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    Thursday, April 13, 2006

    You Knew I Was Going To Post About This

    You smart reader.

    Of course, I couldn't let Michelle Cottle's "The Gray Lady Wears Prada", an article in the New Republic on the Styles sections of the New York Times, pass without comment. Cottle is (almost) adequately hateful, especially against the most criminal of the usual suspects:

    The New York Times' Alex Kuczynski is on the case. The discriminating pen behind the popular "Critical Shopper" column, Kuczynski popped into celebrity furrier Dennis Basso's Manhattan salon not long ago to critique the ambiance, assess the service, and stroke the wares. Professing a squeamishness about fur ("I look at fur and think of Henry, my deliciously hairy miniature dachshund"), Kuczynski went looking to eviscerate: "I had been walking by the store all winter long marveling at the fur leg warmers strapped to the legs of the storefront mannequins; they look like the fur anklets worn by the grunting boy in 'Mad Max.'" But then the charming Mr. Basso, his welcoming boutique ("comfortable in a kind of Madison Avenue meets Las Vegas way"), and his incomparable pelts began to work their magic: "I pulled on a black mink coat ($30,000). ... Henry, forgive me: it was unlike anything I have ever worn: light as souffle, so silky and otherworldly I experienced the bizarre sensation of having never touched such material before." In the end, Kuczynski was so overcome that she picked up a yummy, chocolate-suede shearling coat for her birthday. ("It was $5,000, and all I can say is that I'm glad I spent the last year paying off my credit cards.") Her final assessment, as distilled in the handy box graphic:

    Atmosphere Limousines idle outside; rococo inside.
    Service Excellent.
    Prices $1,000 to $150,000.
    Key Looks Sable, chinchilla, mink, lynx.

    Oh, how the mighty have fallen. In the spring of 2000, Kuczynski, then a media reporter for the Times' business section, took a stylish slap at Condé Nast's new shopping-themed magazine, Lucky, for "break[ing] new ground for an American magazine in so brazenly and nakedly looking and reading like, well, a carefully created catalog." Kuczynski's disdain wasn't just for the vulgar advertorial feel of Lucky's content--"202 pages of stuff," typically accompanied by price and ordering information--but also for its very essence. "[T]he conceit that all women are interested in shopping as an activity--not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself--is not one to which every American consumer subscribes."

    Six years later, Times readers can find Kuczynski penning a weekly column about the art and sport of shopping for "Thursday Styles"--a year-old section of the paper that, if one were feeling ungenerous, could be characterized as a smarter, higher-end variation on Lucky.

    Can't agree with "smarter", but perhaps more interested in pretending to be.

    Recognizing that, in this society, you are what you buy--or rather, you buy what you want to be--Kuczynski dabbles in sociology, deconstructing what certain retailers are really hawking. Ralph Lauren offers "the power of implied ancestry." The Brooklyn boutique Butter, by contrast, sells badges of intellectual and social awareness to people for whom "a pair of pants is an opportunity to express environmental protest, or a silent essay on the meaning of war, or an artistic tribute to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi." Far from ducking the elitist focus of her beat, she makes constant, often snarky reference to it. At Versace, Kuczynski scorns a $4,600 purse, citing a "constitutional aversion to handbags that cost as much as the average Panamanian makes in a year." The lure of a $4,700 Dolce & Gabbana ensemble prompts a disquisition on the wealth gap: "I paused. Swooned. Perspective time. The top fifth of earners in Manhattan now make 52 times what the lowest fifth make: $365,826 compared with $7,047. Or, for every dollar made by wealthy households, poor households make about 2 cents. So if rich New Yorkers are paying $4,700 for a dress and jacket, the poorest would need divine intervention to help pay for the same bargain." True--although a peculiar digression for a woman who just a few months earlier had been extolling the magnificence and relative affordability of a Hermès Plume handbag: "At $4,900 or so, it is less expensive than the self-conscious Birkin ... [and is] the kind of crazily expensive but worthwhile possession that daughters will steal from their mothers' or grandmothers' closets in a few decades."

    Wallow in the hatred, the pure disgust, the utter horror, readers. It feels good, doesn't it, to be the choir preached to? Die, Kuczynski!!!

    But then Cottle lets A.K. show herself. This is not an essay, but reportage of some kind. Sigh.

    One quote from the woman herself regarding her spending: And, frankly, I'm not 25 years old. I mean, at a certain point (I was 37, turning 38, when I wrote that column), you're going to be able to afford to splurge on yourself once in a great while. Because no one's poor forever, right Alex?

    Cottle goes on:

    Kuczynski and her hubby both fancy themselves more grounded than your average Manhattan elites. The couple eschews the New York society circuit as spiritually defunct. "I find that the whole benefit scene is just a reason to party," Kuczynski told W magazine in a September profile. "Isn't it demented? People getting dressed up for this merry-go-round of benefits who've forgotten what they're supposed to be raising money for." Stevenson, meanwhile, expressed his conviction that "people who hold large amounts of money ultimately have corroded souls."

    It's hard not to see these remarks as absurdly out of place in an article detailing the elaborate weekend house party that the couple hosts annually at their mountain retreat in Idaho ("aside from the masseuses, she and Stevenson flew in a yoga instructor, three chefs, and a trove of delicacies for the larder"), the six-carat diamond ring Kuczynski sports (having reportedly refused the nine-carat stunner Stevenson originally pressed upon her), and the pair's Upper East Side digs. ("The exclusive co-op is the subject of a forthcoming book by Michael Gross titled 740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building.")

    So yes, the hatred was fun and I hand it to Cottle that she managed to piece together plenty of A.K.'s most egregious sins. But the actual point of the piece: that this stuff is "luxury porn" and that this particular brand of it (NYT's Styles's) of "luxury porn" is for the "bobos" (perhaps "the master's tools" can be of some use?)

    Now, it's fun to add "porn" to the end of words these days whenever possible, I realize, but calling it "luxury porn" is like calling Democratic Party politics "political porn" or fiction "book porn" - about half of what's out there in the media is "luxury porn". Glossy pictures do not make this a new phenomenon.

    Luxury porn has blossomed over the past decade, driven in part by the proliferation of city-based "controlled-circulation" magazines--ad-driven glossies distributed gratis to households meeting certain economic criteria.

    What we're calling luxury porn here has not blossomed. Luxury porn is capitalism. Yes, there are different varieties marketed to different constituencies: the only person who could tolerate the Styles sections, much less enjoy them, are people making a zillion dollars and spending it. But capitalism never pretended to treat all people the same. That's what makes it capitalism. The bobos get Alex Kuczynski, poor urban kids get "Cribs" and "Pimp My Ride", middle-class-for-now-while-I-work-my-way-up college-educated young women get Lucky and Vogue, book lovers get Jackie Collins or Edith Wharton, etc, etc, etc.

    I end this message with a plea: Please stop with the "_______ porn" before it becomes "______ is the new black"!!!!


    Blogger belledame222 said...

    "Luxury porn *is* capitalism.*

    Yeah, I think that's right.

    4:10 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    TNR dropped it in my lap too. See my take here:http://slashdot.org/~GMontag/journal/139027

    I find the Grassley plan absurd too, but not for the same reasons as Ms. Cottle.

    Creating a job description that MUST be accounted for with a W-2 vs. a 1099 is just stupid grandstanding. It is IRS put up it's own hurdles to slow investigations of anybody not reporting income.

    Also, I believe that the editors and publisher of The New Republic also are against this because it interferes with a research tool in their arsenal.

    Wow, TNR just keeps lobbing them right over the plate :)

    TNR, the home of the finest courtesans.

    6:08 PM  

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