Friday, May 4, 2007

Digression, with Champagne

I don’t begin to understand how we decide to allow or deny ourselves the various gradations of pleasure or of luxury. Marketers remind us that only a select few deserve the very best but is it really a question of worth? Is there a tiny accountant in your head who suspects that your inimitable self is worth a bottle of Bollinger, but not the Blanc de Noir?

I doubt it. Consumers don’t engage in this sort of math; corporations do. According to Nick Passmore at, Champagne prices are “controlled not so much by the production cost as by what marketing executives believe the market can bear.” For some brands, higher prices are not a barrier to sales; they can actually boost sales.

In explaining the resurgence of Saks, the American department store, its chief executive notes, “Consumers want brands, and we are all about brands.”

So there you have it. The calculations described here do not involve worth, they invoke status. By buying the most expensive item in a particular category, you broadcast a range of signals to yourself and others. Your choice might indicate your membership in a particular group; it might imply a certain discrimination in taste. Depending on the context, it could display frivolity, individuality, availability—or all three.

Most of us are awake to these clues, even if we prefer not to name them explicitly. In polite conversation, a little bit of sociology goes a long way.

Sandy and Cliff are trying to do right by themselves. Like most of us, they would prefer to maintain their artistic integrity while reaping the rewards of financial success. I think that explains their aversion to the ordinary logic of branding, and their coyness about the brand’s derivation.

It’s hard to find fault with Sandy’s fundamental economic philosophy: “Buy our clothes—and then we’ll buy stuff too.”


Note: This story began on April 25 and has no foreseeable end.

In Mumbai, Cliff and I shared a room at the Grand Hyatt which—if you ignored the central air-conditioning, television, minibar, shower and bath—was somehow reminiscent of our family home at the corner of Lake and Center streets. Maybe it was the two single beds, but more likely it was the two of us.

While my attention was elsewhere, Cliff has become the most successful of our siblings. And I’m not thinking in terms of wealth or celebrity. Instead, I am measuring by the admittedly subjective standard of dreams. Cliff, among the four of us, is closest to making satisfactory use of his talents.

Watching him and Sandy work together—the nods and murmurs, the pins and tape, the continuous small adjustments and readjustments—I experience a jealous thrill. Here is something he can do better than almost anyone: the mysterious and judicious application of creativity and connoisseurship.

Cliff knows more than I will ever learn about any number of subjects—modernist furniture and architectural pottery, for example—but, by that strange calculus of time and family, I am still his older brother, still in possession of a few mysteries myself.

“So,” he asks, as we drift side by side on the Hyatt’s twin boxsprings, 7000 miles from our former bedroom, “what happened that night the police brought you home?”

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Understanding the Difference

It is a historical fact that I have never tried on a $2000 jacket. It also might be true that I had never wanted to, before, but I don’t know. I do own a tux, and I was married in a linen suit from Yves Saint Laurent by way of Keezer’s, the venerable used clothing store in Cambridge. As I recall, I purchased both on the same afternoon in 1989, for a grand total of $100 (not including tax).

In the nomenclature of niche marketing, I am a cheapskate. Not for plane tickets, you understand. But it would’ve been hard to convince me to spend more money on clothes when I was saving for travel: a dream trip (as yet unrealized) to the Seychelles.

Because Chatav Ectabit aims for a different niche, Sandy and Cliff are not convincing people to spend; these folks already want to spend. In the luxury market, shoppers don’t have to weigh a $500 sweater against $500 in food or even $500 in gold. The trade-offs, if any, occur on a level unfamiliar to Fitzgerald’s “you and me.”

I don’t suggest that everyone who buys from this collection is rich. But I suspect that Tom Cruise, Ellen DeGeneres, Keith Richards, and Meg Ryan (to name a few) might take offense if I hinted that they were short on lunch money.

Here are the facts: these clothes require many hours of skilled labor and are available only in exclusive retail shops, and even then in small quantities. They are therefore expensive, and thus to wear them is undeniably a luxury, requiring at least a minimum amount of wealth, or great thrift and a flair for budgeting.

As demonstrated by my experience at Keezer’s, designer clothing (with some exceptions) has little residual value. Some few might be able to consider such purchases as an investment in image, but the majority are buying a feeling, and at that price, they want something out of the ordinary, something a little bit different even from the adjacent item on the rack, something which, like a striving, human self, feels unique.

Of course, I did not understand any of this until I talked with Cliff. Really talked with him, in a way that might not have occurred in our lives before. When we were kids, we shared a bedroom. Two single beds in a room that bubbled with fish tanks and looked out over a Mobil gas station, marked by the red image of a winged horse, made iconic by Jayne Ann Phillips’ Machine Dreams, published in 1984.

Chatav Ectabit, Revisited

Design has to begin somewhere, and Cliff and Sandy have begun with the favorite clothes in their closets. It’s a personal stance: they don’t make anything they wouldn’t want to wear themselves.

The silhouettes are easygoing and persuasive, the fabrics friendly to your skin. The clothes do not strive or aspire, except to be the one you wear all the time, the one you turn to in moments of need or crisis, the one that sees the most sun and rain and soap.

The cut is the same for men or women, idiosyncratically sized from 0 to 6. The emphasis is on craftsmanship: hand-made buttons of bone or silver, satin piping, individual dyeing and over-dyeing. Both Cliff and Sandy are partial to hidden embellishments, an inch or two of vintage trim stitched discretely beneath a flap, something only the owner can know, a small but cherished secret.

Here is a jacket, tossed onto a desktop after a fitting. It is made of velvet, poplin, and silk. Each panel has been cut by hand; each stitch performed by a thumb and forefinger. Its architectural drapes and folds remind me of a Renaissance cathedral. This one I want to try on, but sadly it is not my size.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

But What Does It Mean?

Note: This story began on April 25.

Here’s one regret: during my week in Mumbai, I did not try the street food. I did stop once before a chaat walla as he prepared pani puri for an impatient crowd. The sweet sharp scents of lime and tamarind held me for a few minutes, and then I drifted timidly away. If you have access to the New York Times’ archive, both Somini Sengupta and Julia Moskin have written temptingly about these little snacks.

For a working lunch, Sandy and Cliff often order north Indian food for delivery (Caravanserai
 Golden Orchid, Waterfield Road, Bandra, phone: 26411802). I can say with conviction that I would gladly taste any of these again: tandoori chicken, pomfret koliwada, mutton biryani, or palak paneer.

At one such meal, I paged through a lustrous stack of fashion magazines, searching for something like enlightenment. Julie, Sandy, and Cliff are all manifestly beautiful people, so maybe I was feeling a bit insecure. After all, I’d been watching them try on clothes for days, samples that they’d be taking to Paris to show.

In looking at these samples, I recognized the impoverishment of my critical vocabulary. Nothing in my closet has flared sleeves or three-button cuffs. I might be able to comprehend a cashmere T-shirt, but these other details were communicating in a foreign language. As Cliff remarked, their stuff is a little more “directional.” In its intimations of the future, directional implies that the clothes will look even more fashionable months from now.

From my readings, I contracted the impression that designers speak cryptically as a rule. In the luxury issue of GQ Style, for instance, Rick Owens explains that what he does is “try not to make people look like fools.”

An admirable goal, for certain, but there’s obviously more to it than that. Otherwise, how does he explain the fall 2007 season’s fuzzy slippers?

Chatav Ectabit

Sandy, his wife Julie, and their son Satya sleep across the stairwell from their second-floor atelier, housed in an otherwise nondescript concrete structure in Mumbai’s Santa Cruz district. The lane teems with the life of the suburbs: curbside hairdressers, betel vendors, short-haired dogs, children in their school uniforms.

The ironwork displays multiple representations of the Sanskrit om. The balconies are shaded by a tamarind tree, indifferently festooned with wayward kites. The building across the way bears the shingles of an advocate of the high court and a “maternity surgical home.”

Through the open windows, I can hear music, horns, shouts, the accelerating rasp of two-cycle engines, the raucous calls of crows. It is the end of January, and the air vibrates with falling leaves.

Sandy paces in and out of the room, on and off the balcony. Even when his feet pause in a doorway, his hands are in motion. He and Cliff are talking about details—buttons and zippers, invitations and order sheets—but they don’t shy away from philosophy.

Instead of communicating status by brand or emblem, they want their clothes to generate an inner sense of confidence and composure. Although Cliff says “I just like the idea of wearable,” I can tell that his notion of wearable incorporates hints of subversion as well as comfort.

At first, Cliff and Sandy resisted the idea of a brand name at all. Just a piece of red thread would be enough, they thought.

Enough for art, perhaps, but not enough for sales. If you don’t give people a name, how can they ask for your clothes?

So now the collection has a name, although it still isn’t sewn onto a traditional label. Instead, the words have been hand-carved onto a polished oblong of bone, a hefty bauble designed to be cut loose after purchase.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

It's Not About Guilt

Most clothing companies manufacture in third-world countries to achieve economies of scale. They entrust the production of identical items to low-overhead factories and their low-wage assembly lines. That's not the case here.

As noted in the International Herald Tribune, Sandy and Cliff set up shop in Mumbai in order to produce limited quantities with a higher level of craftsmanship.

Over the past few years, they’ve developed working relationships with a handful of relatively well-paid artisans. This allows their personal involvement in each step of the transformation of linear and monochromatic thread into something with hue and dimension.

Sandy can rework the contours of an awkward seam before dinner. Cliff can hover beside a pot of color at the dye shop, request an earthier gray, or a more essential blue.

I don’t argue that inequity is inevident, just that it doesn’t seem like my subject here. One afternoon in Mumbai, while I was walking alone and without destination, a white-robed itinerant raged towards me, and then past me, waving a stick at an adversary I could not see.


You might be wondering where I'm headed with this story. To tell the truth, I'm curious too. I went to Mumbai without assignment or outline, and I'm still looking for an opening, that first sentence on the journey to coherence.

If you'd like to read the posts in chronological order, begin on April 25.

If you'd rather read about fishing than fashion, try Scratching the Surface in Borneo, on the travel networking site

If you're a fan of Marilynne Robinson's 1981 novel, Housekeeping, then buy Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Monday, April 30, 2007

"They Are Best Dressed . . .

. . . whose dress no one observes." —Anthony Trollope

Before that week in Mumbai, the word fashion occupied the same page in my personal dictionary as trend, style, or celebrity. (A back page, unread.) My everyday attire hasn’t changed much since high school: buttoned-down shirts and straight-legged jeans. My father-in-law graciously shares the same sleeve length, collar size, and color preference. He wears the shirts until the cotton is sufficiently frayed and comfortable, then he presents them to me.

I know how lucky I am to be on the receiving end of this arrangement. I also know that I’m purposefully oversimplifying the extent of my wardrobe. In what no doubt constitutes a surfeit of good fortune, Cliff has given me some clothes too: suits by Gucci and Dior and Romeo Gigli. They fit well after some minor alterations and, when the occasion arises, I enjoy feeling appropriately dressed.

So there you have it: I am subject to that common desire for camouflage, the urge to blend in, a sparrow among sparrows, a crow amidst crows.