How to know the value of a thing?
Words by Ana Andjelic
On the most basic level, a pair of boots like Bee Line x Timberland are made for walking, and are priced based on this performance and features like materials and labor. Their value = performance x price.
But if we were to know about the unique history and heritage of Bee Line x Timberland, a new valuation logic opens up. Made known, material history gets to dictate value: Bee Line x Timberland boots are adorned with hand drawn artwork, and Pharrell wore them when he was presented with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They are a political statement, featuring words like “Change” and “Your Time.” These origins make the boots a Trojan horse of culture: of the context, collective and individual intention, and social impetus that inspired them.
Some of the new forms of valuation are obvious (who made an item, who owned it, who sold it), but others are predicated on taste, knowledge, belonging, cultural savvy or investment in time and money. Named after Pharrell’s alma mater, The Holloway “Princess Anne” Letterman Jacket draws its value from layers of meaning literally worn on its sleeves. In Princess Anne High School, Pharrell played drums in the marching band. He later wore the jacket throughout his music career, most notably in “Maybe” music video and later when arriving at the Letterman’s show.
New forms of valuation are intangible and symbolic, where the narrative that surrounds products becomes more valuable than products themselves. A custom made pair of Pharrell’s Adidas Stan Smith Consortium Python with Hand Drawn Artwork is an original. There is no other pair like that, and the shoes are hand-painted by Pharrell, featuring motifs that advocate for women’s rights, world peace, positive thinking and Black Ambition, the idea that would later mature into Pharrel’s charity and accelerator under the same name. When a person bids on this pair of Consortium Pythons, what are they bidding on? A pair of sneakers? A sign of wokeness? A support for a socially important cause? The item’s rarity? Price? All of the above?
When we buy things, we buy stories. Stories are information, content, fan fiction, myths and sagas. Stories also transform how we see and value things, and how this changes our economy and society: Who is the hero? Who tells the story? Whose story is it? We want wearable “myth objects” to demonstrate our taste, insider status and cultural savvy. We don’t want to be mere consumers. We want to be associated with game-changing moments, places, and people. It gives us a new form of wealth, not by association, but of association. The more we get to associate ourselves with knowledge and creativity and cultural activity, the greater is our social distinction and higher our cultural status.
We value things more if we pay for them with our time, knowledge, emotional energy and social consciousness. This new economic calculus turns buying second hand into the first choice. Contemporary commercial exchange transforms non-culture (a pair of shoes) into culture (a symbol of commitment to social change, for example, or an association with a significant cultural moment).
Why does this matter? Economy runs on value. Creating new narratives around value that circulates in our economy transforms how this economy is organized and by whom. Social and cultural power is economic power - and the emerging social and cultural valuations override the value defined by editors, institutions and other gatekeepers. The value of the Lapdance Polo Shirt moves the needle of what’s considered valuable and who decides its value. “Lapdance” pushed limits of music genres; the innovation and cultural significance of music became part of the t-shirt’s fabric.
To recognize the cultural and social value of economic exchange is to transform who rules the economy. Cultural tastemakers are economic agents: they tell us what we should pay attention to and why, and in the process, skew the economy towards socially and culturally relevant things and moments. This is something that tastemakers always did; the difference now is that, unlike the tastemakers of old, the modern tastemaker can - and does - come from anywhere.