Janice Lee, originally from Hong Kong, is devoted to the study and interpretation of consumer behavior. As China’s burgeoning middle class goes on extravagant spending-sprees, it raises pressing questions about the globalised luxury market, and the Westernised identity-project it entails. For her degree piece in BA Fashion Communication and Promotion at Central Saint Martins, Janice presented a dystopian CGI (computer generated image) female, mechanically chanting “I bought a Gucci, I bought a story” while she digitally encounters the familiar tropes of the contemporary luxury index. We took this opportunity to speak to Janice about the potential of fashion communication and how we integrate consumerism in the very formation of ourselves.
Janice Lee was born and raised in Hong Kong, but left to study at Parsons in New York at the age of 17. Trying to mix classes between fashion and visual communication, during her 3rd year she decided to study abroad at Central Saint Martins for a semester. In the end, she never returned, as she took a liking for the school. “I never turned my head back to my course at Parsons,” she tells me. “No regrets.” At CSM, she commenced on a BA in Fashion Communication and Promotion, the research-based, vague-yet-prestigious pathway within the Fashion department led by Hywel Davies. “Fashion Communication with Promotion basically sums up as everything within the fashion industry, minus the sewing,” she says. “With this course, you experiment with everything: photography to styling to journalism to graphics: it’s very open ended to your own interpretations of how fashion is communicated. ”
“Fashion Communication with Promotion basically sums up as everything within the fashion industry, minus the sewing.”
As an observant individual who has been involved with three different continents and their attitudes to fashion, Janice has centered her research in the development of consumer culture. “I have always had some kind of fascination with consumer culture, especially within the luxury index,” she recalls. ”It’s all about marketing and psychology, and really, it just comes down to money. Maybe I’m fascinated with money. What people do with money and what money does to people.” She has witnessed a period of intense expansion of the circulation of luxury goods in her native China, and how the Western luxury market has subsequently targeted Chinese customers in the pursuit for new clientele.
However, it is not just the consumerist behavior that interests Janice, but also in particular its representation. In the post-digital, wealth is expressed and shown off via a variety of platforms or outlets, morphing into hybrid forms of manifestations somewhere in between the physical and the digital; the East and the West. She argues that “with all the new media out there that reaches every visible corner of our society, people are obsessed with showing off a reality of themselves — or a hyperreality of themselves.” When a luxury purchase is mediated repeatedly through social media, it reaches a point of absurdity where the original ‘attractiveness’ and representational authenticity are lost.
Her graduate project, entitled Ruxury, is a result of these investigations in, particularly, Asian luxury consumer culture. She describes it as “a commentary on how you brand yourself as someone the society portrays as successful and authentic, through the misuse of authenticity and consumerism.” In it, we meet a young, computer-animated girl, life-like yet seemingly hollow as she chants “I bought a Gucci” and “I bought a story” throughout the piece. Her image is joined by familiar iconographies of the new luxury: Amex cards, iPhone 6s and Céline bags. It is a dark portrait of financially-driven desires and identity-construction, specific perhaps to Chinese culture, but easily widened to include Western consumerism. “Luxury is a state of mind,” Janice explains. “Ruxury is about making yourself appear as someone you may or may not be, through mastering consumerism. It’s an illusion, an imagination, but also a reality. If you can convince yourself, you can probably convince others. It’s all a cycle of deception.”
As with her course, Janice’s practice spans many mediums and ways of working, from textual research to computer-generated animation (CGI). “In the kind of time and age we live in, possibilities of mediums are practically unlimited,” she says. “I think a practice is based on things you are trying to experiment with and learn from, and expressing that medium to a certain idea you’re trying to convey.” The digital takes central stage with Janice: the protagonist of Ruxury and many of the other objects are 100% computer graphics, and appear typically glossy and perfect. While this compliments the overall message of her piece (the lavish, hyperreal aesthetic of abundant digital luxury), she welcomes the glitches that this kind of technology often carries with it: “Computer graphics are great: they are flawless, yet still full of flaws; they are up for you to interpret and imagine in any possible combination.I feel like sometimes people like to counteract with what technology has given us. I mean, there’s always going be to counteracts with anything we do. But for me, I think technology is great.”
“Luxury is a state of mind.”
Her exploration into the mind of China’s new money brought her wide and far, from marketing strategies of Western brands to buying for face-value amongst peers. Eventually, she felt like she returned to the very basis of the whole sector; the meaning of a purchase. Hence, Ruxury centralises itself around the Western Gucci bag, and its meaning in a Chinese context, distinct from the West. “In Asia, there is a lot of worshiping and following of Western culture, due to, for example, the cultural revolution in China during the mid 1900s,” she tells me. “Creativity and development of such forms of luxury were very limited until the Gen X, where society saw the opportunity for the economy to grow.” The Chinese Generation X and their new wealth emphasise material security, with the result that it has become a prerequisite for the next generation, who believe consumption is a part of expression. “The consumption of luxury really comes out to four shifts: to stand out, to fit in, to reward, and translate experience. I guess the difference, at a glance, between the two cultures really is that success is very closely defined by how one is presented – showing off the brands you carry. A lot of Asian consumers lean towards luxury goods that give off obvious cues to extravagance spending, meaning that taste sometimes come in second to their form of assessment.”
With Ruxury, Janice Lee feels that she has only touched “a surface of the sea of consumer culture” – suggesting that she is far from done in the study of this vast and growing phenomenon. She is celebrating her graduation with a trip to LA, where she will visit her boyfriend. And after? “It’s been 2 weeks out of school and I’m already a bit nervous about not working on something,” she admits. “I do hope my research will lead me to create more work, as I’m still super interested in this whole luxury consumerist society we are so endorsed in.”
Words by Jeppe Ugelvig
All images and video courtesy of Janice Lee