Recently I have been struck by the success of advertising and PR agents versus the reality of a product. Take Bigelow Chemists, a small apothecary on Sixth Avenue in New York's Greenwich Village. For a few months now I have been reading about this company in magazines. One of its lip balms has been featured in New York magazine, and its hand soap or face cream in The New York Times "Sunday Styles" section. The lip balm might feature pure peppermint oil and smell like vanilla cream soda. The face cream might contain witch hazel and come in a glass bottle the color of aquamarine. In each case, the product placement gave me the impression of a world-class alchemist concocting expert products and peddling them in a fashionable yet down-home environment on a cute block in downtown Manhattan. Essentially I thought I had hit upon another Kiehl's.
Like Bigelow, Kiehl's began in the mid-nineteenth century in downtown Manhattan. When I first bought Kiehl's products about fifteen years ago, it was a cult favorite. At its schlumpy store on Thirteenth Street, one could buy high quality items, such as a shine agent and detangler for hair, or a body wash that smelled like cucumber. The items were packaged in basic plastic bottles that were unadorned but cost a lot. One feature of the old Kiehl's was belonging to a club of like-minded patrons who similarly didn't mind spending a lot on drug store items, but did not want to look as though they had. When I saw the shampoo and conditioner in the shower at my weird Great Uncle's house in Chappaqua, I smiled to belong to this quirky coterie.
Now, of course, L'Oreal owns Kiehl's. But the point is, I can still walk in the store and face an emporium (and an upgraded one at that) stocked with luscious products for my bathroom shelves. In contrast, Bigelow's, which I visited for the first time last week. When I asked my hairdresser who lives across the street about it, he inauspiciously grumbled, "like Kiehl's? No! Like a crowded drugstore." And he was exactly right. Because the company's PR agents have so successfullly positioned the brand as high-end, I was expecting to enter a veritable Willy Wonka of bathroom goods. Instead, I indeed entered a fairly run of the mill drug store. Yes, I saw the C.O. Bigelow products, but on a few shelves crammed at the very front of the store. Surrounding the company's own items were goods from high-end brands such as Bliss, Tocca, Dr. Hauscka, et. al. These did not impress me, because I can go to the Sephora three blocks from my apartment (and from every Manhattan apartment, it seems), and purchase them there. I made Bigelow a destination because I was interested in an old apothecary that had perfected the art of skin salves. While I do very much like the peppermint oil lip balm I purchased, the purchasing experience enthused me less. The crowded store and hodge podge of items made me feel more like I was grabbing for Peanut M&Ms online at an airport commisary than that I was in a luxury goods establishment in Greenwich Village.
Target was the other reason I became interested in hype versus reality. Could there be a more over-hyped store right now than Target? I am so sick of the ultra-hip holiday ads on television, which parade along to an ersatz indie rock soundtrack. You might remember I have already spoken negatively of the store here, particularly of the way hipsters Frenchify the name as "tar-jay," with a mixture of pride and self-consciousness. In that post, I admitted I enjoyed my first foray to the store, about five years ago in Baltimore, when I bought Isaac Mizrahi pumps that quickly shredded. Well, yesterday James and I visited an outpost in New London, Connecticut, near where his mother lives.
James had remarked that an editor at a fashiony magazine had highlighted the store's breakfast trays as being particularly designy. We found them at the store--all bamboo sides and tin bottom--and indeed they were cool. I had my own agenda. The make-up artist who painted me for my wedding noted that the Sonia Kashuk foundation sold only at the store was the best she had tried. And indeed an internet product search revealed that many women found the same, that it gave the skin a dewy yet fresh and not oily appearance. Alas, the New London store was out of the product in my fair-skinned color. The store was out of a whole lot more. Behnaz Sarafpour is a designer the company has hired, as they did Isaac Mizrahi, to create a line. But all the small sizes were plucked.
We arrived at admitedly a horrible time: two days before Christmas. But we also learned something incontrovertible: innovative design makes up less than one percent of what Target offers. Here is the dirty little secret, strip away the little bit of Isaac, Behnaz, and Sonia, and Target is Walmart. Target sells garbage bags, plastic toys, and cheap jewlery much more than it sells smart, cropped tuxedo jackets. But the thing is, what we hear about is the tuxedo jackets.
I commend the PR agents. They have done their job. I commend the design team. When James wrote about the re-opening of the Museum of Modern Art for The Weekly Standard a few years ago, he remarked on the museum's tacky Target tie-ins. The museum even served "Targetinis"--target martinis, whatever that means--at its opening party. Alfred Barr must be rolling in his grave.
Two years ago I stayed in an adorable boutique hotel in London's Knightsbridge neighborhood with, as it turns out, Target's design team. They were multi-culti mix from Minnesota, where the company is based. But like a self-described intellectual, these self-described hipsters were about as genuine as those targetinis. There is such a thing as too cool, too hyped. I think Tar-jay has arrived there.