On Premium Mediocrity
By Maja Bayyoud
Any millennial worth their pink himalayan salt can’t help but cringe when confronted with ‘premium mediocre’, a concept coined by Venkatesh Rao just last year. While he packs a lot of detailed analyses into his article about the nuances of the term, it’s best summarised here:
'Premium mediocre is the finest bottle of wine at Olive Garden. Premium mediocre is cupcakes and froyo. Premium mediocre is “truffle” oil on anything (no actual truffles are harmed in the making of “truffle” oil), and extra-leg-room seats in Economy. Premium mediocre is cruise ships, artisan pizza, Game of Thrones, and The Bellagio.'
It’s simple, really. If you’ve consumed or bought anything in the last year that self-describes as ‘artisanal’ or paid an extra $8 at a cafe (kitted out in uber minimalist furniture, naturally) for a side of avocado with your poached egg, you are a bonafide part of the premium mediocre ecosystem. And when you look at the fashion industry specifically, it becomes clear just how pervasive the concept is. A recent BOF op ed calls out Kate Spade, Tori Burch and Michael Kors as textbook premium mediocre peddlers. It’s essentially the pretence of making a ‘luxury’ product seem like a more realistic purchase because there is an ‘accessible’ price tag attached.
The price is key; it needs to be just high enough to give us the ‘premium’, but not so high to make it an unattainable purchase for those that would be completely wasting their time thinking about the property ladder, let alone attempting to get on the first rung. And brands are essentially creating the illusion of a luxury ascension ladder- get on with a diffusion line or signature collection and eventually that $10,000 Birkin will be yours. But that’s just not true or realistic for many, and is even less likely if consumers continue to buy low quality name-brand items with an astronomical markup, and a comparatively short lifespan. It's essentially millenial fake it till you make it, designed for a generation heavily invested in exhibitionism.
Where does Archibald fit in?
The prognosis is bleak for us. How can we appeal to a demographic driven by the visuals of a logo on an instagram feed? And how are we competitive when the purveyors of premium mediocrity actually charge less than us for what appears (at least at first glance) to be the same thing? In short; what makes us different, and better?
You won’t be surprised to hear that our X factor is quality (or you might be, depending on what algorithm or google search brought you here). It’s a shame that our biggest differentiator, the very thing that drives us and distinguishes us, is also something that a generation raised on premium mediocrity doesn’t value very highly at all. And why would they? It’s completely unrealistic for a vast majority to think they could ever afford genuine high quality items, so they’re content to settle for the lite version.
We exist at an uncomfortable price point- too low for the select few who can afford to splash out on a genuine luxury item with an iconic brand name, and too high for those accustomed to premium mediocre price points. Take a pair of our ‘Abebe’ eyeglasses- they cost $114 dollars to make and are sold for $225 dollars, with lenses. A pair of Warby Parker eyeglasses (as painfully premium mediocre as it gets) retails at roughly half that price, but at an inflated price point 4.5 times the true cost of production. The problem is magnified among ecommerce brands, where minimalist web pages and words like artisanal, ethically sourced and sustainable rule supreme, and where information on providence and material is scarce.
Quality vs. Luxury Lite
Craftsmanship isn’t a valuable commodity in the world of premium mediocrity, because it’s not immediately gratifying or discernible. It’s also been cheapened by exhausting overuse. And while you can tell that our Grade A cashmere scarf is noticeably softer to the touch than a low-grade cashmere product bought on the high street, it’s only really over time that you can appreciate a well crafted item. You can see it in the way an excellent leather shoe made of fine calfskin moulds to your foot like a glove, or how a well-made cashmere jumper won’t shed or pile after its first winter. To the discerning eye, it only takes a second to tell the difference between a quality item and a faux, or lite (let’s face it, worse) version of the same thing. But most of us can’t quite make out the difference- especially not when there’s a healthy dose of Valencia slapped on and a big, bold logo drawing the eye in like a laser pointer.
Despite the undeniable prevalence of premium mediocrity, there are hopeful signs that more and more are turning away from its allure. Our message is resonating with younger audiences that understand the words artisanal, authentic, quality, and craftsmanship shouldn’t be applied to a purchase with a shorter lifespan than the latest IPhone (or the S version, out in 6-12 months). But the idea of genuine quality takes a little adjusting to for those of us that aren’t accustomed to it, in a world where for too long it’s been the preserve of the few. Quality never really went away- it’s just that the pool of people who get to experience it has been shrinking steadily over time. We’ve long felt that it’s time the pool started getting a little bigger again. There’s plenty to go around, provided craftsmen stop being squeezed out by mass production, and start seeing their order books filling up again. And if experiencing genuine quality changes how you see the world (which we guarantee it does), you’ll never again settle for less. No more crappy logos, no more soggy avocado toast, no more disappointing artisanal anything. For that reason alone, we think it’s worth it.