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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
--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....
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.
The same aesthetic applies to electronic gadgetry. Unlike design in the '50s, when faith in science and technology was celebrated with a space-agey sensibility applied to everything from toasters to tail fins, high-end '90s technology complements the boutique aesthetic by being simple, and most of all, unobtrusive. Kitchen appliances are specially designed to blend in with the cabinetry; oversized TVs get hidden inside "entertainment centers" that look antique armoirs; and the smallest cell phones tuck into shirt pockets. If things must show, they should pass for an art object, such as Bang and Olufsen's Brancusi-like speakers. But preferably, a home is prewired with recessed speakers in every room (or even better, with electronic remote-control systems). An article a few years back on Ralph Lauren's New York abode depicted a place so streamlined that nothing technological, it was noted--not so much as a light switch or thermostat, and least of all a TV remote--was on view. It embodied an ideal of technology at the end of the 20th century equivalent to an impeccable butler who hovers attentively, but knows the art of not creating a presence.
Only the very poor and the very rich can live a spartan life, and among the latter, this ideal can get taken to absurd extremes. A bathroom featured in a home magazine wasn't so much a bathroom as a temple where ritual ablutions took place, and so the homeowner was obligated to bring her towel, toothbrush, and such in from another room. For those who subscribe to this kind of conspicuous inconspicuousness, the product promises not to impress its image upon the purchaser. To put it in couture terms, it's the difference between a glitzy Versace and something by Jil Sander or Yohji Yamamoto. While the Versace wears the woman, the truly fashion-conscious will tell you that a really good piece of clothing transforms its wearer without calling attention to itself. A spare and unobtrusive aesthetic means flaunting not one's stuff, but oneself.
By tending toward expensive products that look deceptively austere, and indulging "natural," anti-technological tastes with disposable income earned in Information Age jobs, a case could be made that boutique consumers are using their money to obscure their own success and the terms on which they earned it. More than mere modesty, it's a circumspect approach to wealth that may contain a certain element of fear in the face of a gap between rich and poor wider than that in any other industrialized country. At any rate, there's little stock placed in showing off money; the point of wealth is increasingly to bolster one's sense of privacy, security, and mobility.
On Top of the World
Peace of mind. In Land Cruiser, it's factory installed. It's the capable feeling of its large tires and muscular stance....It's being able to see above traffic, and the solid feeling that only a 4,800 pound vehicle can provide.... It's knowing that the Land Cruiser will take you most anywhere and get you home again. What's more, Land Cruiser does its job not with drama, but with ease, elegance and composure so those inside can maintain theirs. And that may be the best feeling of all.
--from the sales brochure for the 1996
Toyota Land Cruiser
For now, the 20 Percent Club is indeed blessed with a sense of security. After all, if one's income is growing, it's likely to keep on doing so, at least for the foreseeable future. Yet the new global economic order, comprised of the super-rich, the Knowledge Class, and everybody else toiling away mostly to meet the needs and whims of the first two groups, may ultimately prove to be a destabilizing force for consumer capitalism. How long before this remarkably finite market becomes glutted with aromatic candles, custom-crafted leather chairs, and grow-your-own portabella mushroom kits? It seems we're recreating the conditions that led Marie Antoinette to make her legendary retort about starving peasants--except that their contemporary counterparts won't be offered cake, but Tuscan olive bread. CP
News intern Mary Ellen Egan contributed research for this story.
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