There’s a new, fabulously scary trend poised to Mothra its way into our city and annihilate all of our preconceptions about shopping. I’m calling it “unretail.”
When shopping unretail, instead of being hallooed by welcoming salespeople, one is far more likely to be confronted by a locked door and a “closed” sign. If the store is open, then brace yourself: All your delightmares are about to come true. There are no jolly operatives sporting high-tech head sets and spouting well-rehearsed product knowledge: In the world of unretail, the sales help-if it exists at all-is there to intimidate and discourage. In the world of unretail, you’re more likely to be mocked for what you are wearing, or get your face slapped for no reason, or told to go f**k yourself, than receive good service.
In the world of unretail, the customer is always wrong and much too fat for the clothes, and everything is too much trouble. The product, instead of being abundant and available in every fabrication imaginable, is mind-numbingly recherché. To put it bluntly: Unretail is the opposite of Nordstrom.
And guess what? People are really digging it! Having been smarmed and concierged into a stupor by overly obsequious, note-writing salespeople and a hideous excess of stores and product, hard-core shoppers are responding with rabid enthusiasm to the stinging humiliations and thrilling degradations of unretail.
Abuse is the new customer service!
On a recent trip to London, I checked out the latest gems in the unretail diadem. London has a long history of unretailish shenanigans beginning in the 1960′s, when snotty, effete upper-class trouts opened their own boutiques and barred entry to all but their immediate chums. Who can forget Biba, Granny Takes a Trip or Stop the Shop, I Want to Get Off (the latter actually rotated, making entry all but impossible)?
Fast-forward 35 years: I’m waddling inauspiciously through the streets of Paddington in search of a boutique called Saturday, located at 26 Chilworth Street. Saturday is a store which is open only-you guessed it-on Saturday, and because today is Friday, Saturday is closed. But two obliging hairdressers from the adjacent salon have a key and let me in for a supervised peak.
To describe the vibe of Saturday as “residential” would be a horrid understatement: Saturday is an apartment-and not in the high-concept, manifesto-y manner of the Apartment on New York’s Crosby Street. The small, exquisitely edited collection of merch-the arty designer mix includes Jessica Ogden, Eley Kishimoto and owner John Tsiattalou-is presented in what would appear to be the lodging of a depressed, middle-class, possibly lesbian geography teacher circa 1948. When Anglo-Indian store directrice Sherald Lamden was asked, during a subsequent phone interview, to explain the concept behind Saturday, she replied, “I wish we had one,” adding enigmatically, “We’re old-school bohemian and a bit socialist.” Is this a harbinger of the post-Banana, post-Prada retail era? Judge for yourself, but call 0207-402-0200 before schlepping over there, even if it is a Saturday, because, according to Ms. Lamden, “once in a while we forget to open up.”
Next stop: Oki-Ni on Saville Row, my stomping ground in the early 1970′s, when I worked at a trendy tailor shop called Nutters. As I minced nostalgically down the Row past Anderson & Sheppard and Hardy Amies, the memories came flooding back. I recalled with a chuckle that one of the tailor shops-possibly Gieves and Hawkes-had a massive, well-polished wooden barrel in one of the fitting rooms. The aristo patrons, including Princess Anne, would straddle this archaic horse-simulator during their custom-jodhpur fittings. Now that was service!
If Saturday was unretailing, Oki-Ni is beyond the valley of the unretailers. Here, the most fundamental motivator-i.e., the orgasmic gratification and immediacy of shopping-is totally missing. Because you cannot buy anything! You can fondle it and try it on, but then you have to go home and order it from the Oki-Ni Web site. The achingly hip, exclusive product-Adidas sneakers, Evisu, Fake London-is installed museum-style on felt blocks.
Fearing some dire reprisal, I got into the spirit of things and tried on a pair of Adidas 70′s-revival sneakers in mahogany leather with vanilla detailing. A helpful young man pulled up the Web site and showed me how I could place my order, painstakingly writing out the exact details of the sneakers which I would be ordering once I had rushed home (to the U.S.) and turned on my computer. A freaky gentility seemed to prevent him from screaming, “Life is for living! Just give me your goddamn credit card, Mary! And let’s order these little bastards RIGHT NOW!”
Three weeks later, I still haven’t gotten around to ordering my sneakers, partly through inertia, but also because of the price tag: £120 translates into almost $200. The stinky exchange rate means that this is not the best time for a shopping trip to London. If you are craving unretail abuse but have no plans for trans-Atlantic travel, you could do worse than to take a trip to Wyeth, the glamorous Spring Street appointment-only furniture store (315 Spring Street, 212-243-3661). For additional debasement, arrive 10 minutes early. Good customers with bags of money are forced to wait outside-even in inclement weather-until the designated hour.
How fabulous is that?