Boutique Planet

The upscaling of everything

Back in the '70s, when a middle class hard bitten by inflation was looking for ways to save money, capitalism rose to the occasion with a raft of generic products. Now that the middle class is being discussed in the same breath as the snail darter and the spotted owl, the rise of boutique culture in the last decade has been a kind of ironic bookend to that phenomenon: Today it's the well-off who are looking for new ways to spend their money. Of course pricey playthings are nothing new; America wouldn't be America without huge fortunes, and its tradition of conspicuous consumption goes all the way back to the nouveaux riches of the Colonial era. But this new class of affluent folk have developed tastes that go beyond all that.

Take coffee, for instance. Once pretty much Folger's or MJB, regular or decaf, it has developed into an extensive rubric of bean varieties, roasting and brewing methods, accessories from press pots to precision grinders, and, of course, places to be seen drinking it. Since 1987, Starbucks alone has expanded from 11 stores to almost 700 in North America, a number it expects to reach 2000 by the year 2000 (and that's not counting those built on a newly announced foray into overseas markets).

Similarly, while domestic beer sales decreased slightly, those of "craft" brews grew by 44 percent last year, when 64 new microbreweries set up shop. (An additional 59 have opened this year, according to Fortune.) Wading through the vast selection of ales and porters and stouts "hand-crafted" and "patiently brewed" by everyone from Belgian Trappist monks to slackers in Ft. Collins, Colorado, you have to wonder if all these beers are really so remarkable, or whether they owe their existence--like those collectors' stamps produced by obscure, poverty-stricken countries--to the fact that there's a voracious American market for them right now.

That market embraces much more than trendy beverages, which are only the most popular examples. If the past 15 years prove anything, it's that corporate marketing execs, entrepreneurs, and artisans can apply the boutique treatment to almost anything, from flavored olive oils and hand-painted dishtowels to $900 solar-powered lawnmowers and $349 Bose Wave radios. In the 1980s, the Toyota Land Cruiser, enlarged and redesigned for an upscale market, helped spawn a demand for luxury 4x4s that seem to grow more bulbous and ornate each year; it's doubtful that most of these vehicles ever see anything rougher than a dirt road, but they do provide a symbolic buffer between their owners and the mean streets they fancy themselves to be traveling.

In an era of widespread economic constriction, with budgets and staffs being slashed every which way, the boutique economy is growing because, in the most basic supply-and-demand terms, plenty of people are asking for it. And what they are getting in many cases are goods, and especially services, that until recently didn't exist. How else to explain desktop Zen rock gardens and "home theater" set-ups, personal trainers and professional dog walkers, spiritual retreats, auto detailing, and even dating services exclusively for those of like incomes?

Economies of Upscale

I recently stumbled upon a well-suppressed fact: the further back you go toward the Middle Ages, the higher the standard of living gets. If you were a French peasant in 1390, say, you'd make ten times more in real terms than your 19th-century descendants. All the roast pig and burgundy you wanted, lots of dancing to bagpipes and little drums.

--copy describing a "middle ages shirt,"

$48, in The J. Peterman Company catalog

J. Peterman, a self-styled literary wit famous for his pompous catalog narratives, doesn't extrapolate this "fact" into the 20th century, though it's clear that here in America, the trend hasn't abated but rather has been exacerbated. The income gap between the rich and the rest had been fairly stable, even contracting a bit in the industrial boom years from the late '50s to the early '70s. Around 1980, the breach rather suddenly began to widen. It became hard not to notice people getting loudly richer, with Donald Trump, Michael Milken and their ilk promoting an arriviste, flaunt-it-if-you've-got-it aesthetic.

In the '90s it's become a quieter affair. Middle management and even upper-level executives may be getting trimmed from the corporate ranks, but as Michael Lewis reported recently in The New York Times Magazine, "Between 1977 and 1989, the average income of the top 1 percent of American families rose from $323,942 to $576,553--even as the incomes of average families remained essentially flat." More to the point, an article by Andrew Hacker in the same issue showed that, from 1979 to 1993, the number of households in the $100,000-$200,000 income range grew by almost 50 percent, while those with over $1 million in income grew fivefold.

The super-rich--those 834,000 families who together are worth $5.62 trillion, more than the entire bottom 90 percent of the population--are one thing. But as Jeremy Rifkin points out in The End of Work, a new class of Americans has emerged in the last 10 years or so, one that's less wealthy in absolute terms though perhaps more influential in tastemaking than the super-rich. The Knowledge Class, which creates, manipulates, and manages information in a post-industrial, post-service economy, consists of professionals in fields like management consulting, media and entertainment, computer software, investment banking, engineering, law, and art direction and graphic design. Added in with the very rich, they make up about 20 percent of the population and earn more than the other four-fifths of the population combined. Moreover, the incomes of the Knowledge Class are increasing 2 to 3 percent annually, while everyone else's continue to decline, helping to create "a deeply polarized America," writes Rifkin, "a country populated by a small, cosmopolitan elite of affluent Americans enclosed inside a large country of increasingly impoverished workers and unemployed persons."

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