Louis Vuitton and the American Dream
The French luxury brand underestimates the American spirit.
I am in New York and walking home after dinner one evening, when I stumble upon a long line of people. It’s a warm Monday evening and even with all these people queuing, the street is quiet and orderly.
I walk up to the first guy in line. His name is Kazem, and he’s here with his girlfriend. She’s number two in line. I ask him what they’re in line for, and he points at the nearby Louis Vuitton store. I learn that Louis Vuitton, a French luxury brand, is launching a collection of clothing and accessories created in cooperation with American street wear brand Supreme, a brand infamous for its sporadic limited-edition launches.
“How strange, to have a launch on a Tuesday”, I tell Kazem, assuming they’re going to be spending the night outside the store. “Tuesday?”, he asks quizzically. “The launch is not tomorrow, is on Friday.” That’s in 5 days.
Americans have since the birth of their nation enjoyed unprecedented freedom to attain their ends; to attain their American Dream. They have used that freedom in ways as often appalling as they are admirable. The historian Walter A. McDougall writes in his book Throes of Democracy, that from the beginning, America has been a nation of hustlers. He used that phrase in the positive sense, “builders, doers, go-getters, dreamers, hard workers, inventors, organizers, [and] engineers” but also in the negative, “self-promoters, scofflaws, occasional frauds, and peripatetic self-reinventers.”
From the beginning, America has been a nation of hustlers.
Kazem and his girlfriend do shifts. She does the days, he does the nights. They’re veterans. “We are not sneaker heads, and we don’t do iPhones, but anything else, clothing launches, concert tickets, you mention it, we’ve done it.”
He has been planning this for about a month. Kazem has a normal day job when he’s not standing in line. “What do your colleagues say?”, I ask him. “They don’t know. I say ‘see ya’ll in a week’, and that’s it.”
Further down the line I meet Jordan, a charming young man sitting with a few of his friends. I ask him why he’s here. He looks at me with a smile and jumps right into it. “It’s all about the money! Look at Trump, how do you think he became president, he’s all about the money! He said ‘grab them by the pussy’ and he still became president, why do you think that is? Because he’s all about the money!”
Firing off a thousand words a minute, Jordan is the quintessential American hustler. A self-made man, yet to be made. Seeking opportunities at every corner, street and otherwise, he is brimming with so much energy, his friends keep telling him he should be a motivational speaker. I ask him what a driven man like him is going to do with all this money he is looking to make from this sale. He has this answer ready also, and as with everything else he says, it’s laced with saccharine sweet inspirational quotes taken straight from Tumblr.
“Me, I’m going to invest my money; I’m investing in my girl. Always bet on the queen. In the game of chess, the queen runs and moves everywhere to protect the king. She’s the best player; always invest in your lady.”
Inspired by Jordan, his buddy David continues the rhetoric. “Look around you, everybody in this line is in it for the money.” I ask him whether he thinks that’s a little sad, to be spending the better part of a week, quasi homeless on the streets, just to make some money. He looks at me with a sober expression on his face.
“It’s not sad, it’s just real life, it’s just the way society is.” Another member of the clique chimes in, “It ain’t sad, it ain’t sad to pay your bills, it ain’t sad to put food on the table. It ain’t sad being in Mykonos drinking white-girl rose, it ain’t sad going to France, is it now? I want to go on the wildest vacation I’ve ever been on!” He laughs, perhaps realising that what started off as social commentary on the dire straits of the lower economic brackets of American society had quickly devolved to promoting his own desire for excessive hedonism.
Historian Morris Berman writes in his book, Why America Failed, that “the culmination of a hustling, laissez-faire capitalist culture is that everything gets dumbed down, that all significant questions are ignored, and that every human activity is turned into a commodity, and anything goes if it sells.”
Cole, an accounting major still in college in New Hampshire had travelled to New York alone. “It’s a no brainer!”, he said eager to explain why he had made the journey, “because think about it, This is the only launch in the eastern United States, the stuff [referring to the merchandise he was planning to buy from Louis Vuitton] is gonna sell itself. I can make maybe $4,000 for a few days of just sitting around.”
Cole was at first very reluctant to be photographed. He didn’t want anyone to know that he was here, and he didn’t want any record of this anywhere. It wouldn’t look good to have your accountant doing this. “I don’t want to be photographed like this, this isn’t me. This is me. This is not the real me.” He wasn’t alone.
Quite a few of the guys — almost everyone in line were college age men — were reluctant to be on camera. While they knew that in their heads — and among their peers — what they were doing made perfect sense, they were also acutely aware that the outside world considered them a curiosity at best, and a failure at worst.
Jason, a portly Asian fellow is sitting next to Cole. He brought with him a cooler full of Gatorade sports drinks that he was sharing with his fellow hustlers. His story was a little different. “I’m getting paid no matter what”. Along with a few other guys in line, he is a professional line sitter, on assignment for a wealthy acquaintance of his who was initially going to send him to Miami but was last minute sent to New York to stand in line instead. He is paid $150 a day to, in his words, “just sit around and do nothing”.
“It’s a pretty good gig” he says, as a delivery boy on a bicycle stops next to him and hands him a small food container wrapped in aluminium foil. “You can never go wrong with breakfast. When you’re having a bad day, eat some breakfast. It just reminds you of childhood. Even though my parents never cooked anything for me.” It’s early evening as he opens the box containing an Americanised version of the full English breakfast. He continues, in a matter of fact voice, “My parents didn’t support me. They gave me a house and food and everything, but I had to teach myself pretty much everything. They didn’t guide me thru life”. “Is that how you ended up here?” I ask him. He smiles and keeps eating.
Fascinated by their devotion, I kept coming back to the boys every evening. I simultaneously saw in them the best of America, and the worst of America. Professor McDougall writes that the American people have always mixed naked self-interest and high-minded idealism, and the two are so interwoven as to be finally inextricable. Nowhere has this been as apparent as on a quiet side street in Soho a week in early July.
The American people have always mixed naked self-interest and high-minded idealism, and the two are so interwoven as to be finally inextricable. Nowhere has this been as apparent as on a quiet side street in Soho a week in early July.
The police had come by a few times during the week, but the boys in line were professionals, they knew the rules regarding public safety and noise complaints and each time, the police left without being able to do anything. The local residents didn’t seem to mind either, with one of two of them even coming by and sharing their admiration. There was, however, one group of people who did not see these voluntarily displaced individuals in a positive light; one group that didn’t see enthusiasm, aspiration and an American spirit in the people in line, but instead saw a group of poor, unattractive and unrefined hustlers. Unfortunately for these hustlers, that group was Louis Vuitton management.
Days before the launch, Louis Vuitton, sent a message through their official Twitter account. The LV/Supreme collaboration launch in New York has been cancelled. No items went on sale on Friday.