Boutique Planet

The upscaling of everything

Then there's Martha Stewart's rather symbiotic relationship with boutique chic. Her success is based on bringing upscale aesthetics to home crafts (no calico or macrame here), even though she's always going on about how simple and inexpensive her projects are. True Marthaholics, however, must have plenty of that most precious commodity, time; and if time is money--well, suffice it to say they're comfortable enough to worry about things like artful gift-wrapping.

Not that Martha's homespun spell doesn't capture plenty of others, who are as bemused by their own desire to make gourd lanterns as by their ultimate ineptitude (nothing ever turns out as good as Martha's). So while she capitalizes on people's wistful need to be handy at something, Stewart also sublimates it into a consumerist form, acting as a kind of consulate general for the boutique nation: Most people will never get around to making miniature topiaries or stencilling their own wallpaper, as presented step-by-step in Martha Stewart Living, but the magazine specializes in the kinds of things that are no doubt available for purchase somewhere, hand-crafted by someone else.

The Knowledge Class is perhaps even more apt than their well-off forebears to romanticize the handcrafted or regionally distinctive object, because according to Rifkin, they "have little or no attachment to place. Where they work is of far less importance than the global network they work in.... [T]heir expertise and services are sold all over the world." The Sears catalog once offered a fantastical, kaleidoscopic picture of machine-made goods for folks in the sticks--things delivered through the mail that seemed superior to what was at home. Now, the products ostensibly crafted by their rural descendants are themselves showcased in catalogs and urban shops, held up as artifacts from a world where people know their neighbors, lead uncomplicated lives in tandem with nature, and pass heirlooms on to their children.

Indeed, in a lot of ways boutique culture preserves for a select few the remnants of traditions, dreams, and comforts from an age when they were more common to all--when craftsmen did produce essential goods for their own communities, instead of hand-forging cookware racks or pre-weathered, faux-naif birdhouses for sale in catalogs and country stores. When pickled produce got eaten, rather than labelled "not for consumption" and sold as "an exquisite gift for the well-appointed home," and when families sat down to meals served on hearty stoneware instead of microwaving something before going off to work.

Green Chic

Aveda Anatomy(TM) heather gray Eco-Spun Polar Fleece sleeveless straight dress, made from recycled plastic soda bottles. Use of this new fabric keeps over two billion bottles a year from being dumped in landfills, making this a socially conscious shift worth slipping into.

--$60, from a fashion spread in the

premiere issue of Aveda magazine

The 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990 may have failed to spark a green revolution, but it dictated the fashion for a profitable new boutique market of "environment-friendly" products--things like $45 organically grown cotton pillows and $430 solar chargers for the laptops of "eco road warriors." The Real Goods catalog, for instance, used to be a rather no-nonsense publication selling books, plans, and materials for alternative energy and housing. Now, for every page of those products, there are two pages of cute or attractive but otherwise unessential items--those "PooPets" plant fertilizers, terra-cotta sun chimes, or gadgets that smash pop cans. Two local companies, The Thymes Limited and Aveda, have earned fortunes in the market for expensive, delectably scented natural bath products. Neither releases dollar figures, but The Thymes reports a growth of 20 percent each year for the past five years, while Aveda is both expanding its line of products (there are now more than 700 of them) and colonizing the globe with Environmental Lifestyle Stores.

Along with their handmade counterparts, eco-products put an inevitable feel-good spin on conspicuous consumption: You're helping to sustain indigenous peoples by buying a fancy rainforest nut mix, supporting local small businesses with every purchase of jumbo scones and organic baguettes, and allowing someone to carry on an artistic tradition by taking delivery of an Appalachian twig table for the summer home. Who needs the Peace Corps or UNICEF? You can buy Mango Body Butter or Passion Fruit Cleansing Gel from The Body Shop, which boasts of its power to "source" ingredients from "communities in need around the world. That way, our purchasing power can help build a future for people." Apparently, the chain has been cleansed of last year's controversy over an investigative article that charged it with buying less than one percent of its ingredients from a "trade not aid" program set up to help developing countries.

The Global Plantation

One glance at her fingers reveals all you need to know. Beautiful Harjeet, unparalleled quiltmaker. My doorway in New Delhi to colonial America.

She took it without comment. Perfectionists need relentless challenges. (There have been other books. She's done it before.)

The original quilt hangs in a museum. Now it could just as easily cover a bed in your home, or a wall in your foyer. According to tradition, every young woman in 19th-century America aspired to have 13 quilts in her dowry chest. Harjeet can get you started.

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