An obvious label used to mean simply that your sweater was inside out. Then, about 20 years ago, designers’ names (Calvin Klein, etc.) began popping up on people’s rumps. Ten years later, it became modish to carry around the ostentatiously labeled Chanel bag, with its large interlocking C’s, or the black nylon Prada with the silver triangle sewn on the outside.
Soon enough, there was a backlash, and labels slunk inside again–some becoming well-nigh invisible. Like the mid-90’s clothes they branded, they were conspicuously inconspicuous. “Banana Republic,” whispered your boyfriend’s gray cashmere sweater. Ralph Lauren’s initials got lost in the fancy cotton sheets. Calvin’s once-brassy tag shrunk. All of a sudden, you had to dig to find that little sliver of Prada.
But now labels are back with a vengeance. They’re huge . But they’re inside the garment.
Some examples: At Henri Bendel, a $150 yellow cashmere tank top from Time Is has a shiny red tag that’s one inch wide–standard label size–but four inches long . Over at Barneys, Helmut Lang’s $200 dark-rinsed denim jacket has two interior labels, each four inches square; a Wim Neels white cotton V-necked T-shirt for $150 (but it’s one heck of a T-shirt!) bears a 1-by-4 1/2 inch tag; and the label on Fake London’s $345 sweater vest is really more of a badge, measuring 2 inches by 14 . You have to cut it out in order to wear the thing!
West Village resident Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (Simon & Schuster), couldn’t help but notice the trend. “I cut a label out of a shirt, because it irritated my neck,” he said. “I want to say it was a Donna Karan for Men …” (It was in fact Liz Claiborne, he later amended. So much for label gigantism as brand awareness tool.)
Mr. Underhill, a self-styled “urban anthropologist” whose Flatiron District-based firm, Envirosell, tracks shoppers and explains their habits to companies like Levi Strauss, doesn’t read any cultural meaning into the oversize tags. They’re just a cheap way for manufacturers to stand out on a crowded floor, he said, and the Manhattan customer is wise to that.
“What I’ve picked up on is that there are lots of people looking at labels that are reading the washing instructions,” he said.
But what of status?
“I don’t know,” said Mr. Underhill. “What are we going to do? Show it off when we take off the clothes at the gym, or in front of our latest one-night stand? I don’t know!”
The Old Guy
So, I was walking through the Times Square subway station the other morning, and I came upon this old guy who had stopped in his tracks. This being New York, I stayed casual, acting like there was nothing strange about seeing some older gentleman not moving on a public walkway. But there was something strange about it.
First of all, the man wasn’t just loitering, he was frozen in midstep . Frozen, like a statue. And on top of that, he was bent over in this kind of crumpled, osteoporotic stance–as if the two big handbags he was gripping had gotten so heavy he’d just ground to a halt.
I kept right on walking, of course. No way was I going to let on that I was even slightly concerned about the man’s well-being. But I was. And I got that guilty feeling–you know, like, “Jesus, maybe the guy had a stroke!” Then I had a second thought, an even more New Yorkian kind of reaction, which was: Maybe it’s some kind of an art piece, like maybe Mummenschanz or something. Granted, he was dressed in a mangy old overcoat, not a black Lycra singlet with plastic tube attachments. And he looked a little, you know, worse for wear. But you never
really do know. And far be it from me to interrupt an artist in the middle of some grand existential statement.
But, my God, the guilt was getting unbearable. I had to know if the old guy was O.K. So I turned around, marched back against the flow of humanity and knelt down in front of him.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said, “are you all right?”
“No, I’m not all right,” he spat. “I’m catatonic !”
It was a glorious Monday afternoon after a restful weekend. So I called Videoroom and ordered up Banned From Television . The video deliveryman was at my door within minutes.
The video–clip after clip of footage from TV news, the highway patrol, hidden cameras and lucky pedestrians–is like a triple-X version of the fake-seeming Faces of Death series. And yet, the scenes glide by, numbing the viewer into a stupor. But some images really do get a good grip on your brain. A man in Rio de Janeiro holds a baby hostage with a knife and gets shot by the police point-blank. Protesters in Seoul throw a firebomb that engulfs a man. (“Here it is in slow motion,” says the narrator. “Amazing.”) A man in El Salvador gets blown away by the police. Two motorists in São Paulo get beaten and shot at by the police.
Brazil does not seem to be a good place to visit, but neither does Butte, Mont., nor Carlsbad, Calif. Or Warsaw, where a pile of bricks lands on and kills a pedestrian. And at a Deep Purple concert in Santiago, Chile, a light tower falls over onto a crowd of “crazed fans.” (“It truly was amazing that no one was killed!” says the narrator.)
Let’s see. Nasty executions. Brutal car accidents. Suicides. Cruel vigilante justice. A sexual free-for-all at a 2 Live Crew concert. Russian thugs strangling a businessman. What else? Animals! A rampaging bull in Madrid tosses a few of its tormenters into the air like rag dolls; in Chilean waters, a great white shark bites off a research student’s leg; a disturbed elephant kills two trainers before a screaming crowd, then is shot over and over.
And then, the show-stopper, the one you may have heard about: A commuter crosses some tracks and is hit by a train and … explodes on impact.
After a couple hours of this, I felt groggy. Actually, it was more like a zombie trance. I moved slowly to the bathroom and saw that my eyes were glazed over and my mouth was slightly open. I told myself (1) I was glad to be alive, and (2) I’m glad I don’t live in São Paulo.
I called up Peter Feingold, the general manager of Videoroom. He remembered the train accident the most. “That’s the worst one,” he said. “It was just an amazing thing to see. You speculate on what might happen and you’re thinking, oh, you’re watching this woman crossing the tracks, oh, no, no, she shouldn’t do that, and then until you see the visual part of it, it doesn’t really impact.”
What went through his mind?
“I thought, I’m glad I’m not that stupid, to cross a train track like that.”
So who watches these tapes, besides video store dudes?
“It’s the type of thing late teenagers are looking for, just for that shock value,” Mr. Feingold said. “Your teenagers or your Jerry Springer fans, basically.”
Banned From Television , he said, had been rented about 30 times in the past year.
“I think that these things are produced in an effort to, as bad as this may sound, cater to the ignorant or to those who are interested in seeing such extreme violence. There’s a certain mentality of people who just want to see violence, death, regardless, for nothing more than the shock value.”
The store has its share of suspicious members.
“Occasionally, we’ll get someone calling up looking for snuff movies, which obviously are nowhere to be found. You know, a customer [who]’s going to rent Happiness 10 or 11 times in a course of a month will lead you to be concerned about what they might be doing elsewhere.”
Does Mr. Feingold recommend Banned From Television ?
“No, I wouldn’t personally advise anyone to watch it, unless it was for the complete humor aspect of it, but otherwise I don’t find it having any redeeming value.”