AltLuxe

Live better

3 syllables. And a cure for what ails Big Retail.

Posted on January 23, 2017

Scha.Den.Freude.

OK, that wasn’t actually my first feeling when I heard that The Limited would be shutting its stores effective immediately. Rather, my first feeling was that of nostalgia, maybe even sadness.

After all, like so many women my age, my first job was at The Limited, and the source of so many key life skills I use to this day. The invaluable life skill of selling and servicing, how to deal with low lifes, a little bit about design and styling, and of course, how to steam clothes without burning yourself.

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The dear departed. Image courtesy of Chain Store Age

But then, the schadenfreude kicked in. Good riddance, I thought, to The Limited and all those chains (Macy’s, Ann Taylor, Gap. Abercrombie, American Eagle Outfitters, BCBG, Wet Seal, Bebe, Hot Topic, and more weekly) with their same uninspired approach to the art and craft of retail.

And lest you think that the luxe end of the market is immune, Saks is struggling financially despite a major revamp of its stores, while Neiman Marcus has yanked its IPO and Tiffany has lost its luster.

We have entered the Dark Ages of Retail. Yes, consumer demand is shifting, there’s the Internet, etc. But a great deal of the damage is self-inflicted:

  • Lack of self-awareness: So many retailers didn’t/don’t seem know who they are, or WHY they are. Instead, they chase the latest up and coming market, losing the essence of their brand along the way.
  • Lack of originality: They insist on selling merchandise that’s uninspired, undistinguished, undifferentiated.
  • Lack of imagination: They persist in soulless store design and an enduring lack of sensitivity to creating an experience that’s memorable, emotional, compelling … and superior to the internet (which, when you think about it, still delivers a pretty crappy experience for anything but the basics).
  • Apathy: Retail chains persist in rolling out cookie cutter stores (many poorly designed), so you don’t know if you’re Albuquerque, Atlanta or Amsterdam. The rationalization done in the name of efficiency and brand integrity. Of course, some of that is important, but doing it at the expense of boring customers is self-sabotage.
  • Over-reliance on discounting: When a store is 3/4 sale rack and 1/4 new, you have a problem.Discounting is retail crack, but like any drug epidemic, it creates all kinds of bad effects.
  • Inattention to the details: They skimp on staff training and nurturing, resulting in a cadre of bored, unmotivated “team members” more interested in Snapchat than customer service.

The easy way to think about all this is, of course, “The internet’s so much better for shopping so let retail die.”

And yes, while all those chains have indeed squandered the right to be in business, the accelerating problems in traditional retail are going to have a big impact on communities and people (Macy’s is axing 10,000 jobs – and that’s just for now). And there’s all that real estate and all those malls, the default town centers of so many suburbs. (Real estate analyst Nick Egelanian notes that there are 1000 traditional malls left in the US, down from 3000, and that 2/3rds will close before this bloodletting is done. As if to underscore that point, Wells Fargo found itself the only bidder for a Pennsylvania Mall, and paid $100 for it. Wells, it turns out, had foreclosed on it the year before.)  And it’s all those entry level jobs where you can learn about showing up on time and the  art and craft of customer service.

No end of industry analysts have pontificated that it’s experiences that we all want, not “stuff”. Some truth there. But does it really make sense to have all those brands (high or low) move out some product, and start adding random massage services, trunk shows, local maker “pop ups”, DJs, and whatever else in a completely uncontextualized way that doesn’t relate to a larger brand story? No, particularly when they continue to try to sell unimaginative, banal, shoddy products. It’s not just about omni-channel, either.

We will never go back to that halcyon days of ever-expanding growth, but retail is important for jobs and communities and really, for humanity. So here are a few interrelated ideas on how to fix retail, be it at the low, middle, or luxe end of the market. And while, for retail chains fixated on traditional metrics of sales per square foot and marginal cost, they may not be the most profit maximizing, efficient, or streamlined.

Bottom line: the salvation of big retail lies in thinking small. This forces a different way of thinking, operating, buying, and even conceiving what “retail” means. But it’s how to get consumers engaged again. And yes, those consumers might even buy something along the way.

Know, and live your brand. Most of these chains have fallen apart because they don’t know who they are. For many of the dead and dying chains, the idea – the brand essence – that connects merchandise, merchandising, store design, and promotion seems to have never been there, or have been eroded completely. Consumers lose faith. Investors follow.

Naturally, it’s easier when you’re a newer brand or a small one or one that sells directly: it’s no surprise that specialty, own-brand, and concept stores (L’Eclaireur, Dover Street Market, Collette, Apple, and Warby Parker) do this particularly well but the challenge for larger retailers of all stripes is to regain that energy and originality and laser-like focus on the brand.

Re-conceive what the store is. It’s brand expression, service, and marketing  for whatever is being sold. It is only secondarily a sales channel.  Embrace the idea of showroom, not salesroom, of flexibility, not fixed spaces.  (Yes, this is where omni-channel comes in.) Maybe that desire is fulfilled in the store, or online. It shouldn’t matter. For that reason, embrace the principles of concept and lifestyle stores out there for whom it’s about mood and story (aka brand), and just not a place to display inventory.

Loosen up. Cookie cutter stores must die. A store in Albuquerque SHOULD look different from the one in Amsterdam. Embrace terroir and place: maintain or build local brands, or at least have highly local edits in terms of merchandising and store design. This may not be efficient, and merchandisers will hate it. But keeping things relevant and connected to place adds personality, reason to buy (particularly for tourists).

The Federated/Macy’s strategy of acquiring venerable, beloved local brands like Marshall Field, then either closing them or renaming them Macy’s, sowed the seeds of the chain’s woes. Makes great sense of paper, of course: it’s about efficiency of buying and merchandising, promotion, brand, and the notion that consumers love to shop from brands they trust and are familiar with. But it doesn’t take into account the power of place and the need for these retail palaces to be about community, not just consumerism. If there’s no emotional tug, why not just turn to the internet?

The irony about knowing who you are as a brand is that it also becomes easier to play with it, expand on it, riff on it. A wonderful example of this is Aesop, who – confident in who it is – has a different look to each store, created by different architects using local materials.

Embrace scarcity and surprise. Ubiquity is the killer in the luxury category, but increasingly (thank you, Internet) the more mainstream categories as well. So how do you create scarcity?

Get scrappy and do what the small indie brands are doing, of course. Fewer and smaller stores; shorter runs on the merchandise; limited editions; mobile retail; unlikely markets; showing up in other peoples’ stores; pop ups that are true works of art. But with scarcity comes responsibility: you have to be imaginative about it and highly memorable when you do appear. But then, leverage all the resources that come with a bigger enterprise: high quality design; higher levels of service; including customized service;  omnichannel; and deeper inventory.

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Freda Salvador mobile pop up at West Coast Craft in San Francisco, 2016

Treat your merchandise with respect. Choose better quality, choose less, discount less. Differentiate. Don’t buy the trend. Don’t BE the trend.  No mass buys. No mass sales. There’s not much else to say on this point.

Learn to let go. Not every retail brand needs to be around forever. Some brands (Hot Topic, for example) are so rooted in a zeitgeist or trend that it doesn’t make sense for them to continue. Some brands just don’t stretch that far in terms of equity. Don’t keep stretching them, or keep adding spin-offs that chase a market, but still are in need of an idea (as Limited did with Limited Express.) Let brands die before they get killed. Create new ones that make sense. Then let them die too.

As big retail begins to reinvent itself by getting smaller, here’s a provocative question: What if your showroom/alt-store idea were so great that you could charge people to get in? What would that mean? It would mean, theoretically, that you could lower your prices for the merchandise because people are paying directly for the retail experience – something that can’t be replicated online. I recently went to an art fair where the cover charge was $35 just to get in: no freebies or discounts. And I paid the fee properly knowing that I’d see things I couldn’t see everywhere, would meet interesting people, and would be a part of “an event”. Why not?

Obviously, all this requires a complete rethink of retail culture, operations and the whole notion of how to master broad-based retail. It can’t be command and control from a central office any more but instead requires creativity, smarts, and flexibility in the “field” and the actual market level. And that means people. Is there that kind of talent out there? Sure. It’s probably just not in the traditional retail sector.

Great stores can be magical, soul-restoring, and important. Let’s hope that the current retail Dark Ages creates its own Renaissance.

 

 

 

 

 

Learning to wait

Posted on August 9, 2016

Making the wait the worth

Making the wait the worth

I recently received a gift from no less than Francois-Henri Pinault, the head of Kering, which holds a good chunk of the luxury industry.

No, it wasn’t a little something from McQueen or Stella McCartney, or even a pair of Pumas.

No, M. Pinault said something a few months back that really got me thinking differently. The occasion was his comment on an announcement by Burberry that it would move toward letting consumers “shop the runway”, doing away with the practice of having Fall collections shown in Spring and Spring collections shown in the Fall. Paul Smith and Michael Kors followed.  The Guardian dubbed it “See Now, Shop Now”.

Now, all this made eminent sense to me: the idea that in this day and age there’d be this time lag between showing and making available seemed the epitome of silliness, but M. Pinault had a different spin. For him, Burberry’s plan “negated the dream” of luxury; making consumers wait as long as six months to buy a collection “creates desire”.

This comment prodded something in my consciousness. Of course, the cynic in me saw the self-serving nature of the remark in its  unwillingness to change. That same cynic was repelled by the notion of engineering more time for “desire” to build so as to stoke demand and justify high prices.

But was there something interesting and true in the idea that waiting is a good thing, that desire should be allowed to build? And how integral to “luxury” is this idea of waiting?

I admit it: I am by nature a “want it now” kind of person. But age and observation have tempered that in many aspects of my life. And embracing craft and artisanship as I do, I’ve had to change my expectations about objects of desire being available on demand. And yes, since traditional luxury has been hand-made to order, luxury has a strong element of waiting to it.

There was even a recent NY Times piece that seemed to pick up on this notion. In Has Waiting for Things Become the Ultimate Luxury? writer Heidi Julavits tracks a series of mini trends that seem to point to “waiting”  as being trendy – epitomized by the (in)famous waiting list for Hermes Birkin Bag.

Now, I’m all for waiting if it reflects the time it takes to make something (anything hard to make or made to order or customized), or is specifically designed to separate instagratification trendsters from the true believers (Hermes, on a charitable day) then the waiting is good.

But if it’s just another marketing gimmick – to stoke demand, to invent desire – it is cynical and manipulative. It is, unfortunately, what many have come to expect of the business of luxury.

Still, it makes me think about what it means to wait.

Let’s say you’re waiting, as I recently did, for that holy grail of pants – edgy but flattering – that I was having cut to order by my friend Diana Slavin. (No, it wasn’t couture, I’m just hard to fit.) It took four weeks and gave me ample insight into the ways and byways of desire and waiting.

Not that I was completely obsessive about these pants, but at certain moments, I found myself thinking about them a fair amount (a welcome distraction from other life woes). A  30-second sampling of my thoughts would run like this:

These pants are going to be great: they’ll solve all of my wardrobe problems, giving all those outfits the je ne sais quoi they sorely need. Snap out of it. Be in the moment. Don’t future trip. No, they’re going to be great. With them, I could…What’s four weeks? It’ll all be sweeter for the waiting. Just get on with your life, focus on your work. OK, you know, the other thing I really need  is the perfect white T-shirt. When are they going to be ready? Maybe the studio can speed it up if I ask nicely, or maybe they’re already there and they just haven’t called? Maybe I could have them tonight? I can cancel that meeting and head over. Don’t be silly. Those pants will not change your life. Yes they will…and the cycle would begin anew.

This kind of thinking isn’t much different from what went down in grade school: Does he like me? Does he like her more than me? I’m so perfect for him. Maybe if I walk by him real slow in the cafeteria…). It zips between desire, competition, stalking, and high fantasy, as much True Detective as True Romance. If this is the flavor of desire that M. Pinault had in mind, then no thanks. This kind of energy can follow an item around, leaving behind the aura resentment, spoiling the beauty, the pleasure of ownership.

Waiting shouldn’t be passive – some thing that’s imposed on you. In fact, the origins of the word  “wait” lie in notions like waking, and watching. This suggests an engagement, an active component to the process. The quality of the wait should be match what you’re waiting for.

A healthier approach to waiting builds that long-term appreciation, taking more of a wakeful, watching role in the waiting process and making the most of the wait. Anticipating but not fantasizing. Deepening appreciation by understanding why the hell those pants or shoes or bookshelves are taking so long. Creating space (mental or physical) for them. And yes, watching, exploring and learning from that crazy arc of desire.

It’s all part of the essence of the thing. For me and my pants, the wait is an intrinsic part of the worth. And were they worth the wait? Yes. They were.

 

 

 

 

 

Is cool where it’s at?

Posted on May 21, 2016

I have these friends – smart, accomplished, reasonably self-aware grownups – who a great many people would consider cool, very cool. And yet, these friends are earnestly obsessed with others’ coolness and want “cool” people in their orbits so perhaps that coolness will rub off. Which of course is not cool.

What is it about coolness? People are cool (Bowie, Prince, Benicio del Toro, and Charlotte Rampling seem to top a number of lists I looked at.) Things are cool: as of this instant, vinyl, cannabis, koji, local grains, Cuba. And ideas, too: philosophy, localism, and populism (Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump).

As a word, “cool” has ebbed and flowed in terms of its own innate “coolness” but the attraction remains. Cool is “hunted”, and its absence sneered at, dismissed. We all kind of know what “cool” means: something slightly beyond reach, mysterious, something that doesn’t try hard (sweat is not cool), something that  just is, and most importantly – doesn’t care that it is. Self-consciousness is the essence of uncool.

More than anything else, cool is anything that you are not. If you are old, then cool is young. If you are young, then Jagger is looking pretty damned cool. (And we’re all younger than Sir Mick.) And geographically speaking, as Luke Leitch points out in 1843 Magazine, Cool is where you’re not.

This out-of-reach-ness is essential to coolness. In fact, the “hunting” is the key to the desirability of cool, our perpetual search for novelty and status.

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Always over there, just out of reach.

According to Mike Vuolo, writing on the Birth of Cool for Slate, cool is “an alluring mix of style, hipness, poise, and who knows what else.” The same article notes that a psychologist named Ilan Dar-Nimrod sums up coolness research (yes there is such a thing) as linking behavioral traits to coolness, including sexual appetite, risk-taking, masculinity, and muted emotion. (Think Don Draper.)

But is coolness necessarily a good – a desirable – thing? Yes, but, only if you split out what IS cool from what’s associated with that state.

The very word is neither here nor there but kind of a middling state (what really is the difference between lukewarm and cool anyway?) I don’t particularly like cool food or drink: I want it to be fully hot, or fully cold. Cool is a temperature I put up with but not happily. From a physical perspective, “cool” is only desirable on a very hot day.

In people, there’s something off-putting about coolness. Being cool is about keeping others at bay, about observing, about being so self-possessed that you just don’t need others. There is a crisp rationality, heartlessness, and a lack of empathy, generosity, and caring. You don’t get the sense that they are enjoying life, or indulging in any of its pleasures.

The coolness of “over there” means disconnection from what’s happening “here”. You notice less, Of course we’ve all been in the situation where when we get “over there”, things feel smaller, more quotidian than we had imagined. Not that we admit it, of course.

I want to be surrounded by people who do care, who are passionate, who connect and are connected, give me something with grit, and sweat. And yes, some of them may BE cool, but they don’t behave cool. I want experiences that have that same character. I want great food from passionate farmers, sellers, chefs and even servers. And, essentialist that I am, I want things the things that surround me to be made by people who have that hot passion for what they’re doing.

The irony is that the paragons of “cool” are actually only cool because they connect – deeply – to something they care about and had the guts to go with their hearts and it made them turn away from the mainstream. And they’re all a little older, which also says something about the state of mind that it takes to really BE cool. For the most part, they were / are passionate, contrarian, engaged, just maybe not with everyone. Those who actually behave cool generally comes off as a twit, or just an asshole.

Love, connectedness, caring are at the heart of cool. Just not at the heart of the hunting for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The new “new” thing

Posted on May 12, 2016

By Regina Connell

Part of alt luxe is the appreciation of the imperfect, the undone, the used. These are states of being and evolution in objects (and people for that matter) that connect you to life, that keep you grounded, open, humble.

But what of that in-between state where things aren’t quite so bright shiny and new, but haven’t yet achieved that wabi sabi state of beautiful disrepair: a category into which most of the things, people, and relationships in our lives will fall? We grudgingly look to maintain them, the act a necessary evil in our lives.

The art of maintenance

The art of maintenance

As a society, we tend to take the same approach. In the West, while we pay lip service to all that lovely wabi-sabiness, we actually worship at the altar of Progress. The New is what matters. Innovation is king. And consuming all that innovation is your patriotic duty.

I recently came across an article in Aeon magazine that’s got me thinking about all this. Entitled Hail the Maintainers, authors Lee Vinsel & Andrew Russell write about the need to value The Maintainers. “Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end?”

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Klaus Rötzscher of Pettingell Book Bindery: mending, restoring books to their former glory

Whatever you call them – the maintainers, the repairers, the tailors, the cobblers, the conservators, the mechanics, the cleaners, all those keepers of things in working order – well, it just doesn’t have the same ring as “the creators”, or even, god forbid that dreadful phrase, “knowledge workers”. Those who can’t create maintain. Maintenance is a necessary evil. Do I smell a whiff of class-ism? And here I thought we Americans were supposed to be beyond class.

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The glamour and grit of maintenance

The maintainers make innovation and design work. And last. They don’t waste resources. And you’d better believe they’re knowledge workers: repair and maintenance is all about knowledge of materials and processes. And it’s not just the professionals: we too are maintainers, caring for our clothes, our homes, our cars, or at least finding the right people to do so.

So why do we not pay more attention to this, why don’t we care, why is it – and the people who do it, and the time we spend on it – just a necessary evil? It says a lot about us. As Vines and Russell write, “A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there?”

The notion of maintenance comes from extremely good stock, stock that should make us rethink it: it comes from Latin manu tenere “hold in the hand,” from manu, ablative of manus “hand” (see manual) + tenere “to hold”. The current meaning of “to carry on, keep up” is from mid-14c.; that of “to keep oneself, to support” is from late 14th century. There’s honor there.

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The tools of the knowledge worker

While I don’t think we should shy away from the word maintain (particularly now that we know its roots), maybe if we started to think about it in terms of caring – not fixing or maintaining – things might soften up a little, generate a different energy, put that innovation fetish in a different light, as in: Innovating versus Caring. Disrupting versus Caring. Yup I’d say the energy shifts.

And of course, there’s that age old question: what, really, IS the line between maintaining and creating? What is “new”, anyway? Isn’t a lot of maintenance about creation, or actually, re-creation?

Here’s a scary thought: maybe all those innovative techies have figured this out: could it be that there’s common ground between my emerging appreciation of maintenance and the perpetual “beta” that Google / Apple and all the apps with their background daily updates?  “Always beta” state is more about the constant belief in ever-better evolution, not fix-it-and-be-done revolution.

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Care taken. All hail the maintainers.

So have a care for the people who keep things running, even if that’s you. Pay attention to maintenance and care. Take pleasure in the process, whether it’s cleaning that bathroom grout (OK that may be a bit much for me) or – when you’re outsourcing it – learning from the pro’s. And take pleasure in being able to observe through the practice of maintaining how time and use change things, developing the wisdom to understand what can be fixed, and what can’t. There are probably larger lessons in living that can be taken from that.

It may not be about the miracle of birth, but it certainly is about the miracle of life.

Peak Curtains

Posted on March 14, 2016

It became a meme a couple of months ago, this notion of “peak curtains”.

This pithy phrase came from Steve Howard, IKEA’s head of sustainability, speaking at The Guardian’s Sustainable Business debate. The full quote was, “In the West, we have probably hit peak stuff. We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff … peak home furnishings.” He said the new state of affairs could be called “peak curtains”.

Now Mr. Howard went on to laud IKEA’s initiatives to take back and repair product, but what he was saying nonetheless feels true. It’s been an AltLuxe meme for a while, it’s been a nagging worry among manufacturers and retailers – the notion that people particularly millennial – want experiences, not stuff.  James Wallman’s written a new book / polemic about it called Stuffocation. Marie Kondo, the spark-joy-or-toss-it advocate has a new book out (a master class on the KonMari method). And now we have the news that Apple’s sales of iPhones have flatlined and growth is stalled. Even now, Japan, the European Central Bank, Denmark, Switzerland and Sweden have negative interest rates, in an effort to goose spending.

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Some of the blame goes to affluence and affluenza. Some goes to marketers and the relentless way in which they flog goods. And I would think that some goes to the internet, which has made everything both instantly available (thank you Amazon) but also virtually available (Pinterest and Instagram).

The question is, what happens from here on out? Will demand dry up? Will malls continue to wither? Will even the mighty Amazon succumb? Will producers of consumer products (and then those of the equipment and machinery that produce them) die? Is what’s been going on in the stock market (stock prices lowering as oil prices lower, partially driven by lowering demand in former growth economies like China) going to continue indefinitely?

Is this a sea change, a generational shift? Or is this just a trend that’s just about to – excuse the phrase – peak?

I think that at a macro level, there is a recognition that our systems are spinning wildly out of control, so incredibly focused on consuming and acquisition that there has to be a slowdown.

But on the other hand it’s just not in the nature of people to stop wanting beauty whether from sunsets or peaches or films or a chair or a pot. It is in our nature to want pleasure, which comes from the senses, and the senses are in large part who we are as humans.

What’s so often lacking is the meaning. The question is, how do you shift a global advanced economy from one that’s focused on stuff, to one focused on meaning? What does that look like?

Wonky stuff from a blog focused on alternative luxury and pleasure, but there you have it.

 

 

 

 

 

Skin deep

Posted on March 14, 2016

Some days, I feel I’m drowning in imagery.

It’s not just the time spent in front of my computer or phone that’s the culprit. There’s the extraordinarily good stuff on TV: Netflix and House of Cards and Game of Thrones and Empire and The Americans and Downton Abbey…There are the print magazines with which I’m obsessed …  There’s the constant design image grazing I do for work, the FOMO (as in, “Didn’t you see that great room / sofa / tile installation / wooden spoon on insta?”) and the constant battle to find the right images, get the rights, edit them, get them in … there’s even the beauty of where I live and work – the sunsets, the rain, the interiors, the products, the factory, the ironic streetscapes (or so we like to think), that I now look for, to share, share, share. (Sad, isn’t it: but at least it’s gotten me to notice a bit more.)

All this visual juiciness has been bothering me of late and it took me a while to put my finger on it.

Part of it is the utter ubiquity. It’s now too pat, too easy to create all this visual “content” and now that people have figured out that images are more arresting than words (bye, bye Twitter, hello Instagram) everyone has glommed onto image-rich platforms. Even me.

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The result: images feel if not meaning-less, then certainly less meaning-full.

In taking stock, I realized that the things that I gravitate toward, the things I love, the things that give me the most pleasure and which I want to surround myself with, are only nominally about the visual, and so much more about the other senses.

And even when I’m most tuned into the visual – shooting a sunset, for example – it’s less the prettiness of the blues, pinks, oranges and greys, but more the way it feels to be enveloped by the majesty and intensity of the sky: a profound bigness that the camera only barely hints at. Even Ansel Adams and all those other kings of landscape photography don’t really come that close. The image of that sunset is only a proxy for that feeling of awe, and that sense of how small we actually are, how infinitesimal our problems and obsessions, or maybe just the coolness of the evening sky on my skin.

Outside of story and all those associations, I’ve figured out that it’s texture, and to a somewhat lesser extent, fragrance, that matter to me at least as much as the sight of something.

It’s the feel of that cape/sweater I bought last year with its nubbly, fuzzy wool and structure courtesy of subtle leather edging: it gives me that rare combination of comfort, confidence, and glamour that I’m always seeking in my clothing (let alone life). And the fact that I can detect a very slight whiff of lanolin in the wool helps me connect to its source and the process of its making.

Or it’s the way the drape of my Maria Cornejo dress feels on my body: the textural element is less about classic aspects of touch (rough, smooth, coarse, silky), but about what touches me where, and how (just a whisper of a touch here, a little more supporting gentle moulding there). The fact that the dress makes me feel relaxed but also makes me stand taller (shoulders back, please) is something that gives me profound pleasure. The fact that people like the way I look in it matters less. (Well, I’d like to think that.)

Now that my house is at least complete enough to feel functional, I look around and realize that what I’m loving the most are the things that have the most texture. The cushions made out (individually) of velvet, chenille and woven wool/cashmere (clearly I have a thing for cushions). The nubby linen slouchy chair that surrounds me just so. The antique proofing bowl with its scratches and gouges. The endless wool blankets and throws we have strewn about (all smelling lightly of our cats, in a good way) and the old leather basket we try to corral them in.  The zinc-topped coffee table with enough grit in the feel to cut through the feeling of any preciousness and make me relax instantly. The smoky smell of Diptique’s Feu de Bois that seems to have pervaded the most unlikely corners of the house with an air of mystery, sensuality, connectedness to the past and comfort.

The constant consumption of images is feeling like a sugar binge to me, making me a little jittery and craving. What I need, what really satisfies, is the texture, the flavor, the fragrance of life.

Perhaps it’s time for a visual detox?

In praise of specificity

Posted on January 12, 2016

When I was in Japan a few years ago, I went to a place called Tokyu Hands. It blew me away: floor after floor of stuff, so much of it incredibly specific. A container to hold sliced tomatoes so they wouldn’t sit in their own juice. Teapot brushes. 15 different types of scissors for ikebana. A knife specially designed for cutting chestnuts. An those were just the things whose use I could fathom.

I found it fascinating but perplexing: even if some of the products were clearly genius (I loathe soggy tomatoes) why oh why would you want all this stuff in a country where houses were so minuscule?  Would you even use it? Wasn’t it all a bit silly? Was it just another example of Japanese nit-picky obsessiveness? This was, after all the land of obsessive ritual, of Zen Buddhism, of blessings and ceremonies for all kinds of things, not the least of which is the vaunted tea ceremony (which quite honestly, I’d never been able to really embrace.)

Nowadays, and in particular, in America, we typically don’t go in for this kind of specificity. Ironically, in this land of sprawling homes and walk-in closets the size of Lichtenstein, we embrace the all-in-one, the multi-functional younameit. It’s more efficient. It’s just so much more modern.  It’s all about smartphones, the all-in-one printer, the Cuisinart, the sofa bed, the murphy bed, the all-in-one remote, the spork, and so on.

And when that doesn’t work, we just make do – we don’t sweat the details, we don’t want to try too hard, and we don’t want to fuss and be fussy. So maybe we just use a little Yankee ingenuity and improvise. We use something designed for one thing in another. We put up with things that aren’t quite perfect. But it’s all good.

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And yet, I’ve been won over to the side of ultra-specificity, drawn in by a little bamboo brush.

A few years after the Tokyu Hands experience, I found myself organizing a Japanese home goods pop up store and  ended up buying a little bamboo brush for those flat Japanese ginger graters, the ones with double rows of tiny razor-sharp teeth. As it was pretty inexpensive, I picked up this ridiculous little object, mostly as a novelty item, something to poke fun at. One day, after I’d spent about five minutes, a newly serrated fingernail, and gallons of precious running water trying to clean out those little grater teeth,  I decided to break out that little bamboo brush.

Of course, it worked a charm. A few sweeps and the ginger was gone.  This was a revelation. Out went that pre-grated jarred ginger that I’d been using, mea culpa, and I’m now free to let my love of ginger run wild: I have my little bamboo brush.

While I’m certainly a fan of less stuff, I’ve become a major convert to the idea of having and using the right stuff.

It means I’m not just making do, but making it right. Why not fuss and be fussy and be seen as fussy? As every craftsman and chef and DIY enthusiast knows, the right tool makes all the difference between abject failure / injury / death and toast-worthy success. The right tool is beautifully designed for a very specific use. It is not wasteful. Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact.

It shows that I actually care about what I’m doing, that I care about that most precious resource-my time and the quality.  That is the opposite of wasteful. Having the right stuff makes me feel oddly grown up and serious.

All those all-in-one / multi-functional things?  Look at that list: most of them don’t work that well, at best doing one thing moderately well. The spork? Really?

So now being a convert to the allure of the specific, here’s my list of favorite ultra-specific stuff that makes my life easier, gives me rather pleasure every time I use it, and just makes me smile, smile, smile.

And just in case you find yourself needing a little bit of ultra-specific products, there’s a list of links at the end for some places that make my geeky little heart beat faster.)

That ginger grater brush, of course. But following on to that, maybe my Jonathan’s Spoons pasta drainer, or even my newest find: a hand-hewn spreader that manages to render flat brownie batter without becoming a stuck on mess. (Something about friction, the butteriness of the finish?)

A hot water bottle. It does one thing (heats the bed on a cold night) and it does it brilliantly. Just make sure you close the cap properly and you change it out every couple of years.

Electrical stripper. This is not my favorite device, but that of my partners. It’s not just that it helps us do things like replace switches but that it’s given him greater confidence in DIY land, a source of joy.

Bodkin. A clever little item for retrieving errant drawstrings. Looks like a roach clip. Utterly life changing.

Barbour Jacket. Not terribly stylish, and too clearly raincoat to be just another coverup, but it’s kept me bone dry for over a decade now. The Brits know a thing or two about rain.

And my favorite: a book. A real one. Not something that sends email too and requires charging at inopportune moments. A quote from Umberto Eco sums it up: “The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon… The book has been thoroughly tested, and it’s very hard to see how it could be improved on for its current purposes.”

One last thought: as I look at these, I realize that I’ve had most of these in my life for a long, long time, forming a good long relationship with each. And that’s the other thing about the idea of specificity: the pieces don’t outlive their usefulness: the need for them lasts, along with the product. Would that all things were that way.

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Here are my six go-to stores for the ultra-specific needs of our lives. Unfortunately Tokyu Hands doesn’t sell online.

Korin: knives, kitchenware, and more from Japan

Tortoise General Store: beautiful, functional mostly Japanese wares for the home

Umami Mart: kitchen goods but an awesome array of Japanese barware, too. Because everyone needs a three-pronged ice pick.

Maido: anything, everything you might want for your desk.

And just in case you think it’s only the Japanese who are good at this, the Scandies and the Brits are a pretty dab hand at it too:

Iris Hantverk: fabulous brushes for cleaning from Sweden.

Labour and Wait: London’s famed housekeeping store.