The Nehru Centre in London was buzzing with excited chatter on a cold, November evening, all centred around a series of photographs exhibited on its walls. The smell of wine wafted through the air. From the walls peered faces – young and old, tired and alive, reticent and voluble. These are pictures of Gujarat’s tribes, composed of approximately 5 million inhabitants, who are struggling to find their feet in their own homeland. Captured by London-based photographer Vish Vishvanath, they tell a story of paradoxes – of movement and settlement, of yearnings and thwarted efforts, and of struggle and happiness.
Aida Bahr, a prize-winning fiction writer, literary critic and screenwriter from Cuba was in Birkbeck College, London on the 11th of September 2010 to speak about the Cuban Revolution and its impact on Cuba’s cultural spectrum between the 60’s and the 90’s. Aida has been invited all over the world to speak at Universities and she is one of the organisers of the Havana International Book Fair.
The Cuban Revolution started in 1959, when Fidel Castro took charge of the revolutionary government and made Cuba fall in the Soviet camp and overthrew Fulgencio Batista's army. The revolution greatly affected Cuban culture and contributed to its development and dynamism. During the 60’s, the government developed a cultural policy to facilitate the development of artistic and literary creativity, strengthening the relationship between institutions, artists and intellectuals such as the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry formed in 1959, the National Printing House, the National Council of Culture or Casa de las Américas. The aim of the cultural policy was to develop and extend the socio-cultural relations between Cuba and Latin American/ Caribbean countries, as well as with the rest of the world. In Santiago de Cuba, many initiatives were developed such as the creation of dancing and folkloric groups, or puppet companies for children. In order to tackle illiteracy in Cuba, the Literacy Campaign was launched in 1961 and lasted for a year. Ever since this initiative, schools have become free and primary school compulsory. The goal of this educational campaign was also to develop a very strong network of art schools, to allow people to go to college but also to make them enjoy culture. As a result, the most talented pupils were selected to enter the National Art School and to visit various exhibitions. It was an exciting period of exchange for young people as they had the opportunity to meet people from other cities, which was a rare thing before then. In every town you could find a library, a book shop, a dancing group or a music band. Also, groups of people gathered to go to museums and art galleries, or to buy collections of universal masterpieces. The 60’s were a very exciting period for the cultural Cuban society as books were sold at 40 cents of pesos and people had access to the best American authors. Thanks to the cultural policy, Cuban music and the rest of the art world started being exported all around the globe.
In the 70’s, the two key achievements in the cultural spectrum in Cuba were the creation of both the National Council of Culture and the Ministry of Culture.
During the 80’s, many book festivals were organised and proved to be excellent stepping stones for Cuban writers. Critics and editors were invited to these festivals and book launches and debates were organised every week in the streets. A 70,000 peso government subvention was allocated to the arts which led to the creation of multicultural and community centres. Everything was very promising. People who enjoyed dancing would come to perform and people who enjoyed reading would attend sessions to talk about the books they read. The 80’s were also a very prosperous decade and a tremendous period of social exchanges.
In the 90’s, Cuba was hit by an acute economic crisis. The relations deteriorated substantially between Cuba and the United States and have since been marked by tension and confrontation. The United States imposed an embargo because of the nationalisation of American corporations' property during the Revolution and, as a consequence, the Cuban government did not accept American donations of food, medicines, and cash until 1993. In the meantime, book publishing started to collapse but the arts and various creative actions were still highly regarded as more and more people had access to the international market and had strong interest in arts. In the late 90’s, tourism improved: more foreign tourists were visiting Cuba. It’s also during this period that Fidel Castro decided that the Havana Book Fair should become a national fair, which created even more opportunities for Cuban writers.
Overall, the Cuban Revolution had very positive effects on Cuba’s culture. Nowadays, Cuban culture is instantly recognised internationally and enjoys an international reputation for being one of the richest cultures in the world.
If you live near, or have recently visited, the shopping streets of a Western fashion capital, especially Paris, London or New York, then you will undoubtedly have noted the vast amount of Asian tourists frantically zigzagging about, elbows deep in crisp Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Gucci shopping bags. You may have asked yourself; don’t they have designer shops back home? Surely Prada can’t be cheaper over here than over there, can it? And how on earth does a seventeen year old girl afford to travel to the other side of the world and then treat herself to £3,000 worth of monogrammed handbag? Isn’t an ‘I love New York t-shirt’ or a box of biscuits from Harrods enough to satisfy the teenage tourist these days? Over the past two or three decades, Asian consumers have gone berserk for brands. Western brands. To give an idea of the scale of this mass luxury consumption, by 2006 in Tokyo, 94% of women in their 20s owned a Louis Vuitton handbag and, today, Asia is responsible for over half the world’s luxury brand consumption. China now covets over 27% of the world’s luxury goods, overtaking the US as second largest luxury consumer after Japan, which devours a hearty 41% of luxury anything. Consider also that the Japanese population is approximately one tenth that of China.
So where did this far-eastern obsession with luxury stem from anyway? This is not the singular result of wildly successful advertising campaigns or PR stunts on the part of the major labels. There are numerous factors which have incited this fascinating attitude towards Western luxury, such as the more obvious celebrity endorsement, and yes, extensive advertising (the contents page in Vogue only appears after about twelve pages of adverts). But why is this veritable luxury explosion happening more violently the further East you go? Why don’t 94% of female Londoners in their 20s own an LV bag? At this point it would be great to say the answer is simple, bit it isn’t, so for the time being, we’ll just agree that it is how it is and, instead, focus on the inexorable by-product of this mass luxe absorption – the demise of ‘exclusivity’ and the new lengths that both brands and buyers are having to go to in order to safeguard their solid upper crust.
Historically, buying into expensive luxury brands was, amongst other things, a means to tell oneself apart from the crowds. A handbag was, and still is, a symbol of status. However, these days this idea has been somewhat turned on its head. Asian markets now appear to be buying luxury in order to fit in and be part of the crowd. How then does a brand retain its exclusive qualities if any Tom, Dick or Haruka is both able and willing to buy a slice of designer pie? The ubiquity of ostentatious designer goods, coupled with the overwhelming international demand, has meant that companies have had to raise the stakes, along with their prices, in order to keep their brand reputation reputable. Louis Vuitton introduced a ‘one item per customer’ policy, although this didn’t always work (after his wife had bought her handbag, the Asian husband would be sent in to buy another with his passport). Until very recently Hermes had a waiting list for the most popular of its handbags, namely the Birkin and the Kelly. Although, with a price tag ranging from £4,000 upwards, very upwards, a waiting list isn’t the first thing which would hinder the average shopaholic from buying one. Expressly, brands which create an aura of extreme exclusivity around their wear will fare better, but really this goes without saying. The aforementioned attempted ‘exclusive’ but instead achieved ‘exclusive to everyone willing to spend’ and, where Asian consumers are concerned, ‘willing’ is an understatement. Wealthy Asian luxury aficionados are also raising their own game in an attempt to place themselves a cut above those who Chadha and Husband (Cult of the Luxury Brand, Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxe) refer to as the ‘nibblers’ – trendy teens, junior managers and office ladies who occasionally afford themselves the odd luxury accessory, something which offers value for money and can be used all the time; a purse, a handbag, maybe a pair of sunglasses or key ring for the more ‘frugal’. The ‘Tai-Tais’ and other financially fortunate femmes of the Far-East are now sticking to strict codes in order to distinguish themselves. Never wear the same outfit twice. Wear not one but three ostentatious pieces. Always be one step ahead of your friends in the trends and buy limited edition, because as soon as you see someone else wearing it, you will inevitably value it less.
Big labels, headed by new business-savvy blood, have had to create business models which simultaneously increase the ‘cult’ following of the brand, while ensuring that this widening of availability doesn’t detract from the prestige which defines the brand at its core. Diffusion lines are established and shops are built, offering less expensive goods with the brand name subtly modified from the original (D&G replaces the more expensive Dolce and Gabbana, marc jacobs becomes marc by marc jacobs and so on). You won’t get the same VIP treatment in a diffusion store and the goods are mass produced, but you still walk away with a branded piece. Some shops or boutiques will sell bottom of the range pieces such as key fobs and passport holders while providing special private booths for big spenders who shop not just for the label and quality, but for the high-end treatment.
Brands know that, in order to thrive, everyone from the secretary to the billionaire must be catered for accordingly. Keep the high-rollers happy, the brand stays exclusive, and the nibblers will carry on nibbling. On a different note, brands are also pulling the wool, or the hand-stitched silk-cashmere mix, over the consumers’ eyes in order to stay firmly on top. You might think that handbag was made in a neat little Parisian workshop and imported in its own box and dust bag, but sadly, the chances are it wasn’t. It was probably made in a warehouse which makes ‘luxury’ items out of the same materials, using the same technology employed to make unbranded items which will retail at a shaving of the cost. This answers one, if not more, of the first questions. Asian consumers are buying in the West to ensure the genuineness of their prizes.
Moreover, with the amount of counterfeit handbags, heels and Hermes scarves available in China, Japan and even Hong Kong (where Chinese mainlanders traditionally go to shop in more ‘trusted’ outlets), shoppers insist that buying from London, Paris or New York will add value to their piece. Telling your friends and colleagues you bought a Chanel bag in Guangzhou might raise a few suspicious eyebrows and start a poisonous round of Chinese whispers revolving around the authenticity of your latest acquisition. Say you bought it in on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Bond Street or Fifth Avenue and there are no questions asked. The mere fact that you travelled to one of these desirable destinations already says a lot about your taste and financial standing.
In conclusion, it would appear that, as long as brands are marketing themselves somewhere along the fine line between exclusive and attainable then they will profit from a large and varied consumer base, although, however much large-scale following and exclusivity can work, it certainly is not a relationship destined to last. Trends will tire and, as is the case in western countries in which luxury has been long embedded in the history, the wealthiest consumers from the far-eastern bloc will start buying into lesser known, more exclusive (and more expensive) brands. Demand for these brands will consequently increase and then it’ll be up to the brand whether it wants to go global and sell out, or stick to its refined and restrictive roots. In a word, if a brand wants to seem and stay exclusive, then it must so be.
By Harvey Wilks
Creative Culture recently took part in the development of KLOO, an innovative new card game aimed at both adults and children, which helps players learn another language. Available in either French or Spanish, players must combine colour-coded cards to put together sentences which then need to be translated in order to score points.
The game uses ‘Discovery learning techniques’, which mirror the way we learn our mother tongue through recognition, memorisation and joining meaning to words. Something which makes KLOO particularly effective is that it combines learning with a fun and competitive game. Children (and adults) who play the game will naturally want to win, and those who do will ultimately have memorised and learnt the most amount of words and sentences. Imagine getting that victorious feeling every time you completed your homework!
Creative Culture was given the task of making sure that each and every playing card could be used coherently when combined with any other, so any verb could be used with any adjective and noun arrangement. Obviously, this allows for some weird and wonderful sentences – such as ‘nous mangeons le chat multicolore’ – which only enhance the fun and enjoyment that can be had!
We also had to consider the pronunciation of words and come up with phonetic word versions to go with each word on the cards. For example ‘dîner’ is accompanied by the phonetic spelling ‘dee.nay’ and so on. This phonetic spelling system has been specially devised to enable players to learn both the spelling and the correct sound of a given word.
Language learning can often be a very solitary exercise, involving a lot of reading, writing and listening. KLOO however, successfully combines all the necessary tools to learn a language in the guise of a fun and interactive game for all ages, the result of which is a real triumph. The director of Language Training London says “KLOO is fun, it’s intuitive, and more importantly, it works. It’s a wonderful way to learn a language.”
KLOO sees its release just in time for the new academic year and couldn’t have arrived at a better time. In the UK the number of people learning a second language is in serious decline and KLOO will hopefully put the fun back into foreign language learning.
By Harvey Wilks