Boutique Planet

The upscaling of everything

--copy for replica 18th-century quilts,

$285-$380, J. Peterman catalog

J. Peterman's rhapsody over his talented Third World contract laborers (this is not the only paean to Harjeet in his catalog) is not so different from others' attitudes, such as the Salvadorean trade organization whose ad shows a smiling woman in traditional dress, bearing the caption "Rosa Martinez produces apparel for U.S. markets on her sewing machine in El Salvador. You can hire her for 57-cents an hour.... She and her co-workers are known for their industriousness, reliability and quick learning." Then there's the Yawanawas tribe from the Brazilian rainforest, who've been commissioned by the Aveda Corporation to grow native Uruku plants for a new line of all-natural lipsticks. People of the Third World may be a giant labor pool for the "developed" world, but in boutique culture they're viewed as craftspeople and sages proudly offering up handiwork and ancient secrets, be they replica American quilts or the raw materials for new-agey makeup. Thinking about them slaving away in sweatshops and maquiladoras, cranking out base things like T-shirts or computers--or hand-assembling Christmas ornaments, for that matter--is not just unpleasant; it's in poor taste.

The American 20 Percent Club's view of that other world out there is basically a colonial vision that combines a condescending admiration for traditional peasant ways of life with self-congratulations for extending a means of support to them. It's a willfully positive mindset that masks a very different reality, and one that is now coming home. As Michael Lind wrote in his "Notes on the Progress of the American Class War" in the June issue of Harper's, the U.S. is being recast by "the new white overclass as a New Honduras or a New Belize... secure behind urban fronts and suburban walls... [this class] has neither reason nor incentive to moderate its ruthless pursuit of its own short-term concerns." What with the commonalities between Harjeet, the Yawanawas, and our own Amish in a boutique economy, maybe the global village metaphor isn't so misguided after all.

Less Costs More

No crust of rubies and diamonds. No need. The calf-length sweep of luminous pale gold raw silk is sufficient....

--raw silk rajah coat, $295, J. Peterman


When you're not flaunting, what you do have becomes all the more crucial. The modernist tenet "less is more" applies perfectly to this newer and more refined form of conspicuous consumption, which favors the artistic ritual of sushi over a 19-ounce Porterhouse steak. So it's no wonder products like mineral water carry such weight with this crowd: The quintessential and most arcane boutique items are not shaped like, flavored with, or decorated by other things. They are merely the highest quality, purest, or most rare of their class, showing off the authenticity--and thus, in a way, the spiritual essence--of the object itself. With its Indian logo and "smoke less and enjoy it more" slogan, American Spirit links its additive-free cigarettes to religious or ritual kinds of smoking, something more noble than mere indulgence and less base than nicotine addiction. American Express had a similar idea when it came out with its most elite card, which, unlike the green, gold, or platinum versions, disassociated itself from anything so worldly as money: It was black.

At this rarefied level of consumerism, there's a paradoxical kind of self-awareness, a highly cultivated form of unselfconsciousness. Jonathan Franzen evoked this mindset perfectly in his 1992 novel Strong Motion: "Selfconsciousness was a guardian angel that accompanied her everywhere. In grocery stores it told her how to select foods--apples, eggs, fish, bread, butter, broccoli--that could be trusted not to put words in her mouth. Words like I am a yuppie or I am trying hard not to be a yuppie or See how original I am or See how timid I am as I try to avoid being like the people I don't want to be, including those who are selfconsciously original.... [W]hen she shopped in a department store, the clothes and utensils that struck her as unimplicating invariably turned out to be the most expensive in their class. Clearly, if you were rich enough, transparency could be purchased."

Even with everyday goods, the simpler kind costs more: the spaghetti sauce without corn syrup; the jam without sugar; the milk without BGH. In the upper echelons of consumables, the price differential between the regular and the neutral or logo-free grows exponentially, and oftentimes, the top products are deceptively unsophisticated. The no-nonsense labels of Kiehl's line of toiletries, for instance, look medicinal, almost generic (though at $35 for body lotion, they're far from the latter). It's also common for the size and ornateness of a designer's logo to grow in proportion to his or her popularity with the masses, as evidenced by Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, and Ralph Lauren. This compels affluent aesthetes in need of something "unimplicating" to seek out new lines of merchandise; right now, the scrubbed simplicity of Prada is all the rage. If there must be a logo, it should be so unobtrusive that only those in the know recognize it, such as that of Infiniti's top-of-the-line Q45 model, which is discernible only as a cryptic line until you get up close.

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