The Palessi Experiment

In 2018, a private launch party was held for new Italian shoe designer Bruno Palessi. It turned out to be a prank and a social experiment. There was no Palessi; only Payless*.

Customers thought they were buying luxury shoes because they were given a lot of social and environmental cues, not because of the shoes themselves. 

They were purchasing opulence. Not footwear. They were seeking luxury.

But why?

What drives people to contribute to the multi-trillion-dollar luxury industry.

I believe the answer is determined by what people value.


In the beginning of human history, luxury wasn’t something to care about. In fact, it was the opposite. Luxury was derived from the French word ‘luxurie’, meaning ‘lust’ and ‘debauchery’. Even fish was a treat for the ancient Greeks.

During the Middle Ages, it wasn’t tactful to have something that was expensive or hard to come by. Most luxury items, like spices or wine, came from other countries and cost a lot to bring in. You could only dream of having them if you were rich or aristocratic. 

Things changed, though. 

In the 17th century the term “luxury” was no longer used negatively. The number of trade routes grew, and the bourgeois way of thinking began to spread. With the industrial revolution, mass production and assembly lines, it became easier for people on different continents to get their hands on luxury goods. Suddenly, people from all walks of life were buying luxury items and the idea of luxury as we know it today came about.

People started to like the word “luxury” and use it more.

Things changed a bit following WWII because people couldn’t get what they wanted or pay for it. So, creative businesses and brands started to focus more on accessories like shoes, handbags, perfumes, and scarves, which were cheaper to make and had higher profit margins. 

Affordable luxury was born.

Since then, not much has changed about how luxury works or why people pay so much more for what they think is better. Luxury brands still depend on the fact that people want to show who they are as unique individuals. It has to do with a person’s need to be different or a sense of status. In this case, being able to afford luxury is a way to tell people apart. 

As marketers, we know these groups inside and out. Some of the names and characteristics have changed, such as “affluent,” “mass-affluent,” “premium,” and “premium-affluent,” but these are analogous to “keeping up with the Joneses”. These people (though not all of them) live in big, fancy houses filled with original art, wear designer clothes, buy organic food, and have the newest phones.

Uhhh, art and organic food. Self-check. Nonetheless, I digress.

People who buy luxury items either have a lot of money or don’t. The fact that so many people are in debt may be proof of this. And those who are wealthy and can afford real luxury often don’t show it off. It is a network of hidden consumption that can’t be seen.  


People mix up the search for wealth with the search for an easier life, which is why they want money. Alan Watts in “Wealth Versus Money,” from Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality puts it this way:

“Money is a way of measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself. 

A chest of gold coins or a fat wallet of bills is of no use whatsoever to a wrecked sailor alone on a raft. He needs real wealth, in the form of a fishing rod, a compass, and an outboard motor with gas”.

Watts says that if we knew the difference between money and wealth, we would realise that “there are limits to the real wealth that any individual can consume.” 

In other words, “we can’t really drive four cars at once, live in six homes at once, take three tours at once, or eat twelve roasts of beef at one meal.” 

He asks, “If money were no object, what would you like to do?” How would you like to spend the rest of your life? 

I think we can all agree that we wouldn’t give up hours of our lives for a nice car or purse. 


When I look in my closet however, I have to say that some of those plain old cotton t-shirts might be Palessi.

Are you part of the Palessi experiment? And what about your target audience? What are they seeking?