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The Power of the Gateway Purchase

Once you go luxury, it’s difficult to go back. Can buying one fancy item “ruin” you forever?

My first big fashion purchase was a grey skirt suit with grosgrain details from 3.1 Phillip Lim’s second or third collection. I bought it on sale at Barneys New York on Madison Avenue, but it was still expensive: around $500, plus a fee to have it delivered to the luxury department store’s Chelsea outpost so that I’d have time to pick it up on my lunch hour. To be honest, I didn’t realize I’d have to pay for that service -- I figured that if you were spending so much on an outfit, extras like that would be free! But the experience taught me more than that. It taught me to be okay with ponying up for big-ticket items. After the suit, there was a pair of Proenza Schouler pumps (also on sale, and my mom paid half). Then a discounted blazer from Stella McCartney. Later, a Chanel bag. Not on sale. 

I still wear all of the aforementioned items. In fact, I now try to avoid fast fashion, choosing a few nice things each season instead. Nice, of course, almost always means pricey. Let’s just say I had way too much fun at The Row’s Melrose Place store when the Fashionista team traveled to Los Angeles for our latest conference. 

Every person who buys luxury goods has a story about a gateway purchase: the item that made him or her comfortable -- sometimes too comfortable -- with splurging on expensive things. “Mine was a D&G military-style maxi coat at Saks, for $900 in 2002!” says Libby Callaway, a former newspaper fashion editor who now heads up marketing for a major brand. “It definitely made it easier – but not before scaring the shit out of me. I am a sale shopper and passionate second-hander, so this was a very big deal. It was definitely a financial lubricant of sorts. Four months after that purchase, I bought my first full-price designer handbag. A Marc Jacobs number, black with one of those chunky silver metal snap clasps.”

April Uchitel, chief brand officer at Spring, went for footwear. “It was a pair of Bottega Veneta motorcycle boots, about nine years ago. They were $1,000, which was really high back then!” she says. “But they were the best purchase I ever made. I resole them annually and they have yet to go out of style.” 

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For social media exec Elizabeth Monson, the culprit was a Mayle “Billie” bag. “It was $600, and it’s crazy how long I debated buying it,” she says. “I didn’t do anything like that again for a while, but it made spending less scary. I also never use the bag now. Alas.”

It’s fun to make that first big purchase. And it can be even more fun to make the second. Which is why “breaking the seal” makes becoming a luxury shopper so much easier. “An underreported and undervalued characteristic of human beings is that they are highly adaptable. And it’s not hard to adapt to luxury,” says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, PhD. “I don’t know anybody who can say that buying one pair of designer shoes has done the trick for the rest of her life.” The good news? Yarrow doesn’t see any harm in the splurge. “I do find a lot of really powerful and successful women using shopping as an emotional outlet, and it’s actually really functional,” she says. “If it makes you feel good and you can afford it, who cares?”

Of course, frequent shopping can lead to a shopping addiction, which Yarrow concurs is never a good thing. (Read her Psychology Today piece, “How to Buy Less and Love What You Have More," if you feel like your spending might be out of control.) But even for those of us who can handle shopping, buying at the high end can alter our perspective on what’s normal and what’s not. Last year, when my mother-in-law asked me the price of my Saint Laurent boots, I made about five excuses about why they were “worth it” before saying the number. She seemed understanding and acted without judgement, but secretly I was sort of judging myself. I, like most of the population, did not grow up in a household where it was normal to spend any significant amount of money on discretionary goods. It can almost be a little embarrassing, which totally defeats the point of buying nice stuff.

Then there’s the matter of having to go back. What if you get used to buying certain designers, and suddenly your circumstances change? How crippling can that be emotionally? “Here’s the thing that I have found incredibly interesting about people in that scenario,” says Yarrow. “It’s hard, but there’s also a sort of joy, a sense of control, in not spending. It can be very satisfying. Those people might go through a transition period that might not feel very good, but they’ll find a solution.” 

And there are others that come to their own, independent conclusions about what makes sense for them personally. “I am still loathe to spend full-price on anything other than lingerie,” says Callaway. “Sales these days are just so good and happen so frequently, you know?”