This past Black Friday I wandered into the local branch of the Macy’s department store chain. It’s a small outlet in this neighborhood, in the semi-revitalized town of Ardmore on the Main Line of Philadelphia. The store is located in what has come to be called Suburban Square, a largely upscale suburban mall, built on the design I’ve come to call the Pennsylvania Model.
There are, I’ve learned since moving here permanently a little over a year ago, instances of the same shopping paradigm even in my former home state of Massachusetts, and in particular the Factory Outlet mall located in Wrentham. I won’t try my usual ploy of making like a minor league (in truth, more like a Little League) Jane Jacobs, and attempt my own half-assed version of analysis of architectural phenomena as expressions of larger social and cultural trends, currents, and indicators of the status quo of civilization as we know it here in the so-called civilized world. Suffice it to say that it’s a model for shopping, running the gamut from staples and groceries to the kind of high-end merchandise you’d expect to see—immaterial whether it’s discounted or full price, as in the spectrum from Wrentham to Ardmore, where the one serves a large swath of the dwindling middle class, and the other serves a concentrated population of consumers who can amply afford to drive the luxury marque SUV vehicles, the bigger the better, that clog the parking lot of Suburban Square for about ten hours every day. And it’s a model, it would seem, designed to inconvenience as many shoppers as possible, and increase the general pollution levels, by forcing drivers intending to shop at several stores in a session to park their vehicles serially in widely dispersed parking areas.
The larger malls of this design, which are predominant in this area of Pennsylvania, can cover vast tracts of land, sometimes across multiple criss-crossing super highways which allow transport from a widespread number of communities in all directions. Invariably, there are multitudinous anchor stores, let’s say, a Target, a Macy’s, Bed Bath and Beyond, often a hypermarket of a supermarket chain (around here it’s Giant, say, but could as easily be Whole Foods, or the truly mammoth Wegman’s), a Sears, a Best Buy… in brief running a spectrum of merchandise categories at a variety of price points. The higher end malls might even include the most prestigious of resellers, like Nordstrom or Nieman Marcus. However the latter seem to cleave to the rare mall around here that caters to much higher-income consumers in aggregate emporia built on the more centralized, atrium design villages I am used to in the upper middle class suburbs of Boston. In these, you park in one fairly accessible, central garage (they’re very often covered or underground) and you spend long periods of time shopping, knowing you will never have to brave the elements, or starve yourself, because there are better quality eateries studded throughout, or get dehydrated or thirsty for a beverage designed to slake your refined tastes, as these are served at watering holes of like distinction.
This is as opposed to the dispersed far-spread colonies of clustered storefronts of the Pennsylvania Model. In this model you see repeated endlessly a kind of mammoth strip mall looped together to form a shopping duchy or enclave, complete with its own police force, streets, lighting, etc, and all open to the weather in all seasons. If you must shop a gamut of stores, you are forced either to hike a significant distance over the fullness of time, while shlepping your purchases, or repeatedly to get in your car, cross the network of internal driveways and byways, under- and overpasses, to get to another parking ground, search for yet another empty spot and besiege the next cluster of shops. For food and drink, there are food courts in certain of these clusters, or there are free-standing outlets, of such fast-food favorites as, well, the usual suspects. Bars tend to be massive sports bars, with banks of flat screen monitors, and yards and yards of bars interspersed with high-top tables and counters, specifically designed to leave you uncomfortable enough not to want to linger past the time required to suck down a pint or two of your favorite brew, and scarf a bowl of chips and salsa, a platter of wings, or a mini-pizza or a range of equally nutritious fillers. Necessarily it can take a day just to fill the demands of a basic shopping list of needs, never mind those discretionary purchases and high-ticket items we’re hit with barrages of ads to acquire periodically.
There is, I don’t doubt, a perfectly sensible rational explanation for making the shopping experience as loathsome, costly, unhealthy and unsafe as possible. Though, with no real alternative, people are equally loathe to think about it, never mind let the thought form that there’s a perfectly good explanation as well for their normative constant state of mild vexation and frustration. My guess is that the availability of real estate across large tracts is never sufficiently timely to allow very large scale advance planning, never mind cost-effective ways of gathering titles to contiguous parcels, to allow planning on a grand centralized scale. Pennsylvania is a much larger state than Massachusetts, albeit it was settled originally at the same time. The cities are bigger, and more spread out. Where Boston is quite compact, and, because of its relatively smaller size in several dimensions, like population and land area, combined with the constraint of having been, virtually, an island until the middle of the 19th century, Philadelphia is relatively gigantic and spread out. Further, Philadelphia was always surrounded by relatively endless farmland in three directions, until quite recently, and so the population seeking to find refuge away from a decaying center is much larger and with much greater room to spread itself. But I promised not to try to be Jane Jacobs.
Having described the larger context for my highly localized observations to come, I’ve reached the beginning of the meat of my thinking. While on the impromptu shopping excursion with which I began—I was in Macy’s incidentally because I recalled having read on a corporate web site that the department store chain was an official dealer of Citizen brand watches; I was curious to see one model up close… as I expected, quite frankly, it was not an in-stock item. In store, I noticed a large display of Macy’s promotional artwork. It’s necessary to explain further, at this point, that one of the lifetime over-arching themes of the Macy’s brand is the integration of the symbol of a star, that is, a graphic representation of a star, as part of the enduring identity of the brand.
The pentangle, or five pointed star, usually in red, is festooned throughout the store, advertising, merchandising, signage, packaging, and so forth, and has done for years. The symbol is allegedly reminiscent of a star tattoo that R.H. Macy, the founder (way back when, in Haverhill, Massachusetts), had had applied to his body as a young man, working on a whaling ship. The symbol, by now emblematic, is ubiquitous. It serves as the apostrophe in the name. It is the name of the shopper rewards program. Currently it is also how Macy’s designates the designers with whom they have contracted to sell on a licensed basis exclusive merchandise in the chain’s stores and designed by those individuals.
Several individuals have famously associated their names in similar fashion with other chains. Infamously, Martha Stewart, for example, owns a brand featured at a number of chains, usually on an exclusive basis for certain categories of goods. After her felonious run-in with U.S. laws regarding conduct surrounding the trade in securities (and her subsequent prison term) the Stewart brand ran afoul for a while, especially with Kmart and its parent, Sears. Probably not coincidentally Stewart has had a prior relationship with Macy’s as well, though that specifically is not in my sights here. These are not idle associations. Stewart’s brand generates over a billion dollars a year in sales for her company. Not insignificant by any means. You might surmise, as I do, that much of this money comes out of the pocketbooks and wallets of folks somewhat less well-heeled than the 1% who have been vilified one way or another for over a year now, since some portion of the other 99% decided to target the tiny well-heeled portion of our populace for fiddling while the rest of us burn.
I guess at least part of my point is that individuals the likes of Martha Stewart are entrenched members of that 1% club by virtue of the trade they do with the great unwashed. This much larger constituency would generally include, I’m afraid, those SUV drivers in Suburban Square, or out further in the ‘burbs, and wherever they shop, Pennsylvania Model mall or the more protective and embracing confines of a more sensibly designed mall. At any time, whether interested in the goods or not, it’s a safe bet that anyone is never more than a half-hour’s ride in their vehicle from an outlet for brands styled after actual people, and not merely invented personalities. Or, I wonder, is that “merely” a false distinction.
Even as much as we may know this person or that to be a real human being, at some point in our consciousness they acquire a more mythic dimension to his or her personality or character. We already think we know who that person is, and what kind of human being they are, purely on the basis of what we can only know as a manufactured product. Either we know literally the products they have nominally designed or we know the product, the persona, that goes by the same name they do, and essentially just as consciously designed in advance and “manufactured” by means of manipulation of information about them that appears publicly. We actually know as little about Martha Stewart, for sure and for true, as we do about some anonymous soul who lives on the other side of the earth in a proverbial, clichéd teeming ghetto. The same is true of Ralph Lauren or Philippe Starck, of Kate Spade or Michael Graves.
On this particular day, that poster with the name of the Macy’s Star that caught my eye featured this photo below her name, Betsey Johnson.
I hope it’s sufficient to say, though I didn’t recognize Ms. Johnson, by sight, I did know her brand, as women within my ken are her customers by whatever remove (can we say that we are customers of an even better known brand, of far greater global reach among many consumers, namely, Apple? Of course we can). What sprang to mind, however, was a far more fictive creation, at least insofar as the gargoyle of a face with that rictus of aggressive dental work that looks to me like, to paraphrase a famous description of the Duchamp painting of “Nude Descending a Staircase,” a display in a bathroom tile showroom reminded me of anything. It was this famous image, so famous as to have attained to that ne plus ultra of hipster recognition in the zeitgeist, a universal meme.
What I found myself wondering were several connected manifold questions.
Why would someone allow herself to be so transfigured, in life, or even in a mere manipulated photograph, as to appear like a notorious caricature of an even more notorious villain (I acknowledge that to some, perhaps too many, he is still somehow a hero, a thwarted hero, but heroic for his intentions), a symbol of vengeance, if not vindictiveness? What has Betsey Johnson, the avatar of a certain standard of stylishness to do with vengeance? An inquiry into what sort of style she stands for is irrelevant to these considerations. It’s enough to consider that one of the largest retailers in the largest national consumer market on the planet has elected not only to contract for the use of her name and the resale of her merchandise, but has chosen as well, no matter what Ms. Johnson’s say may have been in the matter, to depict her in a way that I can’t help but describe as grotesque and at the same time so etiolated that it borrows conclusively and inevitably from an image that is, in addition to being global and inescapable, bound in identity with vaguely sinister, yet, we are to believe, vaguely noble causes.
It suggests that the denizens of innumerable winding and lengthy suburban driveways in their own ennoblement, sitting atop 300+-horsepower gargantuan mechanisms, each a self-contained paean to consumption, feel some kind of kinship to what is, at present, more than an avatar of pre-adolescent male fantasies of anonymous skullduggery in the larger world that otherwise renders the fantasist null and powerless, but a symbol of ultimate vindication for (literally) billions of downtrodden people who worry, not about where to spend four weeks of winter vacation in some remote corner of the globe, but worry where they will be able to seek shelter within a month, or a fortnight, or a week, or that very night. And if any of these misbegotten victims of the inequities of life in the 21st century could steal into the back or, as we charmingly call it here in the suburbs, the “way-back,” of any of these luxuriant conveyances, they would do so in an instant. And no more defense for their actions, if caught, than a grin of the same rueful force as the Old Guy himself, if not Ms. Johnson.