AltLuxe

Care about sustainability? Get serious about your brand.

Posted on January 23, 2018

Not all brands are created alike.

“Brand” is one of those words – a little like “luxury”– that feels the very antithesis of “sustainability”. For many, it bespeaks glossy magazine ads, splashy parties, and a general glitz that feels gross, vulgar.

And in many ways it is, as it pumps up demand for things we don’t want. But ironically, for all the importance of using sustainable materials and processes, the single most important act of sustainability is to not create more waste to begin with.

In our society, waste implies that there is no market demand for a given item and that while it may have inherent value, it doesn’t have economic value. And things that lack economic value are waste. SO the imperative is to create value.

One of the most powerful ways to do that is through brand. In classical branding parlance, brands create a preference. They help buyers make choices among a variety of options. Over time, a brand becomes a signal – a shorthand – of quality or design. In that way, it begins to make one product more valuable than the one next to it, not just in the short term, but in the long term.

This even applies to the altluxe, very assertively non-brand / post-brand world.

It’s de riguer for an artisan, indie designer, or craftsperson to say that they are committed to sustainability because they’re creating “heirloom quality” goods of enduring value. They insist that they do not create throw away products and that their products will be handed down from generation to generation.

But what if that next generation doesn’t want that heirloom product? What if the current generation tires of it for whatever reason? Do we just have higher quality throwaway?

There are, of course, alternatives to the dumpster. Take it to a consignment shop. Better yet, pop it online, on eBay, or a high end consignment (aka “re-commerce”) site like The RealReal. Find someone with a thriving storefront on 1stDibs. Find a global audience, all hungry for lovely, timeless, products. That’s the theory, at least.

Here’s the challenge, though. If no one knows that makers “mark”, it’s far less likely that that product will be bought. Sure, a discerning, committed dealer could take a shine to a particular piece or maker and pump up the promotion, but that’s the exception not the rule. And IF that no-name product is sold, it will be sold for less: it will be less valuable.

The VALUE of product isn’t just about its inherent quality. It’s also about the market, and the demand for that product. And that’s where brand comes in. Brand isn’t just about selling more in the now. Brands are about increasing the value of an item in the future. For anyone who purports to care about sustainability and not creating a throwaway, branding matters.

For all those “timeless” products to be truly sustainable and maintain their value across the generations, they need to be associated with a great brand. Not necessarily big and beaudacious. Just great.

It’s not easy. But it is possible.

Getting experiential retail right

Posted on July 31, 2017

Summer 2017. In the US, the retail carnage continues, with each week bringing another story of store closures and bankruptcies. Having vanquished all but the most scrappy book, electronics, and mall stores, Amazon is making its move into brick and mortar stores, and mulling its plans for pharmacy. Neiman Marcus can’t even get itself bought. And Nordstrom is taking itself private. Talk of retail reinvention is everywhere.

Notably absent in much of the conversation are explorations addressing the most crucial and enduring parts of the retail equation:

+ creating covetable products;

+ having a clear and differentiated brand (what, as a merchant, do you stand for);

+ good old customer service.

Instead, much of the talk has centered on changing up the “retail experience”.  “Experiences”, the thinking goes, will bring in the shoppers, as in “come for the experience and stick around to shop a little”. Shops now have to be destinations, palaces of entertainment and discovery, where every sense is catered to.

This is silly. Retail, in fact, has always been experiential. It’s just that no one paid attention to it, and for that, retail (in particular, big retail) is paying the price.

But at least it rediscovery might prompt some thinking about the role of experience – physical, emotional – in the shopping process, and in particular what it can be in physical space.

With a few exceptions, “Experiential retail” has clustered into two categories.

 

APPROACH #1. JUST DRIVE TRAFFIC. The obvious goal of this approach: get the punters in. As many as possible, as often as possible.

Sending in the clowns. AKA in-store entertainment. Some times it’s small and story-telling, such as trotting out the artisans out to demonstrate in an “in store” studio. Other stores go big and bodacious: celebrities, “influencers”, sound and light shows. An almost-ancient formula, now with a social media spin.

Sprinkling in the services. This means bringing outside services into their stores with nail salons, cobblers, yoga studios, and wellness clinics being some of the most frequent mentions.

Rounding up the usual suspects. This means periodic or one-off product demo’s, hands-on workshops, designer meet and greets, and talks. Long the purview of craft/cooking stores, design galleries, and high fashion, it’s moving into the bag of tricks of more general lifestyle retailers.

The challenge with this set of “just drive traffic” approaches is that they drive traffic (in the short term) but no love.

In the desire to connect with consumers, these  strategies often have a strong whiff of inauthenticity (ok, let’s call it bullshit) and desperation to them. Neither is a promising sign of long-term health.

First, let’s take entertainment. In limited quantities, spectacle is good: we all love to be entertained, all love to a bit of showmanship and effort. But it’s not the panacea.  First of all, as behavioral psychologists have noted, humans have a built-in novelty-seeking tendency. To feed that, the traffic-driving events will have to continuously outstrip each other in grandeur and/or coolness. Then, there’s the cost. This approach is expensive. It’s also pretty exhausting. And if every store in the mall, main street and high street starts doing big fat experiences, won’t people tire of them?

And from big celebrity-studded events to the humble one-off workshop or book talk, many of the drive traffic events require the bolt-on of someone else’s celebrity and pulling power to pull people into the store. Suddenly the store becomes about someone else’s brand. Effective yes. But again, if every store starts doing the same kind of thing, then the store is just a venue: interchangeable, forgettable.

Finally, the just add service approach won’t add anything to the brand unless it’s such an extraordinary, exclusive service or unless it’s integrated with the product of the store (e.g. gyms and yoga in a workout gear store.). It feels like an inauthentic bolt-on and just turns the store into a mall.

 

APPROACH #2. DEEPENING + EXPANDING THE BRAND CONNECTION. This slightly more subtle approach generally takes the following forms.

Help people learn.  Not surprisingly, direct to consumer brands root their brand connection in the product, using their physical space as an integral part of their product and brand story. This is not about hand-wavy story telling. This is about really teaching people about the product. Learning, after all, transforms people, which transcends product. Through sales staff, in-store show and tell, even a look into how it’s made (views into workshops, ateliers and factories), the goal is to imbue the product with meaning and justification of its “specialness”.

Mixing things up. Concept, small independent stores, and certain department stores like Selfridges are the classic examples – stores that use the physical space to create strong and steadily changing retail experiences. The soul of the store is the curation and depends on the art and craft of retailing, from sourcing to merchandising.

Branded services. For some enterprises, like the tailors of Saville Row, the service “experience” and product have always been inextricably linked. But what about other industries that don’t rely on as much customization? As opposed to bolting on external services, brands like Apple have brought the service experience into the store, elevating it along the way. Now service (or at least its front end) is in the hands of approachably cool Geniuses, not the stereotypically shifty dude with questionable hygiene working in darkened apartments.

There are also those other inherently “experiential” lifestyle companies, like Rapha and Trek, who’ve extended their brand into the experiential space far outside of their stores and into true experiences: rides local and far-flung bringing together the brand and experience in a beautiful self-reinforcing way.

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Of the two sets of approaches, the  brand-forward approach is by far the better model for “experiential” retail. It’s brand inspired and driven, and thus feels authentic. But there are still challenges.

The brand-forward approach roots the experience in the product, and that, too feels that it builds a deep connection with the brand. It will work for a while, but what happens when the product falls out of style or the people who love the product move on, or if the product just meets market saturation? In other words, how long will this matter to customers? And is it enough to keep them coming in?

On the other hand, the “mixing things up” approach has so much going for it: it uses space as a place for helping people discover new, rarely available things for limited periods of time in much the same way as markets of yore did.

But it’s also devilishly tricky to deliver on, as it relies on a powerful brand vision, flawless execution and relative exclusivity. Many stores like Anthropologie will try to become concept stores by bringing in a wide variety of lifestyle items. We’ll see if that works.

True concept stores like Collette show that it’s all about the curators and their very distinctive ability to make people curious about, and caring about what they are curating. But how many people have that knack of truly curating  – not just merchandising – in a way that people care about? When the curators are ready to be done – as is the case of Collette Roussaux and her daughter, Sarah Andelman with their knack of creating delight around discovery – it’s hard to bring in other people. And so the store will close.  Similarly, it’s hard to imagine Dover Street without Rei Kawakubo’s subversive eye, restless soul and utter control over every detail.

Of the three approaches, the clear winner is the “branded service” approach: it’s similarly on-brand, and has the additional advantage of being an integral part of the product. The service matters to the product Every retailer should find its inner, and absolutely necessary, can’t-live-without-it service.

But let’s say you’re not Apple or a Saville Row tailor with an obvious way to create those kinds of services.

Well, first off, if you can’t create services, you’re not thinking hard enough. But for those who’ve already got branded experiences going in or out of the brick and mortar store environment, and those who have yet to move in that direction here’s a thought-starter:

How can retailers take advantage of the unique properties of physical space to help people do things that matter to them in a way that builds a profound and enduring connection to the brand

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The gift of procrastination

Posted on December 10, 2015

When I think about what impedes the quality of my life, about what saps both my pleasure and my energy, it’s got to be procrastination. But not in the way you’d think.

What's procrastination about anyway?

What’s procrastination about anyway?

While I procrastinate a LOT, I think the problem is the quality of my procrastination, not the fact that I do it, or even do a lot of it (which I do).

Google “procrastination” and you get all these ways to stop it, get around it, get beyond it. It is evil. It gets in the way of progress, moving forward, making things happen, growth, achievement. All those things that are what we (in the west) are supposed to be about.

Yes of course, there’s “bad” procrastination: not getting important work done (note the word, important); putting off a trip to the doctors when you feel that lump; not paying bills.

The problem with the bad, wishy washy type of procrastination is that it oozes insidiously into our lives, along with the attendant guilt.

But there is such a thing as “good” procrastination, and I believe it can improve the quality of life.  The etymology of that particular word is instructive, or at least inspiring:

1540s, from Middle French procrastination and directly from Latin procrastinationem (nominative procrastinatio) “a putting off from day to day,” noun of action from past participle stem of procrastinare “put off till tomorrow, defer, delay,” from pro- “forward” (see pro-) + crastinus “belonging to tomorrow,” from cras “tomorrow,” of unknown origin.

I love the optimism of this: it’s saying that there’s a tomorrow (always a good thing). Procrastination is actually a profound privilege: it means that we have the option of putting something off till tomorrow – something that our subsistence forbears didn’t really have. I also love the wisdom of it. Maybe there are acts that aren’t supposed to be in the now. Not everything can be in the now: this is about what deserves to be compartmentalized into the tomorrow. Or the never.

Done right, good procrastination could bring us more joy, more pleasure in our lives. It could mean the time to be idle, to be inspired, to explore, try new things, to do something you want to do, or just to be. Instead, when I procrastinate (badly), I feel guilty, and my inner critic comes out and has a good romp at my expense. Given the amount of time I procrastinate, and how guilty I feel for the bulk of that time, it certainly means that I’m not living as well as I could be.

The key to better procrastination is to own it.

Own your priorities. Let’s be honest: not everything is important. Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, famously wrote to his son, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.” What sanctimonious blather. Not everything needs to be done today. Sometimes it’s too early. Sometimes problems do go away and you’ve either wasted your efforts or created an even bigger problem. Often you irritate people by jumping the gun.

As a friend once told me, “Every project has its own rhythm. It happens in its own time. Don’t fight it.” When I heard it, I thought this was utter bullshit, excuses for not working to MY schedule. But it worked out. And it worked out again. What he was saying was that big deadlines matter. Little ones, not so much.

And I came to understand that so many things are like that. Listen. Don’t push. Let it happen. And if you call that smart planning, being canny about timing, or procrastination, who cares? (The reality is that someone is going to call it procrastination.) I think it’s about being efficient, and it’s making time for what really counts, which is what you really want to be doing – or not doing.

Own your time. For me, I’ve found that “bad” procrastination often comes from making too many commitments. Make fewer commitments; get rid of the should’s and you’ll have less to procrastinate about. Ask yourself if something really matters. Commit – really commit – to being good enough, not perfect in some areas of your life. (Most research agrees that the root of most procrastination lie in the fear of not being perfect). Then stop thinking about it and let it go.

Own your decisions. I often put things off when I can’t – or won’t – decide what to do. Here’s the deal: you do know. Your body knows, so listen to it. Make the decision (which for me is usually “no”) and just say it. And move on. Less guilt: more time for pleasure.

Own that you dislike, or might even hate whatever it is that you’re putting off. Don’t sugar coat it. Don’t rationalize it. You don’t have to love it. In fact, revel in your hatred of it (there’s energy there.) There’s crap we all have to do, so just do it in short sprints at your most tired, grumpiest time of day (3 pm for me, when the urge for chocolate is strongest). I like to think of these as sprints, where you go all out to do it for 60 minutes. For things that take longer, I’ve taken to scheduling a day a month when I ruthlessly tackle everything on the refined (see above) to do list. In fact, I’m trying to create a procrastination list on both the home and work fronts. Anything I put off for more than a couple of days goes on that list, and I tackle it in my sprints. It’s working so far.

Own your pleasure. I’ve of course, waited till the end to say the most important thing. There’s no point in putting something off till tomorrow if you don’t know what you want to do today. Maybe it’s reading the paper (offline, even). Web surfing mindlessly. Social media. Shop. Organize your shoe collection. Pet the cat. Bake something wildly experimental that’s likely fail. Have sex in the afternoon. Have a  drink. Stroll the city. Browse in a library. Read philosophy. Learn origami. Smell the flowers. Take a walk. Take it slow. Explore. Fall in love. Do nothing. Nap.

Just own it. Know that you want to do it and do it. And commit to being in it. All that other crap can and will wait.

I think I’m going to take a nap now.

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Maybe she has a point

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Collected stories

Posted on October 11, 2015

It seems to be that if you like the finer things in life, and are far enough along to have a lot of the basics taken care of, at some point you will confront the “c” word.  As in collecting. As in being a collector. As in having a collection.

Paul Braga's Snuff Bottle Collection. Via Bonhams.

Paul Braga’s Snuff Bottle Collection. Via Bonhams.

I think the first time I was aware of the idea of a collector was when I was living in Hong Kong. I visited the home of a lovely man named Paul Braga, a member of one of the oldest Portuguese families there.

My 7 year old self was awed by a collection of snuff bottles. I had no idea of what they were. What on earth was snuff? I was told. (Yuck, said I, the 7 year old. Why would someone want to stick something up their noses to induce sneezing, I wondered.) And why these fiddly little bottles with their intricate carvings? But I was fascinated, and whenever I could, went back to visit, listening to Mr. Braga’s stories. (He’d forgiven me the “yuck” comment.)

The word “collector” conjures up for me a certain seriousness; of studying and becoming knowledgeable in a subject; of being an adult; of investing, rather than spending; of building a legacy. Sometimes these collectors collect out of true love or a deep intellectual interest or belief in folk art or those snuff bottles…Others start out collecting for love but end up collecting because they’re relentlessly competitive and just must have that piece in their collection (what I call the ‘trading card mentality’); others collect for the financial upside.

Still others are just love with the idea of a collection, of being surrounded with a massing of things that gave them an identity, whether it’s records or Buddhas or Shaker furniture.

Some people are accidental collectors. They fall in love with roosters; with copper pans; with shoe forms; with spools; with vintage tools; with esoteric textiles from ancient hill tribes around the world. The don’t search for them but just seem to find them here and there, or they start getting them for birthdays and Christmas, or just because someone thought they had the perfect person for that obscure thing they came across on holiday. It’s not about scholarship or connoisseurship per se: it’s just something that happened and is now part of them.

And for yet others, collections are about creating a little bit of immortality: you create a collection and it goes on beyond you, will always be associated with you as you become part of its provenance, it’s history, its lore. If you collect enough, you can call what you have a collection. If it’s fine enough, it’s an “important” collection. And if your “important” collection gets big enough, you create a museum and name it after yourself.

Well as far as I’m concerned, the collections that are important are the ones born of love and connection, not ego, a hole in the soul, or competition.

And for some, like Paul Braga, their collections are both born of passion and sufficiently cohesive, beautiful and refined as to be important that it can be auctioned at places like Bonhams. Paul Braga’s snuff bottles fit that category, going on to be auctioned at Bonhams Hong Kong in 2012.

According to the auction catalogue, “The Paul Braga Collection provides a window into old Hong Kong, a bygone age when snuff bottles were displayed in baskets in antique shops and could be bought for several dollars each. Paul Braga was a true connoisseur in an era when little of substance was published on the subject….Using his own eye and experience, he built up his collection and popularized the subject.”

“The Braga family had their roots in Macau, tracing back to 1708, when an ancestor was posted from Lisbon as Chief Justice. The twentieth century was a tumultuous period for them, with fortunes lost and regained. After the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, he escaped with his young family on an epic trek through southern China, eventually hitching a ride from Kunming to India with the ‘Flying Tigers’, the American Volunteer Group who established an air route for supplies to assist the Chinese resistance after the fall of the Burma Road.”

Love. Interest. Connection. Yes, Paul Braga’s collection ticks all boxes.

Most people think that I must be a collector of something.  It’s not surprising: I’m a person who does like the finer things, and spend a fair amount of time in the world of craft, art, and design. Plus, I have rather vigorous opinions on what works in a design, or what is beautiful or isn’t.

But it seems to be that there are two types of people: those who are collectors, and those who aren’t. And maybe a third type: a person who wishes they were a collector, but just isn’t. And I am that third person.

I really wish I were a Collector – someone with expert knowledge that goes deep not wide, someone who could muster many decades worth of interest in a single topic, someone who could find something to study, and to be so passionate about as to collect it. I think in particular it’s this piece that I regret. I wish I could muster that passion for something specific, but I can’t. Nothing has spoken to me that way. Nothing beckons. Nothing tugs at my heart or at my soul. There’s nothing I’ve come across that I feel deeply, truly connected to.

I did try, once, most likely in a fit of trying to craft my identity. Years ago, I collected saltcellars: i bought them, friends gave them to me. Then one day I looked at it all and thought, “Dust catchers.” I put them in a box that I carried around from house to house, staring balefully at the cardboard box to which they’d been relegated. And then one day, I just gave most of them away.

There was also that time I found myself in London and actually went into one of the antiques dealers on Cork Street that specialized in snuff bottles. I came close to buying something – anything – so I could say there was something I collected. But I didn’t, thank goodness. These intricate, beautifully carved things were too precious to ever risk being thought of as dust catchers. That snuff bottle needed to be in the hands of someone who’d truly love it, forever.

But I do gather wonderful things that I do care about and love, a good bit of which I’ve inherited. Vintage black and white photography. Silver. Japanese pottery. Maybe vintage cameras? That all feels connected. But love of the category?  I don’t have the urge to go deep, to investigate, to expand the inklings of a collection. I define these things but they don’t define me.

Who knows, maybe one day, I will decide to go deep on one of those things: photography feels the most “right” when I think about it. But for now, I’ll focus on living with beautiful, finely crafted things I use everyday, which stir my soul, and which touch me deeply. That’s the only kind of collecting that truly matters.

The thing about things

Posted on September 7, 2015

At long last, I’m weighing in on the unlikely book that blew the minds of publishers everywhere: a book from a little known (in the West, at least) Japanese home organization consultant. I’m of course talking about Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

But I’m not that surprised. Because the book taps into a very deep craving for the values she’s espousing. The values of pleasure and joy and ruthlessness and clarity. The book is not just another self-help book (though there are some embarrassingly awesome ideas on how to organize your underwear drawer): it’s a philosophy for living and even consuming.

For those who’ve been otherwise occupied, the book is nominally about de-cluttering. But it’s not it’s not the usual one about throwing things out and putting everything that remains in lovely little containers. (In fact, Kondo counsels against the buying of containers to house things believing that all those containers are just a crutch for clutter, and become clutter. Container Store, beware the Kondo effect.)

What I appreciate about the book is that it starts with a deep reverence of and appreciation for the power of things at an almost animistic levelWhile the book superficially has at its heart the notion that less is more – that minimalism is better – I think that the Kondo philosophy can be applied just as easily to maximalists, too. Not that more is better, but that more of the right thing is … the right thing.

Matt Dick's atelier at Small Trade Company

Matt Dick’s atelier at Small Trade Company

Things are not the enemy: its our feeling about them that is.

What sparks joy?

What sparks joy?

The most powerful edict in the book: keep only those things that bring you joy: not meaning, not function, not fear of doing without. This notion seems to be working its way into the zeitgeist: it’s something that I hear more and more from my friends, and even at work. This is the kind of meme I can get behind, and of course, it’s applicable to pretty much every area of my life, whether it’s what I eat, what I buy, who I spend time with, or even what attitudes to espouse.

And I like that it’s the word joy: a mix of rationality and sensuality, of pleasure both intellectual and physical. Joy is a high bar, but then why not?

Another powerful perspective: that your body often knows what your mind does not.  I love her counsel that in many cases you will only know what brings you joy by touching it (animism at work). Your body doesn’t have a sense of “I should just keep/do/buy this because…” Yes. Your body knows. Your sense of touch knows what you want, what you need.

I love that one of her insights is that there are patterns in our ownership of things (see page 210) – patterns I’ve definitely seen in myself and others. To paraphrase Kondo, those patterns fall into one of three categories: attachment to the past; fears for the future; or a combination of both. “It’s important to understand your ownership pattern because it is an expression of the values that guide your life. The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”

Why do you have what you have?

Why do you have what you have?

In other words, it’s about giving up past, about giving up should’s, about giving up fears, about letting yourself feels what it’s like to be now, what you want in the now. Get rid of what you don’t need. Don’t settle for half measures. Don’t fill your life with things that are almost right. They will only remind you of those half measures.

And like an addict who surrounds himself with alcohol or drugs that only keep him mired in that life he’s trying to get out of, surrounding yourself with these semi-steps toward what gives you pleasure, are just daily reminders of your want and your failure.

The way to stop: listen to your body, listen to your deepest pleasure, listen to your joy, now, today, every day.

Images: 

In the atelier at Matt Dick’s at the Small Trade Company

Flowers at the Ace Hotel

Embroidery by Natalie Chanin

End of empire stuff

Posted on August 2, 2015

Despite the fact that the world is full of strife on one end and bad taste on the other,  I’m not one to let these things get me too terribly down. But there was one thing that really got me depressed and truth be told, disgusted.

Entitled “Instagram: Retail’s Holy Grail” (behind the FT paywall) the piece reported that  “millennial females’ anxieties about appearing too many times in the same outfit in their internet photographs is driving fundamental changes in the way they shop.” Selfie culture is driving Millennialistas to buy cheaper, more often. Says Jamie Merman, an analyst for Sanford Bernstein, “Faster is absolutely better because part of the selfie phenomenon is that women want changing trends, and current trends, quicker.”

So wrong. Vile, in fact.

They sell or exchange their clothes, not because they feel guilty but so they can buy more but by then, all is lost: this behavior drives consumption of low quality, cheaper clothes (and the social and environmental consequences). And it isn’t just about looking fabulous, or looking like you can afford to score the big name brand. No it’s just that you look like you’re wearing something different. Everyday. Forever.

This kind of decadence feels a little bit like Rome, just before the empire crumbled.

I was always put off by the whole selfie phenom but figured it would pass. (For godssakes, a selfie stick showed up in the pages of Vogue recently so I figure the trend must be done). But I’m wondering whether this trend will have longer-lasting implications.

What becomes of these Millenialistas when the selfie phenom ends? Is this like heroin, crack cocaine or meth, where once you’ve had your first high you can’t go back? Will the “habit” they’ve gotten into of buying cheap-fast-often become a life-long addiction? Will it take more and more to fulfill the hedonic thrill? Or will they all snap out of it, feeling guilty, hungover, in-debt,but wiser? Will they learn to be thoughtful? Will they learn to seek out quality? Will they learn to seek out things that don’t just look good, but move well because someone’s put some effort and even love into construction? Will they learn to care for what they buy, keep it and nurture it for years?

I know I sound very old-lady and hand-wringy about this, but this has me wondering. And worrying. And sad.

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The immense irony is that I came across this little piece the same week that I got to spend a lot of time with Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin. The made-to-order Alabama Chanin clothes are surprisingly beautiful, look fabulous on all types of bodies, are utterly handmade (hand grown organic cotton, hand picked, hand spun, hand sewn), ingeniously and intricately constructed, beautifully crafted, and yes utterly expensive. Even her less expensive line, A. Chanin, has careful, thoughtful construction, organic cotton and intensive hand/machine work. The clothing has true, intrinsic value. It’s not just a prop.

The women I saw wearing her work looked fabulous and intensely comfortable. And they looked like they were getting a great deal of pleasure from wearing the clothing, and better yet/because of that were feeling really good about who they were in it. The clothing celebrated them, rather than the other way around. They were relaxed, happy, not anxious (cf: the image-obsessed Millenista.)

Alabama Chanin’s clothing is not for everyone, financially or aesthetically. But it is the definition of what great clothing – or any object for that matter – should be: made with love and generosity, beautiful, responsible, elevating, an absolute pleasure to wear, and not made to be disposed of.

A tip to the Millenialistas: why do you think fashion designers wear uniforms? I’m thinking of the men here, who are generally smarter about clothing than women: Armani’s black t shirts and jeans; Lagerfeld’s black suits; Michael Kors’ head-to-toe black; Alexander Wang’s black and white. Because they know that true style is always fresh, never dates. It’s about you, baby, not what you’re wearing.