Thursday, April 13, 2006

I tell you, pitfalls await the lover of really good stuff

The Toronto Star

It's possible to rationalize credit card interest once you begin to think of shopping as a philosophical journey of discovery. That's what I tell my wife after she finds the spot where I've hidden the credit card bill.

Over the years, I've honed this argument to razor sharpness. In the beginning, the shopper knows nothing. He pays too much for shoddy things that don't work right or look good. He's blissfully ignorant.

The first threshold he must pass through on the journey is awareness. One day he realizes that there are people out there with stuff that's a lot better than his stuff. They have tasteful furnishings, clothes that flatter their figures and an eye for colour. He has rattan furniture and shoes that resemble anvils. These people are not music executives or international models. They are like him, but have better taste. He decides he wants some of that.

Their stuff is expensive. So he concentrates on finding bargains. This brings him to the second threshold — buying pricey stuff on sale.

Let us imagine that his first big purchase is a pair of shoes spotted in a shop window in Paris. He sits there mooning over these perfect shoes until he notices a small tag noting an 80 per cent price reduction. Ignoring the fact that they don't quite fit and don't match his uniform of oversized T-shirts and jeans, he wears them everywhere.

In time, he realizes his beautiful new shoes aren't beautiful. In fact, they are hideous, stumpy things with enormous grommets and elastic lacing that runs to the tip of a very blunt toe. Sort of high-heeled hiking boots. For men. He thinks. His French isn't that great.

This is a common mistake. What he thought was good is not. In fact, it's worse than run-of-the-mill crap, since it advertises that he is making an effort to look this bad.

That's the third threshold — discernment. Once he begins to recognize that there is expensive crap that goes on sale as well as the cool, well-constructed stuff, he weans himself off French disco platforms and steers toward brogues and Chelsea boots.

Matching improving taste to bargain hunting brings rewards. He finds a pair of Alexander McQueen suits that cost less than his cruddy winter parka. He begins haunting outlet malls and discount retailers. He travels to shop.

Which brings us to the fourth threshold — conspicuous consumption. A person really needs only one pair of shoes. Two pairs if you need to exercise and work in an office. Three pairs if you want your feet to breathe in summer. Four if you take winter into consideration. Five if you've got a hot date. Six if you ... you see where this ends up.

Now he's decently dressed, has cleansed his home of rattan and owns quality bedding for the first time in his life. He may also start buying art and using an ivory cigarette holder. But that's up to him.

His burgeoning sense of taste has led him to discover that there is good stuff and then there is great stuff — the sort of stuff that's so good it rarely goes on sale.

Thus, the fifth threshold is paying regular price. He wants what he wants, and he wants it now.

He crosses that threshold with a pair of tan Hugo Boss loafers. They go perfectly with the butterscotch summer-weight suit he's wearing to his Caribbean wedding.

On the day he is married, he takes more than three steps in them for the first time. They look and feel a dream. As he walks to the chapel with his future wife, other couples clap — perhaps because this couple is about to get married, but more than likely because of the shoes.

He ascends the staircase to the chapel as if on a cloud. A choppy cloud, since he slips one new Boss loafer under a protruding step and stumbles forward, tearing an enormous strip of leather off one of the pristine $350 shoes. The elaborate string of curses he lets loose surprise even him. It really shocks the nearby reverend who is to celebrate the nuptials.

Upon reflection, he is reminded of a piece of Confucian wisdom: "Much jade cannot be protected."

He chooses to think of the "shoe incident" as a blessing in disguise. Had his first full-price purchase gone well, he might have continued down that road. Soon enough, he'd be the guy wearing Kiton suits, Borrelli shirts, Charvet ties, Hermès belts, Dunhill cufflinks and John Lobb shoes, topped off with a Ulysse Nardin Genghis Khan wristwatch. He'd also be bankrupt.

So most of us find our comfort zone somewhere between the fourth and fifth thresholds — looking for bargains, but open to the odd full-ticket splurge.

Me, I'm just trying to sell this faux-spiritual, shopping philosophy junk to my wife. She wore an old pair of slingbacks to the wedding. She's not buying.

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