Why is shopping such a compelling experience?
Shopping is creative. We are not simply mindless dupes buying what we see in commercials or craving what our neighbors have. But most of us today don’t make things. We are not designers, or artists, or craftspeople, so we create our lives when we go to a store.
Your book shows how shopping has changed over the last century or so, emphasizing the past 25 years. Tell me about the invention of “lifestyle.”
They adapted the idea of lifestyle from books like David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, a sociology classic from the early ’50s. Lifestyle is determined not only by income, but by education, profession, generation, cultural background, and various behaviors and belief systems. Status has become more important than class, and status is expressed through the objects we buy.
“Branding” is another term that has changed the way things are bought and sold, especially in recent decades.
Some stores, like Bloomingdale’s, had been conscious of having a clear identity since the ’50s. But they didn’t call it branding. In the ’70s, department stores faced competition from small boutiques on the one hand and discounters like Wal-Mart on the other. They started to focus on store identity. Then, in the ’80s, consumer product companies began feeling the pressure, too. Companies like Procter & Gamble began to popularize their brand names and the whole idea of branding.
Manufacturers, stores, and designers all became concerned with branding. Ralph Lauren became his own brand. The Gap, under the direction of former CEO Mickey Drexler, used the store’s name as an umbrella label for all the products there. This was the first time a retail store was branded. Then, we started to realize that L.L. Bean was also a brand, along with lots of others. The ultimate success was to lodge the brand into people’s lifestyle choices.
The obsession with branding can lead to a chilling sameness. Your book chronicles the rather sad tale of Brooks Brothers.
Makers like American Apparel are appealing to the values of the No Logo generation, kids who are not so sure that The Gap and Banana Republic represent their identity. Will this attitude take on a bigger role?
You describe the store as a social space, where people come to “be with the brand.” What about the social space of the Internet?
EBay has provided a powerful new paradigm for shopping, however, by transforming shoppers into sellers. This can be transgressive, taking power away from professional sellers, and it can be creative. Selling can be financially beneficial to people who used to only shop. On the other hand, when the shopper becomes a seller, his or her critical distance from consumer society evaporates. People become addicted as both shoppers and sellers.
A big part of your story is the rise and fall of department stores in the 20th century. With companies like The Gap now hitting hard times, what do you think is next?
Ellen Lupton is a curator at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and director of the graphic design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art.