When Vogue magazine ran an article called “30 investment pieces every working woman needs by 30”, the list included a $3,400 Celine wallet, $750 Manolo Blahnik shoes and a $3,260 Prada coat.
All together, it added up to $28,000 of gear. If these are all essentials for 20-somethings, there are a lot of deprived young people out there.
But Vogue knows what it’s doing. The idea of an investment purchase is used all over the place – so much so that we tend to take it for granted. It’s used particularly to sell expensive fashion items that might be expected to last: coats, handbags, watches and the like. But the term is often applied rather more broadly, with the Vogue list including, for example, a $500 pair of pyjamas and a pair of fancy tights.
Investing versus spending
Can a purchase of this kind ever really be classed as an investment? The Cambridge Dictionary defines an investment as “the act of putting money, effort, time, et cetera, into something to make a profit or get an advantage, or the money, effort, time, etc. used to do this”. And it’s true that some fashion items really can be an investment in the stricter sense.
According to auction house Bonhams, for example, jewellery has risen in price dramatically in 10 years, with Art Deco and Belle Époque pieces up 72%. Meanwhile, research from luxury “pre-owned” retailer Xupes concluded that vintage watches represented a better investment between 2014 and 2017 than an ISA, which is a type of UK savings account.
And some people manage to make a living buying up vintage clothes from charity shops and selling them on websites like ASOS Marketplace or Beyond Retro.
What if you wear it twice?
Clearly, though, this isn’t exactly the norm – and certainly not what high-end magazines and retailers are talking about when they describe something as an investment purchase. Here, another definition comes into play, at least in part: the cost per wear.
Before convincing yourself that your latest must-have purchase is an investment, you should ask yourself what you really want to achieve.
A £20 pair of jeans that you only wear twice, the logic goes, represents a tenth of the value of a £100 pair that you wear 100 times. It's an argument that holds water when it comes to some very long-lasting items – in the case of men's shoes, for example.
"I’ve had shoes coming back to me to be re-soled that are over 50 years old, and they’re still in good condition," John Hunter Lobb, chairman of John Lobb shoes, commented in a 2015 interview.
However, the same can hardly be said of all the items on the Vogue list. A $425 swimsuit, let's face it, is hardly likely to get passed down to your grandchild in the same way as a pair of vintage Lobb shoes – even if the elastic hasn’t yet perished.
And in any case, what people often mean by an “investment purchase” is something rather less easy to pin down – basically, an item you can convince yourself will help give you the life you deserve. Money is a system of exchange, so spending is “worth it” if you get something back. In this way, using different words can be like a form of mental accounting, justifying our spending to ourselves.
"Some people buy things they don’t really need, with money they haven’t got, to impress people they don’t like," says Philip Hesketh, a marketing consultant who specialises in persuasion and influence.
"Many people see clothes, handbags, shoes, cars, personalised number plates et cetera as part of their ‘brand identity’, so do see items of this nature as investing in positioning themselves as people who are wealthy, fashionable, up-to-date and so on."
Balance needs, goals and desires
There's a rather more down-to-earth way of putting this: “All fur coat and no knickers.” And before convincing yourself that your latest must-have purchase is an investment, you should ask yourself what you really want to achieve.
A thing can be understood as an investment if it’s thought that you’ll get something more out of it than just the thing itself.
"Will the people who really matter to you really be that impressed if you have the latest handbag? Will that trip to Bali you can’t really afford give you that much pleasure to impress your friends and colleagues?" says Hesketh. "If the answer is yes then go ahead."
And if not, perhaps take a step back to think about your real long-term goals and desires.