TikTok Fashion Vigilantes Should Have the Establishment On Edge
The woes of the owner of Chanel's $825 advent calendar spell trouble.
An apparent buyer of an $825 Chanel advent calendar has elicited something resembling sympathy from the internet. In 2021, this is no small feat, but such was the fate of a young woman named Elise Harmon. She TikTok’d about her advent calendar, revealing the Chanel No. 5 perfume-shaped box filled with more tiny numbered boxes to be arguably only marginally more high-end than a few free product samples from Sephora.
This should have the fashion establishment downright scared. Luxury brands do everything they can to justify their exorbitant prices, from painstakingly curating the crowds at their fashion shows to selecting real estate for stores, yet now all it takes to look laughably cheap is one woman’s TikToks.
Chanel’s advent calendar should have just innocently appeared in a few gift guides and been just as easily forgotten as that sort of slideshow usually is. “Advent calendar gifts” or some variation thereof must be a popular SEO term because a bizarre number of women’s and fashion’s sites have published advent calendar-specific gift guides. In Vogue.com’s “Shop the 41 Best Advent Calendars for Everyone on Your List,” this is how Chanel’s advent calendar is described:
For Chanel’s 100th anniversary of its iconic Chanel N°5 fragrance, the storied fashion house has released a first-of-its-kind, limited edition N°5 calendar featuring 27 little luxuries. The holiday treasures include their signature hand cream (full-sized), Rouge Allure Velvet lipstick, a ceramic bracelet featuring a wax seal of the N°5 perfume bottle, a compact mirror, bath soap with aromas of N°5, and more.
VanityFair.com also featured Chanel’s advent calendar in its advent calendar gift guide, saying, “The high-brow accessories also include a snow globe, a key ring, and a gilded bookmark with Gabrielle Chanel’s lucky number.”
Describing a snow globe as a “high-brow accessory” is the sort of thing a magazine does for a brand paying tens or hundreds of thousands, if not millions, each year for advertising. But what about the rest of the population who are not in a position to feel protective of a brand like Chanel and can call a snow globe, well, a snow globe? Such as a person the fashion world had never heard of until days ago: Elise Harmon. “OK, [box] number 8 was really calling my name,” she said in a TikTok of Chanel’s advent calendar that has 5 million views at the time of this writing. “Until I opened it. This — I can’t make this up. It’s just this bag,” she says, holding a small dust bag. In her next post she says, “Eight was a total flop. I’m really not sure how I’m suppose to live, laugh, love under these conditions but we will prevail.” She then opens a body cream with enough product “for my left arm,” followed by a flipbook, stickers (or temporary tattoos, she can’t tell), and a magnet, amongst other items that didn’t seem to strike her as “highbrow” “holiday treasures.” (I should note her tone in these videos is one of charming giggly bemusement rather than bitterness.)
After those TikToks went viral, Harmon said in a subsequent post that Chanel blocked her, but it’s been subsequently pointed out online that it’s unclear if Chanel ever had its own verified TikTok account. Nonetheless, commenters flooded Chanel’s Instagram to drag them over the calendar.
Here are some, on a video animation Chanel recently posted to tease the upcoming 2021/22 Métiers d’art show.
Harmon wasn’t a fashion influencer. She doesn’t seem to be connected to Chanel or the industry proper in any way except that she is a consumer of what it sells. (I reached out to Harmon for an interview Saturday night; she said she would talk to me but I haven’t been able to get her on the phone yet.) Her advent calendar presumably wasn’t a freebie or a bad Art Basel party gift — this was a luxury item in the wild, at the mercy of both her feelings about it and her TikTok videos. There was no Condé Nast editor standing between this advent calendar and the general populace. And the product, apparently by both Harmon’s standards and people witnessing her unboxing, hardly telegraphed to the world that which we are supposed to unfailingly believe, which is that Chanel is the pinnacle of luxury.
Chanel has also been in the news lately for another reason. According to PurseBlog.com, it recently enacted its third handbag price increase of 2021, which means that a Chanel classic small flap bag will now cost $8,200, up from the previous $7,100, which is a 15.5 percent increase — or about one and a third advent calendars more expensive.
But, as Harmon showed the world, higher prices don’t necessarily mean higher quality, which is understandably seldom acknowledged in fashion. In a 2019 interview with Vox.com, Timo Rissanen, then a Parsons professor of fashion design and sustainability, said this to reporter Chavie Lieber about the well known and disturbing practice of fashion companies destroying unsold merchandise:
This is where we get to the thing that nobody wants to talk about: The retail price of a luxury product has nothing to do with its actual value. When you buy something from Chanel or Gucci and you pay full retail, that money is actually paying for the massive advertising campaigns. If Chanel destroys a dress it tried to sell for $1,200, it hasn’t really lost $1,200. I don’t think Chanel even paid $100 [to make] that dress. And the money they’d lose would probably just be recouped through fragrances.
Harmon isn’t the first TikTok fashion vigilante to call a brand on its bullshit. Previously, Anna Sacks used TikTok to draw attention to Coach slashing its unsold bags. Her posts also went viral, causing a huge embarrassment for Coach, which was then forced to admit to doing this to 1 percent of product (or a shocking estimated $42.5 million worth).
People on TikTok who have no reason to protect fashion brands and their perceived value are going to keep posting about them. So brands will need a strategy for dealing with it, even if that strategy is simply not selling shitty overpriced advent calendars that are really just a weird plug for perfume. Existing legacy fashion outlets like Vogue will likewise need a strategy for speaking with authority to an audience whose bullshit detector is always on high alert, undergoing a constant fine tuning thanks to the Elise Harmons of the world.
I thought fashion was in trouble given Gen Z’s obsession with buying used items. I never thought it was in trouble because people would film brands’ stuff and show how cheap it can be. But both things should have the fashion establishment shaking in their unnecessarily expensive boots.
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