In her monthly column for Document, Maya Kotomori evaluates the future of subscription services through a luxury lens
What it is, what it was, what it shall be: a three-part phrase, the latter clauses of which were added by my uncle Todd to address the rapidly changing cultural landscape of the ’80s. Back then, what it is: racist McDonald’s ads; what it was: racist cigarette ads; what it shall be: an idyllic future far away from such targeted marketing. We live in the what it shall be, a time of a heavily advertised smorgasbord of subscription services. As hard as it is to remember a time before Netflix and Hulu and Max and Paramount Plus and Peacock and Tubi and Mubi, people used to head to BestBuy or the liquor store bootlegger to buy DVDs, and, in ancient history, VHS tapes. Even Netflix began as a by-mail physical media rental service. You could spend all day tracing streaming backward in time through technological antecedents, only to come to a singular truth that I find harrowing: we used to own what we paid for, and now we pay to rent access.
As the wealth gap widens, ownership disappears. Subscriptions are marketed as a healthy alternative to ownership, which is wack because we essentially pay these media conglomerates in perpetuity, or as long as we want to listen to music and watch movies. New year, new me: today’s savvy shopper spends the first couple weeks of January both passively matriculating existing subscriptions, and perhaps even adding a couple to a monthly auto-pay log that—let’s face it—they’re not going to keep track of past February. But the corporations responsible will call this plan accessibility: price-menu options for the fellow down on his monetary luck who keeps making different emails for infinite free trials (Slick Rick), your everyman (Richard), and even the rich guy who charges every top-tier streaming package to his Amex despite already overpaying for cable (we can call him Dick).
Last year, subscription services generated $32.8 billion, and that figure will continue to grow, while ownership in this country shrinks. In an era when shoppers are primed to willingly pay a series of small monthly fees toward what is effectively temporary, conditional access to goods and services, we’ve fallen for an idea of “fair pricing” that systemically traps the masses. Today’s corporations—whether in media, furniture, gyms, or fashion—promote a language of “accessibility”—an inalienable right to buy. While these smaller monthly transactions seem more inclusive, I call bullshit on the idea of a subscription service as a solution to the high prices that alienate penny-pinching consumers. Subscription service fat cats make even more money by making us feel beholden to monthly fees on things we never get to own, building an eternally loyal, always-spending consumer base. Amid breakneck inflation, dwindling home ownerships, and the rise of what some theorists term neo-feudalism, does the “convenient” subscription model serve to further normalize the idea that nothing belongs to us? Films are one thing—but what happens when this logic expands to objects typically thought of as physical and private, like clothing? The luxury industry might already have an answer.
“By design, [luxury] pieces are meant to be coveted, invested in, and cherished; in that order.”
Fashion is starting to behave like Spotify. Take Rent the Runway, started by Harvard Business School student Jennifer Hyman. After she witnessed her younger sister go into debt purchasing a $2,000 designer dress for one-time use at a friend’s wedding, Hyman hatched the idea of a rental service for designer occasionwear to prevent others from making the same mistake. She brought it to friend and future co-founder Jenny Fleiss, and voila; their multi-million dollar enterprise was born in 2009. Since RTR’s initial launch, they’ve added selections of accessories and plus-size clothing for rent, opened a smattering of brick-and-mortar stores, and launched a subscription service in March of 2016. On the low end, subscribers pay $94 per month for one shipment of up to five item rentals selected from a limited closet; on the high end, you can fork over $235 per month for four shipments of up to 20 item rentals from the entire closet. An annual subscription to the highest tier costs $2820 (before tax), a price that could get you access to bespoke clothing services at your local seamstress or a mid-price handbag that you actually own. In its ad collaterals, the company aligns itself with “sustainability,” which is true to some extent: if customers will continually and happily pay for designer clothing they never own, they do a really bang-up job sustaining the business model. Hey, no one ever said to specify what kind of sustainability!
The problem isn’t just that being able to rent designer items depreciates their value. It’s that Rent the Runway’s business model furthers the idea that the only value of luxury goods comes from seeming like you have an endless closet overflowing with Gucci, Louis, Fendi, Prada, et al. By design, these pieces are meant to be coveted, invested in, and cherished; in that order. You shouldn’t be able to rent a Chanel 2.55 for a street-style photo op and then mail it back in a week. This kind of a shallow flex isn’t an act of accessibility, it’s a gesture toward hierarchy, which is but one small pillar of the luxury market. This model ignores the history of craftsmanship that made the expensive shit expensive—and therefore desirable—to begin with.
This idea of access falls right in line with the increasing convenience of shopping—but it’s hardly new. In “How We Got Here,” the chapter of Lee Eisenberg’s Shoptimism about the modern history of shopping, Eisenberg describes the consumer as being on an incessant search for the ultimate convenience, which from our present vantage might reveal the subscription model as almost inevitable. Eisenberg traces this concept back to the suburban malls of the ’50s, where America’s retail landscape saw the advent of the mega shopping center geared toward helping customers buy everything all under one heavily-branded roof. Todd Gitlin, the noted sociologist who penned The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, talks about the function of these consumerist meccas in terms of the psychology of the buyer. In the case of the mall, “Shopping and leisure were retailored for an age of easy access.” From the record store to Target’s CD wall; later to iTunes and iPods to today’s smartphones with music streaming services, our migration from ownership to infinite rentals represents another permutation on access: instant gratification and seemingly endless abundance.
These conflated visions of “access” keep businesses like RTR alive, and continually pop up out of nowhere. My favorite operation is StitchFix, a “personal shopping service” (in quotes because there is nothing personal about letting the internet pick your clothes out for you). StitchFix was founded by another Harvard student called Katrina Lake, a young lady whose mission is “to blend the human element of personal styling with high-quality clothing and proprietary algorithms.” Essentially, you complete a style quiz that trains an algorithm to understand your tastes, you receive a bunch of clothes in the mail, and whatever you like, you keep; whatever you don’t like, you send back. Marketed as more convenient than the pesky task of having to shop for yourself, the ease factor isn’t in the logistics of the service (because who likes sending clothes that don’t fit back to the source via snail mail?), it’s in the thrift of having an algorithm decide your personal style for you. I find it offensive that a company like this sees itself as a solution to the sometimes arduous search for good clothes, as if the lifelong journey to attain a sense of self through dress is some chore best imitated by a bunch of ones and zeroes.
“How many payments are you making? Are your payments going toward anything, other than an ‘unlimited access’ that is ultimately highly conditional?”
Where malls inspired credit card debt from risky spending, subscription services accrue interest via the budding phenomenon of e-layaway. Marketed under the slogan “buy now, pay later,” CNBC reports that interest rates from popular payment platform Affirm can get up to 30 percent, a figure greater than the highest APRs on most credit cards. According to the company, 43 percent of loans have zero APR, which means that the 57 percent majority of payments contain interest rates somewhere within that insanely large range. Klarna, another popular service of the same genus, has similar interest rates, and there are three options other than paying the cost of the item you want all up front: you can pay in two, four, or six-week installments, or pay all at once as a means to either build or establish strong credit. The problem with Klarna is that if you miss a payment, it’s reported to the credit bureau—but your timely payments are not.
Eisenberg addresses the cognitive dissonance required to indebt yourself in this way in“Brain Wave,” the chapter of Shoptimism dedicated to “neuroeconomics.” While having dinner with social decision sciences professor George Lowenstein, our plucky author learned about the use of brain scans to interpret buying power. Lowenstein’s team scanned a 26-person control group via MRI and gave them money to spend on goods. When participants were shown photos of what they could buy, the scientists saw activity in the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain linked to pleasure. When the item’s price was added as context, they noticed activity in the insula, the part of the brain that reacts to pain. From here, Eisenberg splits consumers up into two groups for the sake of the argument: tightwads (more resistant to spend because of a response to heightened activity in the insula) and spendthrifts, who spend (thriftily) either because they showed less activity in their insula when shown price, or because the desire outweighed this physical instinct. With a subscription-based marketplace, it feels like consumers would show lower insula readings because they get so excited at the prospect of paying a low price for seemingly unlimited goods, and don’t read the fine print. How many payments are you making? Are your payments going toward anything, other than an “unlimited access” that is ultimately highly conditional?
As inflation ravages our collective buying power, accessibility is an inherent issue in the future of shopping. Any campaign leading you to think a subscription is an answer to systemic issues regarding wealth inequality is a ruse geared to make you feel like you’re getting more for less. In reality, you’re getting less for more—just collected monthly. “Accessible” pricing has roots in a social push toward representation, a movement that I believe is best observed through fashion. More than representation matters, it presents a challenge: in the case of fashion, how can the industry—one whose heritage is steeped in white, European traditions—remove the barriers of entry to communities that have been historically ignored? Five years ago, American Vogue’s answer was to begin marketing fashion to women like me: not a size 0, not white, not rich. They’ve been able to remain at the forefront of conversations about body and racial diversity because they marketed toward those previously denied access. Now, streaming companies are doing the same thing, marketing low monthly prices to those who, back in the days of $300-per-month Directv premium cable packages, $200 DVD players, and $25 Blu-ray discs, wouldn’t be able to watch half the content a Hulu or a Max subscription allows. These alternatives seem great on the surface—but while their marketing postures a noble cause, it stands on profit. The solution to the growing wealth gap cannot come from the very companies that helped create it in the first place.
“An accessible fashion industry is an oxymoron—and attempts to fuse the two concepts will just fuck everyone’s money up in the process.”
At this point in the argument, I think of Ye: “We’ll buy a lot of clothes, but we don’t really need ’em / Things we buy to cover up what’s inside / ’Cause they made us hate ourselves and love they wealth / That’s why shorties holla ‘Where the ballers at?’” See, while “All Falls Down” clearly reveals stuntin’ as frontin’, at least we used to go into debt for something that we would eventually own. When you add your Spotify, Hulu, Max, Paramount Plus, Amazon Prime, Rent the Runway, Uber One, and a gazillion other subscriptions up, the number is often higher than previously imagined. And not only is none of it yours, none of it will ever be yours. I believe this surrendering of buyer’s freedom is the price of so-called “fairly-priced” subscriptions. An accessible fashion industry is an oxymoron—and attempts to fuse the two concepts will just fuck everyone’s money up in the process.
There’s a level of acceptance required to square this financial reality with the fact that subscriptions won’t go away, they’ll merely adjust to an ever-changing landscape of technology. People will always be resistant to this kind of shift; Luddites will always exist! When I get really stressed out about the future of shopping, I have a panic dream of buying groceries in 2040, mysterious robot arms bagging my perishables, slithering through the air and connected to nothing, like the Sentinels from The Matrix but without the creepy heads (which is somehow more disturbing). This is the shape my fears take in my sleep, but I know that in the real world, we probably won’t have that many grocery stores in 2040, having lost them to some AI subscription service that can shop according to a personalized grocery list created by remotely accessing your medical records.
I am a Luddite in the sense that I worry about a real-life Skynet subscription world destroying the physical act of shopping, and I am a shoptimist because I believe that the joy of buying will outlive whatever techno-economic apocalypse looms with every new Netflix member. On the tombstone of the human race, it will read “Beloved capitalists and shoppers”—because at the end of the day, that’s our most human impact.