From Edith Wharton to A Bathing Ape:

How new mass media feeds the old-fashioned rarity fetish

UCLA, Fall 1999, IS-246: Impact of new information environments

Snowden Becker

Say you're in a dank basement club in Amsterdam, just off the M___strasse, having your guts massaged at 120 beats per minute by a drop-dead-gorgeous female DJ. Everyone in the room, whether they're dancing under the single strobe light or nodding out in a corner, knows this woman's story: that she's the hottest thing on the northern European club scene, that stylistically she's a mixed-up daughter of drum-and-bass and gypsy jazz, that she might be fifteen or forty-six, Basque or Cherokee, depending on who you believe. And you know that your friends in New York won't be even hearing about her, let alone watching her deft hands mix a track in person, for another three or four months. You are truly in the know.

Yet there's someone near the center of the room, twisting about to this most exclusive brand of noise, who's on a whole different level of the know altogether. He (or she, it's too dark to tell) is wearing a plain camouflage-print t-shirt with the letters ASNKA printed on the chest. This person's sporting garb from A Bathing Ape. And you won't know what that is for another three or four months, and that's the way the elusive folks behind A Bathing Ape like it.[1]

The ostentatious display of hard-to-obtain materials to the appreciative eye of the cognoscenti is hardly a new phenomenon. Thorstein Veblen broke it down for the masses in 1899, exactly a century ago, when luxury brands and the conspicuous consumption thereof obsessed the American bourgeoisie. Veblen termed the attractive quality of expensive or rare objects "pecuniary beauty," and noted that "a beautiful article which is not expensive is accounted not beautiful." (Veblen, 1934, p.132)[2] But the newly contrived scarcity of goods of all sorts--in an age of almost complete public access to images of and information about such goods--is part of how the quality of coolness in America and elsewhere is changing the internet age.

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