Last May the big dream of Mylène Böhmer (35) from Rotterdam came true: she bought a bath. Although not a real bath – that doesn’t fit in the three square meter bathroom of her rented house, and she doesn’t have money for a renovation – but a plastic, inflatable one from the brand Tubble.
She paid 150 euros for this. It may be slightly shorter (156 centimeters) than a normal bath (about 180 centimeters), but when researcher Böhmer drops into the warm water after a busy day, throws in a handful of bath salts and turns on Netflix, she forgets that for a moment. she’s in a plastic container, sandwiched between the washing machine and sink. “I can really enjoy a moment like that. For a moment it feels like the middle-class dream has been achieved.”
Dutch Tubble’s inflatable pools were featured on advertising posters across the country in September. Last year, the company, founded in 2014, sold more than 10,000 copies worldwide. It is not the only brand that focuses on people in their twenties and thirties who dream of a (more) luxurious bathroom, but do not have the money or space for it. There are also the folding baths from HelloBath and the tubs from Fentic and Betub.
It is also called ‘mediocre luxury’, this new consumption segment that has been emerging in the Netherlands in recent years. Companies offer products with an aura of luxury, without it being really luxurious. These items have an air of exclusivity – because they’re beautifully designed, for example, or because they resemble existing status symbols – but they’re affordable for the masses.
Think of the truffle chips from supermarket chain Marqt, which contain 0.03 percent real truffle. Whether you choose speedy boarding with easyJet, or extra legroom in the economy class. Hotels with a beautiful lobby, but cramped rooms. Cashmere sweaters from a clothing chain.
This luxury for everyone can also be found in the glasses from Ace & Tate, the bicycles from Veloretti, the shelves of the city supermarket Stach and the affordable design furniture from Made.com. Or clothing store chain Arket, which presents itself as a upscale Scandinavian concept store, but where some of the clothing is produced in Bangladesh. It can also be food from a slick Randstad catering chain, which looks better in the photo than it tastes. Each product is elegantly designed or presented. But is it just as exclusive and qualitative as the real top segment? Not that again.
“Mediocre luxury arose in the years after the 2008 financial crisis, and never really went away,” US consultant and author Venkatesh Rao (1974) said in an email. He coined the term premium mediocre in 2017. That year he ate at a catering chain with his wife – just too good for fast food, just too mediocre for fine dining — when the word came to him. He published an essay on the phenomenon, which went viral.
You don’t want to be a loser of modern times. That’s why you go along with the consumer drive that radiates success
Gerbert Kraaykamp, professor of sociology
The target audience for companies selling mediocre luxury, Rao says, are millennials, today’s mid-20s and 30s, raised by middle-class parents and trying to navigate today’s economy. Think of young people who move to the big city, hoping to find a good job at a tech giant like Google, but just missing out. This premium mediocre products, Rao says, are an expression of the desire for upward social mobility.
The fact that people raised in the middle class are sensitive to this type of consumption, says professor of sociology Gerbert Kraaykamp of Radboud University in Nijmegen, because the fear of social decline in this group is relatively high. In this class, more than in other groups in society, you have to do your best to maintain your position: this must reproduced become in each new generation.
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“So parents give their children cultural capital, in the form of eating habits, opinions and ways of dressing,” says Kraaykamp. “The pressure to succeed is higher. You don’t want to be a loser of modern times. That is why you go along with the consumer drive that radiates success. And then you get something like people buying truffle mayo,” says Kraaykamp.
Achieving that success, in the form of social advancement, has become much more difficult since the crisis years. For the first time since the Second World War, there is a fear that the generation growing up now will have it worse than their parents: buying a house seems impossible, wages are stagnating, jobs are flexible. “Most millennials were too young to get a foot in the door of the economy before it crashed right in front of them,” wrote the American magazine The Atlantic last year in an article about mediocre luxury. “In the decade after the credit crisis, they were confronted with the fragility of their socio-economic position. The best they can do right now is to pretend they’re putting on a little play of success, hoping that the real success will happen one day.”
The rise of social media also plays a role in this The Atlantic: never before could you see in detail how the rich and famous have decorated their living rooms, what they eat and drink, which products are in their bathroom. If you search for Eames design chairs on Instagram, you will soon be presented with an advertisement for a very similar design by another brand – just as beautiful in the photo, much cheaper.
According to an opinion article on business site Business of Fashion from 2018 there is another explanation for the success of mediocre luxury: “The margins in this segment are very high.” Look at luxury webshop Lyst, where you can buy clothes from the major fashion houses. In his top 50 of best-selling products are a Gucci cap (290 euros), sneakers from Balenciaga (385 euros) or a belt from the trendy Off-White (160 euros) – the most accessible products of these brands, which are relatively cheap. can be produced, but still have a higher price tag due to their logo. Prices on menus also suddenly skyrocket when ingredients appear with an aura of luxury: from truffle to burrata or oyster.
Still, you can ask yourself: to what extent is this a new phenomenon? Since the dawn of the consumer society, haven’t people always tried to express their status through their products or lifestyle?
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It was the economist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) who coined the term ‘showy consumption’ at the end of the 19th century, the stuff with which the newly rich expressed their status. Venkatesh Rao: “In Veblen’s case, it was about a class that was actually wealthy. They wanted to show it off. With mediocre luxury, it is precisely about disguising your vulnerable economic position.”
Because that’s what this consumer segment does, it masks the diminishing opportunities for social mobility, wrote the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung earlier. “In a society in which fewer and fewer people have real opportunities for progress, in which wealth is distributed more and more unequally and the precariat” [de kwetsbare, flexwerkende klasse] continues to grow, mediocre luxury is an aesthetic padding. (…) You buy the illusion that one day you too will be better off, that you will overtake the real elite.” Therefore, writes the German newspaper, this consumption is no more than a consolation prize. „You are flying economy, but is at the front of the queue.”
Meanwhile, Mylène Böhmer has not yet given up on the dream of a true middle-class lifestyle in her inflatable bath. “But my fixed costs are quite high. I may want to have all kinds of luxury things, but I have to make do with what I have. Still, I hope one day to live in a house for sale, with a family, dog and bath. I hope that ‘pretending’, like now, is not the end.”