The Sociological Investigation of Luxury Brands

Brands become more and more popular among different nations of the world. Americans, Canadians as well as different European nations prefer to buy Calvin Klein, Gucci, Prada, Chanel, Armani, Burberry to no-name clothes and accessories. In such a way they highlight their status, wealth and differentiate from the main part of the society that cannot afford such expensive purchases. 

But copy-cats of the luxury brands are not less popular that the originals. They cost much less and have a lower quality, but many representatives of middle class buy them in order to get closer to the upper class and to pretend to be richer than they are in fact.

In this paper, I am going to analyze the reasons, why people buy luxury brands clothes and what their main motives are. My analysis will be based on Weber’s Stratification theory, H. Spenser’s theory of “reverential imitation” and Veblen’s theory of leisure class. The main methods of research are sociological observation and survey. 


Basing on the findings of the research I am going to prove that clothes are one of the ways of self-expression, satisfaction of the feeling of pride and the way to show off your wealth and exclusivity. Another purpose of this paper is to analyze why people buy the imitations of luxury brands and why they want to look like the rich. I am going to hold a short questionnaire to define the main motives of such a behavior.

According to M. Weber’s Stratification theory the whole society is divided into the “status groups” that have their special characteristics. The representatives of one ‘status group’ have a similar level of income, lifestyles, consumption and purchase habits. They have common notions of “prestigious” and “fashionable”. The people of one “status group” tend not to socialize with the representatives of another social group. 

Basing on Stratification theory, we may come to a conclusion, that luxury clothes are a tool of self-differentiation of one “status group” from another. Expensive dresses, suits, shoes, etc. help the people express their belonging to a higher status group. The high price of the clothes and accessories of famous designers and luxury brands is so high, that it becomes an obstacle for low and medium income people on their way to purchase. They simply cannot afford them. The price of the thing bought becomes one of the characteristics that attribute the person to this or that “status group”.

In my opinion, there is also a psychological reason why people buy luxury brands. They want to show off their wealth and they strive for the feeling of pride that they can afford to buy such an expensive piece of clothes. They aim to highlight their exclusivity by ordering special clothes at famous designers in order nobody could have the same dress or shoes. A vivid example of this assumption is the behavior of the stars. They want to have exclusive clothes for different ceremonies and other events. It is considered to be mauvais ton and they are always ashamed if somebody comes dressed in the same way. It also may be considered as a demonstration of person’s individuality and need of self-expression.

Herbert Spenser considered fashion to be “intrinsically imitative” and basing on this statement he developed a theory of “reverential imitation”. According to this theory, people emulate in behavior and appearance their idols, famous people or those, who they consider to be patterns to follow. This kind of behavior was noticed many years ago, when people imitates the behavior and appearance of the individuals that had a higher status and recognition. I completely support this theory and find it to be relevant even nowadays. In the modern society, mass media has a great impact on people’s behavior and on the formation of their opinions. Every day people watch TV and see the programs about luxury life of the stars, read the articles about the fashion trends and new collections of famous designers. The appetite for better life and gorgeous look is created by different media. If the person cannot satisfy this desire or need, he or she will try to find the ways to substitute expensive goods by affordable ones. This is also the case of teenagers, who have plenty of idols and they want to look like their favorite singers, football players or actors. As they don’t have enough money to buy original luxury clothes, they satisfy their needs with the copies of the luxury brands. This is the reason, why the imitations of luxury brands are not less popular than the originals. 

When speaking about imitations one cannot but mention the social phenomenon of imitating. The theory of imitation was developed by M. Gabriel Tarde and by Professor J. Mark Baldwin. Professor Baldwin states that the origin of imitation goes back to the childhood, when a child develops by copying the words and the actions of the adults. “…imitation is the method of social organization, and all progress takes place through society's generalizing by imitation the inventions of individuals. Thus we have a circular process : the individual develops intellectually and morally by imitating the mental attitudes and actions of those about him, while society changes through the continued imitation of the thought of some individual, a " leader " or a " genius"”. So, the imitation is considered to be the engine of social development.

Let’s touch upon The Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. This theory divides the society into the working class that is considered to be inferior and the wealthy people who do not need to work and just boast of their wealth. Wealth becomes an attribute of honor and the wealthier you are the better. A person’s level of satisfaction depends on the amount of money she owns. This theory brings “pecuniary emulation” into life. In my opinion, this theory is applicable for men, who consider wealth to be an indicator of their success. They earn money in order to gain social esteem and make other men envy them. In such a case the men would buy expensive clothes, shoes and watches and they would like their women have a corresponding appearance. They buy the most expensive jewelry and dresses for them and this is the way for them to show off and to highlight their status. 

What are other reasons that motivate wealthy people buy luxurious brands? McFerran et al. have conducted a research aiming to find our why people wanted to buy luxury brands. They state that the main motivation for that is the existence of two kinds of pride: “authentic pride” or accomplishment and “hubristic pride” or snobbery. Basing on the answers of the participants of the survey they came to a conclusion, that it is the feeling of the “authentic pride” that pushes people buy expensive clothes or accessories. They feel the “authentic pride” when they buy expensive clothes. This kind of pride is caused by the feeling that the person is successful enough that he or she can afford such an expensive thing, moreover, this purchase makes this person feels superior as not everybody can afford it. The “hubristic pride” or snobbery comes into action when they wear, what they bought. 

Another research was conducted by Jaehee Jung and her collaborators at the universities. Their task was to define the reasons for buying luxury goods in different countries of the world. It was interesting to find out that the people in America buy expensive apparel and accessories being driven by hedonism and desire of personal fulfillment, whereas in Western countries people tend to be more individualistic and don’t have to meet the fashion trends and be like other representatives of their social group. French consumer state that they are driven by the feeling pf exclusivity when buying luxury goods. For Germans, Italians, Hungarians and Slovakian quality and prestige matter above all, while Americans totally disregard quality. 

The findings of this research are valuable for the companies that produce luxury goods. They have to understand consumers’ behavior trends and their motivation in the process of making purchases. Those companies may use the insights received during the survey when developing TV commercials in order to better motivate them buy their apparel. The information about the reasons why people buy expensive brands will help those companies that aim at the expansion of the market and want to open their outlets in other countries. This research also provides good inspiration for the designers that work on new collections for different markets. They have to take into consideration the main features that have to be present in the clothes that will be sold in this or that country.

In order to prove the statement, that the desire to look like the actors, stars and other famous people makes people buy the imitations of the products, I decided to conduct a short survey myself. 100 people of medium income class aged 20 – 30 were asked the following questions:

  1. Do you buy copies of clothes of luxury brands?
  2. Why do you buy them?

The survey showed that 85% of interrogated answered that they did buy the copies of the luxury brands. The reasons, why they did so were the following: the imitations are cheaper than the originals and, thus, affordable; they make them be in trend and help to follow the fashion; that clothes help them look like their idols and help to hide their true level of income. For those, who buy the copies of the luxury brands, the question of quality is not crucial. Some of the interrogated even answered that it was not reasonable to buy extremely expensive goods as they wanted to have a variety of clothes in their wardrobes, but not two or tree expensive things. Moreover, some of them stated that they preferred to buy the imitations of the brands because they were cheaper, they could buy more of them and they could refresh their wardrobe every season as they had now pity throwing away the copycats of the luxury brands.

Those 15% who answered that they didn’t buy any imitations of brands explained, that they were not brand-driven and they felt quite comfortable about wearing no-name brands. The most important thing for them was the quality and beauty of the model. They didn’t care about fashion and being in trend. It was important for them that the piece of clothes they had bought fit them well and that they liked the way they looked in it. 

Another part of the respondents said that they were ready to buy few expensive pieces of clothes because they cared about quality and durability of the goods. They were not so rich to buy a lot of cheap things and throw them away in several days after the purchase, because of their low quality. Their life motto was “fewer but better”.

Having conducted this research I have come up to a conclusion, that the reasons why people buy luxury brands are conditioned by their personal psychology. A strong driver of their behavior is caused by the need of imitation of more authoritative individuals, idols, stars, leaders or opinion-makers. People want to emulate others, more successful individuals, because they think, that it will help them to approach a higher social level and hide their true level of income. They also believe that expensive clothes will give them the feeling of personal satisfaction, success and beauty. The designers set the trends in fashion and there is a big part of people for who it is crucial to be in trend and follow the fashion. In this case, I can conclude that we speak about the mass psychology and collectivism on one hand and individualism on the other hand. Those who buy expensive brands in order to be in fashion are the representatives of the psychology of collectivism. Another part of the society, who buy expensive apparel, because they consider it to be exclusive, tend to highlight their individualism, exclusivity and higher status.

Clothes and accessories are the tools that show the person’s belonging to the specific status groups and the signs of premiumness matter a lot for them. They boast of their wealth and want to show that they have much money in every single purchase that they make. The theory of “status groups” and that of the Leisure Class are very close to each other. The latter implies that people struggle for honor and the money is the only meant to achieve it. The more money you have, the more expensive clothes you may afford and the more honored you are.

I may conclude that those who prefer to buy the imitations of the luxury brands have several reasons for that. Such people desire to emulate their idols, leverage their real status and look more successful than they are in fact. They usually cannot afford the original thing, but want to pretend to be rich this category of people doesn’t care about the quality and durability of the thing bought, they want to be in fashion and to be able to change their wardrobe every season without spending much money on it.

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