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The Joy of Shopping

TIMES FASHION WRITER

By definition, a great city offers superlative shopping. Welcome to Los Angeles, where fashionable stores are diverse and plentiful, and everything anyone needs can be had at the flash of a credit card.

The variety of stores in L.A. is the shopping equivalent of cross training. When sprawling department stores seem overwhelming, tiny boutiques beckon. When the financial muscles strained by those large and small retail shrines are exhausted, discount malls, resale and vintage stores can satisfy in a low-impact way.

To examine why and how many of us indulge in this shopper’s paradise, it is essential to eliminate need as a motivator. A man who has gained 20 pounds since he bought a suit five years ago and must attend his mother’s funeral really needs a new suit. But for most recreational shoppers, need is beside the point.

Michael Sharkey, who, as director of personal shopping for Barneys New York in Beverly Hills, shops with people for a living, said, “No one needs clothes. However, many people want clothes.”

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So if we don’t need to shop, why do we do it? Because it’s fun, it’s legal, it isn’t fattening and the mirrors in stores alter reality, making us look as tall and thin as borzois. New clothes are ripe with promise. You’ve never had a bad time in them, been stopped for speeding in them, had your picture taken wearing them only to discover that the woman in the snapshot looks frumpy in that dress.

Shopping is free, at least until the bills come. Sometimes they never do materialize, at least when a bright, shiny store, staffed by unctuous salespeople who have been schooled in the art of equal opportunity flattery is visited like a museum by a shopper more intent on educating her eye than depleting her wallet. Browsing in such aesthetically pleasing places is like smoking controlled substances without inhaling. It delivers some of the excitement and few of the consequences.

Shopping has never been easier, or less revered. Societal shifts have conspired to cast a politically correct pall over conspicuous consuming. Before the numbers of women joining the work force swelled, Mom was the chief purchasing agent for her family, and shopping was something women were supposed to be good at. Then feminism spoiled the sport. A woman who loved to shop acquired all the social cache of a Hanson fan who indulges a taste for chicken fried steak when no one is looking.

The anti-shopping stance reeks of hypocrisy. Americans are incessantly subjected to marketing designed to entice them to shop and buy. Then those who do are ridiculed. (Imelda Marcos could have been pilloried for sins far more venal than an itch for shoes.) Dr. Donald Black, professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa College of Medicine and a specialist in treating shopaholics, said, “The purpose of advertising, which is mostly geared toward women, is to get them to buy things that they don’t need, and to convince them that they need them. There are constant stimuli urging people to shop. I work with people who can’t control their responses to those stimuli, and I don’t see any advertising agencies lining up to give me research grants.”

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Catalogs, the Internet and cable shopping channels were supposed to replace driving to the mall, hunting for a parking space and the other annoyances and indignities of three-dimensional shopping. But the dirty little secret of the home shopping channels is that most of the clothes they hawk are awful, homely little wallflowers you wouldn’t dance into a dressing room if you encountered them in a store. If catalogs are so great, why are J. Crew and J. Peterman opening more and more stores? The Internet is lonely and sterile, the opposite of the sensual, communal experience shopping has been since big-city department stores became destinations for people bent on seeing and being seen.

Stores are still the best places for hunters and gatherers to do what they do in distinctive ways. Experienced salespeople can size up a shopper in seconds, deciding which of the following types she is:

* The Blitzkrieg Shopper. Not an impulsive spree killer, the blitzkrieg shopper is an organized person who plans her attack. She doesn’t like shopping much, but she likes less being without what she needs or what’s current. So a few times a year, she surveys the stores and stocks up, on work clothes, play clothes, special occasion gowns, even underwear and socks. In between her big buying trips, she only needs to fill in with basics like turtlenecks if the temperature drops.

“That kind of shopper almost wants to get it over with,” said Roberta Ross, manager of the Shauna Stein boutique in the Beverly Center. Men, if they shop at all, tend to fall into this category.

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* The Cinderella Shopper: She needs--yes, really needs--a dress for the ball, or to wear to a college reunion, or a wardrobe for an extended business trip to New York. The more emotionally significant the event, the more likely she is to feel she has to see every dress in town before choosing one. Of course sometimes Cinderella’s need is more perceived than real.

“We cater to a very small percentage of the city,” Ross said, “but our customer doesn’t want to show up in something from last season. We know that everyone who comes in here does have something to wear, even to that special party, but they don’t want to repeat.”

* The Hysteric. Like Cinderella, the frantic shopper is in search of something to wear for an occasion. But she doesn’t reserve any time to find it. Instead, she barrels into a store the afternoon of an event or the day before an interview, toting more anxiety than a jumbo Bloomingdale’s shopping bag could contain.

“You wouldn’t believe how many times an actress comes in the store two hours before an audition, picks out something to wear, waits while we do the alterations, and goes straight to the interview,” Ross said.

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* The Looky-Loo. This sport shopper looks, tries on, but seldom makes a purchase. If she does buy something, she’ll probably return the merchandise soon. Sometimes, she is driven by a love for beautiful things that compels her to be around them.

“I was that person,” Shauna Stein said. “I would just visit clothes that I couldn’t afford because I wanted to look at them and touch them.”

Stein and her store manager seem to have unusual patience for “museum” shoppers, perhaps because some of them graduate to become actual customers.

“I can understand having a passion for clothes that you can’t own. I have passion for things I can’t afford that I still appreciate,” Ross said. “But the woman who really never buys has a deeper psychological problem than I can analyze. She likes the attention we give her. She needs to fill up her time because she’s lonely or bored. Or shopping is what she does instead of exercising. When she comes in the store we keep her company and we chat and she learns about fashion. It’s a pleasant way to spend a few hours.”

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Enthusiastic salespeople can greatly enhance a looky-loo’s shopping trip.

“We know the woman who can’t wait to see the new Voyage collection as soon as we get it in,” said Barneys’ Sharkey. “She likes the idea of being the first to try it so she comes in, buys 15 pieces of it, spends $25,000 and then returns everything but one sweater five days later. The problem is that while she’s in the store, trying everything on is very exhilarating, and the salesperson gets into the spirit of fun and makes her feel special. Then, when the woman gets home, she’s alone, and all the pieces that were so exciting in the store are just a pile of clothes.”

* The Thrill Seeker. Merchants should genuflect in the presence of this rarefied species, the true, passionate shopper. For the thrill seeker, the urge to shop consumes the body with the furor of flesh-eating bacteria. She ventures into a store hoping to be seduced and delighted. What is she looking for? Whatever sings to her. Any garment, shoe, bauble or dainty lingerie masterpiece that, once she has seen it, invades her thoughts, lingering like a catchy tune.

“Certain clothes create that feeling that you just have to have them,” said designer Anna Sui, a black belt shopper. “Even if it costs a fortune and you don’t need it, the feeling that you must own it just takes hold of you.”

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Somewhere, there is a confessional where passionate shoppers cleanse their souls. Forgive me, mother, for I have sinned. I bought a Richard Tyler suit at Neiman Marcus, then hung it next to the eight black jackets I already had at home. I pretended to listen to details of my best friend’s marital crisis while visions of cashmere cardigans I’d seen at Madison danced in my head. “Should I leave him?” she asked, interrupting my internal debate over whether to drop by the store on my next lunch hour to pick up a yellow or a purple one. “Well, sure,” I said, oblivious to her question, but resolute in my preference for purple.

“Shopping doesn’t make our customers happy,” Stein said. “It makes them ecstatic. The biggest reason women shop is to have a total emotional experience. To get dressed in something new that you like gives you a rush.”

The thrill seeker often worries that she has a shopping problem, especially when bills mount and closet rods creak under the weight of her treasures. Black, the Iowa psychiatrist who has been testing a serotonin re-uptake inhibitor similar to the anti-depressant Prozac as a treatment for shopaholics said, “In most compulsive buyers or shopaholics, shopping and spending habits are so far out of the norm that the fact that they have a serious problem is very obvious,” he said. “Most of the cases I’ve seen are so extreme even the housekeeper would be able to make a diagnosis. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist.”

* The Shopaholic. Shopaholics represent between 2% and 8% of the population, Black said, and “the problem is relatively uncommon among men. It’s a woman’s disease, so to speak.” These loonies, people who have rooms so stuffed with merchandise they’ll never use that they have to sleep in the garage, are in a different class than the shopper who gets a buzz when she finds the perfect pair of white jeans, even if she decides to buy three pairs in case they shrink when they’re washed.

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Dr. Drew Pinsky, a specialist in addiction medicine, program medical director of chemical dependency at Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena and co-host of MTV’s and KROQ-FM’s nightly “Loveline” advice show said, “The consequences define the problem. If you’re filing for bankruptcy, or having things is so compelling that you start stealing, then you have a problem. The pharmacology of drug dependency isn’t present in shopping, but the similarity is there because, in general, people use drugs and activities like shopping, which is rewarding, as a way of managing unpleasant feelings. Shopping can be a coping strategy that makes people feel better temporarily, just as food does. It is effective, because we are literally rewarding ourselves. But it isn’t necessarily dysfunctional. When you have to shop to feel good about yourself, that’s when you know that things are out of balance.”

Enter shopper’s guilt. Director Henry Jaglom, whose film “Eating” examined women’s relationship with food, is so convinced that shopping is the other major female obsession that he’s preparing a film about it, to be called, “Shopping.”

“For women, shopping is the other source of comfort and guilt,” he said. “Men don’t know how deeply connected it is to the darkest and most pleasurable sides of the female psyche. They have no idea how intense it can be for women. They think it’s some kind of cute diversion. It has so much to do with a woman’s sense of vanity and sexuality and her concerns about whether she’s attractive. Their vulnerability and insecurity about how they look are all wrapped up in it.”

One way to alleviate guilt is to rationalize. That T-shirt isn’t expensive. A nice lunch would cost the same.

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“We hear it all the time,” Ross said. “A woman will say, ‘My husband spends $300 on a bottle of wine with dinner. So what’s $300 for a pair of shoes?’ ” And then, of course, everyone practices creative financing when they pay. Like, ‘Put half of the bill on my husband’s American Express, and here’s some cash, and put the rest on my Visa.’ It’s hilarious.”

Adultery and bathroom habits are the only human activities cloaked in greater secrecy. Women develop elaborate rituals to cover their shopping tracks. Packages stay in the trunk of the car till the coast is clear, then they’re hidden in the guest room closet. Jaglom’s wife, actress Victoria Foyt, said, “If I’ve bought a lot of stuff, I’ll show it to him in stages. It’s not because he’d have a fit if I spent a lot of money, because he wouldn’t. But I like just showing up one day in something new, as if the dress just miraculously materialized out of nowhere. It’s more goddess-like to do it that way.”

Exactly. Women who love to shop are goddesses, and not just to the stores they enrich.

“By shopping, we’re participating in the way media promotes fashion and glamour,” Pinsky said. “We need to nurture ourselves and treat ourselves regularly, to certain kinds of foods and shopping expeditions, as long as it’s appropriate and realistic. Self-denial that is chronic is unhealthy.”

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The only real problem is that shopping isn’t a finite pastime. It gives rise to ancillary activities--trips to the tailor, laundry and cleaners. New clothes require new shoes, hosiery and underwear. At times, clothes are as demanding as pets. The long jersey dresses must be lopped over a padded hangar so they don’t stretch and grow. Delicate knits are subject to pulled threads; they must be gently hand washed, then laid out, just so. And some garments, even with careful tending and training, remain like wild animals who refuse to be tamed. They willfully crease and shrink, lose their shape and discolor. So the hunt continues, for a garment both transforming and obedient, flattering and docile. There’s always a reason to shop.


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