Boutique Planet

The upscaling of everything

With those kinds of numbers, it's little wonder that, as Rifkin notes elsewhere in his book, the U.S. economy as a national unit is no longer on the agenda. Consumer capitalism has followed suit: It's easier to sell things to small numbers of discriminating but economically secure people than to hordes of anxiety-ridden penny-pinchers. So the invisible hand of the marketplace has gotten busy devising a whole succession of niche markets that cater to the 20 Percent Club and their growing disposable incomes.

High-End Humble

We have a passion for great bread, and we bake with care and purpose. Composed simply of organic stoneground flours, unrefined sea salt, and pure water, our breads are handcrafted both by human hands and by the hands of time.

--from the French Meadow Bakery's

"Bread Guide"

J. Peterman's medieval peasants may have feasted on loaves like this, but today they're reserved for an entirely different class. Small bakeries are producing striata, foccacia, baguettes, and boules on such a scale that together they've created a sizable industry; and the gourmet renditions of that most basic and symbolic of foods are just one facet of the booming demand for boutique groceries that led to chains like Whole Foods, as well as the upscaling of many food co-ops.

The new preference for wholesome, natural, unrefined, or old-fashioned alternatives to everyday stuff shows how the ideals and aesthetics of the affluent have gained in nuance and complexity; it's no longer a matter of choosing extra fancy over plain, or deluxe over discount. A more discreet form of conspicuous consumption has largely supplanted bigger-is-better ostentatiousness, and many of its principles can be derived from the description of that French Meadow bread: Foremost, those who make a boutique product should be "passionate" about what they do, or at least scrupulously devoted to it (these kinds of consumers may like simple, but they don't go for shoddy). Organic, unrefined, pure materials--things in their natural state--are critical. Invoking history and tradition is important, as it brings to mind eras when things were made on a smaller scale, in more painstaking, time-consuming ways. The romantically rustic, the compellingly humble, or the otherwise plain and austere are sought-after qualities.

In a sense, this is just another cycle in the history of taste. The severity and simplicity of neo-classicism in the 18th century was a bracing, even moralistic alternative to the suffocating artificiality and frivolous gold curlicues of the rococo style that preceded it. More recently, during the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the last century, the rustic and the handmade were likewise peddled as a design statement. William Morris became internationally famous for his wallpapers, textiles, and furniture inspired by humble, pre-industrial principles, which were (and still are) nevertheless affordable only for the forward-thinking well-to-do. Architects such as Gustav Stickley, the Greene brothers, and Frank Lloyd Wright also believed that moral uplift could be had by honest design. They took off on elements from Swiss chalets, American cabins, and English cottages, as well as nature itself, in plans for houses that were expansive and luxurious, yet nonetheless "simple." The consumers of rustic chic had very often made their fortunes from industry and new technologies--the Greenes' most famous house was built for one of the founders of Procter and Gamble--but this was a progressive crowd, fed up with the excesses and corruption of the Gilded Age.

Similarly, in a post-industrial economy where the few manufacturing jobs that remain are threatened by the march of technology and cheap overseas labor, the idealization of manufacture by hand is yet another attempt to buck the oppressive, alienating, and homogenizing effects of mass production (once celebrated as the wave of a utopian future, for example, in the space-age, streamlined designs of the 1950s and '60s). And, as in the past, it's a battle fought primarily by the ennobled elite.

A whole army of catalog entrepreneurs and boutique owners--"high-end specialty retailers," as they're known in the biz--act as the middlemen between consumers and producers: artists who create $10, one-of-a-kind greeting cards protected by plastic sheaths; Ozark Mountain blacksmiths who hand-forge $269 fireplace tools; some unfortunate Amish craftspeople who've been stuck with the unpleasant task of hand-molding fecal matter into toad- or turtle-shaped plant fertilizers, yours for only $14 a toad. "It takes master glassblowers in Poland and Germany a full week to make one of Christopher Radko's extraordinary ornaments" for sale in the Smith & Hawken catalog (leading one to wonder how these painstaking craftsmen, whose trinkets retail for $40 apiece, manage to feed themselves).

Along with partaking of the more "simple" pleasures the world has to offer, another strain of boutique culture is big on doing things for oneself. Smith & Hawken, in fact, was instrumental in launching the current vogue in upscale gardening-getting dirt under the fingernails instead of papercuts. For those who aren't doing it to save on their grocery bill, this hobby is a perfect foil for conspicuous consumption. It's possible to spend a small fortune on exotic seeds and rare rosebushes, and still more delights are to be taken in equipment like a pure copper watering can, English wellies, a Victorian potting shed apron... things that are mostly unecessary and definitely overpriced (again, the sellers know who they're dealing with). But gardening doesn't qualify as ostentatious or frivolous because it is, after all, a means to an end, and one isn't being so overweening as to employ a gardener.

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