those who are new to Sociology of Business and also for those who missed last week’s edition on how to win in aspirational markets, you can check it out here.

The other weekend, in his Faster Lane weekly Monocle address, Tyler Brûlé generously offered a few “pointers” for “soldering through” the new lockdown. Brûlé’s pointers all sounded very privileged, but the one that stood out was to “start a grand project.” It involved suggestions to buy a house, build a little hut or commission a new-build boat. “These are good days for side projects,” was the author’s conclusion.

No doubt, some Monocle readers took these ideas to heart. Brûlé has, after all, been a taste-maker and an über-connoisseur for decades and he earned his stripes. Similarly, a business management consultant recently proclaimed in British Vogue that, once the pandemic is over, everybody will be buying more sustainably and responsibly. He is certainly, if only partially, right.

There are those who will buy more responsibly. As for everybody else, they will buy what they can afford. They also probably won’t commission a boat as a side project. 

If shopping bags and lines in front of stores seen on the streets of downtown New York are any indication, fashion is very conspicuously happening in Zara and H&M. Uniqlo was so packed on a recent Sunday evening that if people weren’t wearing masks, it would be hard to tell what year we’re in. Scroll down your Insta feed, and most influencers are wearing ASOS, COS, Arket and & Other Stories.

Viewed from the perspective of environmental capital, wearing fast fashion is not aspirational. From the perspective of affordability, it is. 

This chasm makes the future of aspiration K-shaped. 

K-shaped aspiration reflects the inverse relationship between consumption and wealth. A friend who works as a senior executive at a global beauty company spends her money on facials and other forms of wellness. She occasionally buys a Uniqlo collaboration, if it is Jil Sander or JW Anderson. In contrast, the less affluent buy products to make them more socially visible, and devote a bigger fraction of their total spending on things they perceive as status-augmenting. They buy their status in Zara. 

Two parts of K-shaped aspiration are: 

a) Those who occupy their time by decorating a newly-bought house and embarking on members-only travel. They peruse GOOP gift guides, flip through FT’s How to Spend It and subscribe to receive produce from sustainable indoor micro-farms. To fend off boredom, they hire The Culinistas for intimate dinner parties and invite-only brunches, prepared by vetted chefs and staff who takes care of shopping, cooking, table service and clean up. 

b) Those who keep not buying sustainable because they cannot - and because they would rather have a lot, not a few, fashionable things. And because they aspire to project social, cultural and economic status, they gravitate towards weekly outfit changes from H&M and ASOS, Insagrammable food from ghost kitchens or furniture from Wayfair. Some influencers buy empty luxury fashion shopping bags to keep their image going. This is the domain of speed, convenience, scale and a minimum viable product in food, fashion, furniture, or beauty. 

K-shaped aspiration didn’t happen overnight. It was in the making ever since our innovations begun to revolve around removing nuisances of modern life for a privileged group of people. The society - and its aspirations - is divided in those who order food from Caviar and those who deliver it. 

What we lose with K-shaped aspiration is the mix of the high and the low, the cheap and the pricey, the art and the kitsch, the downtown and the uptown. We lose cultural taste: the making of it, the sharing of it, and the consuming of it.

Mixes of the high and the low have presently been co-opted by brands in the form of collaborations. If it weren’t for collaborations’ high prices ($140 on Grailed for a pack of four Supreme Colgate toothpaste), this coopting may have had worked. But as it is now, a more viable strategy is to invest in reviving the middle by supporting the small and medium-sized businesses. Companies like Cascata tableware, East Fork Pottery, Atoms, or The Frankie Shop offer good quality items at affordable prices. So does IKEA on a massive scale and the increasing number of micro-food Instagram vendors on a small scale. Supporting the middle is not trivial: unless we have at least some shared social, environmental and cultural aspirations, we won’t know that we belong together.


In this episode, I talked with Jason Stewart, co-host of How Long Gone podcast. Described as "Los Angeles based DJ, more commonly known as Them Jeans, has long been one of the city’s cultural darlings" (not by me), Jason has excellent food, music and cultural taste. Listen to our conversation below, and follow Jason on Twitter and Instagram.

My book came out on October 27th. It’s about what happened to taste, communities, and social influence when the economy shifted from manufacturing things to manufacturing aspiration. It’s also about how this shift changes what we find valuable and worth paying for and how brands should transform their strategies to adapt. You can order from a number of mainstream and independent booksellers listed here.