Town & Country (USA)

Is Shopping the Ultimate Act of OPTIMISM?

They don’t call it retail therapy for nothing.


About two years ago, right around now, Bergdorf Goodman opened a speakeasy on the second floor of its men’s store. It was a brasserie-style eatery called Goodman’s Bar, where a customer might hold court with a shopping bag overflowin­g with Brunello Cucinelli in one hand and a lobster BLT in the other. Hypebeasts compared fits; bankers traded stock tips.

Then, of course, Everything Changed. Commerce switched to the web. Slowly, in-person visits returned, if by appointmen­t only. And when the city finally came roaring back, so did the shoppers—local, domestic, and internatio­nal. Goodman’s Bar regained its spot as the watering hole to be seen in after you’d spent a good chunk of your bonus, a lounge for those who relish the camaraderi­e of other members of the same lifestyle tribe.

“They were immediatel­y back in the store,” says Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director, with an amazed chuckle. “Stores have become more than transactio­nal. There can be a sense of community here.” Bergdorf isn’t alone. Despite inflationa­ry concerns, retail set records last fall, and the expectatio­n of economists was that brisk consumer spending would continue into the holiday season. That’s because the urge to experience the contact sport of shopping is as old as recorded history. Think of the great spice markets and souks of the Middle East, the bustling bazaars of the Roman Empire, and the agoras that served as the anchor to public life in ancient Greece.

“Shopping was a social event,” writes Mary Harlow in her forthcomin­g book, A Cultural History of Shopping in Antiquity (Bloomsbury). “In Athens, this sometimes meant that shops were literally ‘talking shops’ where men gathered to discuss politics, philosophy and gossip.” Long before social media became ground zero for social movements, these markets had a central function in daily life, and it was there that you asserted your role, pedigree, and place in the pecking order. Or, as Harlow says, “Male shoppers in Rome, or at least those known to us from the sources, use shopping as a backdrop to social performanc­e.”

So did Barbra Streisand when she performed “Second Hand Rose” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Di me ?” at Berg do rf’ sin 1965, or whenever Carrie Bradshaw stepped inside Barneys New York (RIP). The rush of crossing that threshold and finding something on the racks comes from the adrenaline of self-actualizat­ion and the promise that these looks will exist outside a dressing room. Maybe the salesperso­n will be a mirror, and in them you will see all your flaws and potential, and the future will suddenly snap into focus. Cut to you skipping out of the shop, bag in hand, reborn.

“I feel so proud when I put something into someone’s life and they light up, they become a better version of themselves,” says Blythe Marks, a Los Angeles–based vintage dealer who counts the actress Hari Nef and the photograph­er/director Luke Gilford as fans. “That’s the joy of shopping. People are being vulnerable and putting their trust in my hands.”

We’re all descendant­s of hunters and gatherers, and, in a way, what a boutique owner or a personal shopper does is a continuati­on of that tradition. It wasn’t for nothing that Jesus often went to marketplac­es to proselytiz­e, Marks says: “That’s where people were gathering! It’s where gossip and culture and beauty and pain, and all of the fullness and richness of humanity, were flourishin­g. It’s a place of connection.”

Museums are obvious temples of culture, and there’s always a surfeit of buzzy social stimuli at the local trendy restaurant­s and bars, but to really understand the underlying flavor of a place, try out the most popular shopping district in town next time you travel. There are the clerks in Venice Beach, in their ripped-jeans beach bum ensembles, who won’t so much talk you into buying the Elder Statesman as they will persuade you it’s a spiritual calling. Then there’s the imposing sangfroid of the salespeopl­e in Paris, who treat shopping, especially for Saint Laurent, like a holy act. The Brits are all still amateur Twiggys, certain that scrounging around for an ensemble, perhaps mint condition Biba, is all part of a heady dream that may just set your life on a new course. Exhibit A: Anya Taylor-Joy in Last Night in Soho, where a peach chiffon shift is the skeleton key to a young woman’s trippy, and macabre, coming of age.

In certain cultivated browsing experience­s, we are connected not only to the act of acquisitio­n but to the artisans who create the things we wear. It wasn’t so long ago that we knew the people who made our clothes personally, if we didn’t make them ourselves. Today some of that is lost, but at certain emporiums a bit of that is restored.

“Our customers see something on the rack, and they love to hear the story behind it,” says Pask. “Who made it, and where, and what processes were used, and what the inspiratio­n was. A great store experience helps add some magic to the brand.”

Marks scavenges for one-of-a-kind rarities like an haute couture Indiana Jones, but she derives the most pleasure from the intimate act of connecting vintage clothing to new owners, like guiding overlooked rescue pets to would-be parents.

“The ideal shopping experience is one that teaches you something about yourself—even if you walk away with nothing,” she says. “And you become a deeper, more curious, more astute shopper or, even, human being.”

For all you know, your next personal epiphany is right around the corner on the designer floor, where the spring collection­s have just landed.

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