Tuesday, January 30, 2007

way to flop

It’s not working.

The enhanced synergies of the Federated-May merger, much documented on this blog, are turning out to be hyperbole, at least in my neck of the woods. A recent visit to several local converted Macy’s stores confirms this.

Status Quo at Valley View
The Roanoke Macy’s seems to be one of the few former Hecht’s that has maintained its previous market position. This was a very typical Hecht’s previously, having been expanded and remodeled only a few years ago and carrying a very standard line of department store merchandise, sans furniture and rugs. Except for some small tweaks, Federated changed little about this store except its signs.

The inclusion of Federated private labels has enhanced the merchandise mix at Macy’s Valley View, though ladies’ apparel is still a little on the dull side, and the Home Store has lost some of its merchandise breadth and depth without seeming like a smaller selection. You have to give them credit for maintaining a semblance of normalcy, though it’s nowhere near as special a shopping experience as the national ads would have you believe.

River Ridge rows away
The Lynchburg location Macy’s currently occupies at River Ridge Mall must have been a ‘cash cow’ for its various owners over the years, because it’s bound to have made far more money than was invested back into it.

This store is a time warp in every sense of the word. Opened by Thalhimers in 1980 when it was still part of Carter Hawley Hale, the store received minor updates when it was purchased by May Company and turned into Hecht’s, but little else in its nearly thirty year existence. In turn, the merchandise has maintained the same general price point over the years by continually trading down its merchandise mix until the formerly upscale store is now a shell of its former self.

With its only bright spot being its involuntary position as a shrine to early ‘80s department store design, the store fails to impress. Macy’s switched out May Company private labels for Federated ones and thinned out an already paltry selection of clothes and home items.

Even with a national brand name and upmarket aspirations, it plays second fiddle to the Belk store a few hundred feet away.

Still Friendly, but not focused
Macy’s Friendly Center in Greensboro has become a retail enigma. The formerly swanky Thalhimers was heavily renovated and expanded into a fairly fashionable (for May Company) Hecht’s in the late ‘90s, only to stop its evolution somewhere around 2001.

Even with a major push to prominently feature Federated private labels like Charter Cub and Alfani ‘shops’ at prominent spots in the main floor misses department with the Macy’s conversion, this store has evolved from kitchen clean and standardized to a dated hodgepodge of fixture and merchandise styles, none of which mesh well together.

The department that bared the brunt of conversion pains is Misses Sportswear. Formerly a reliable source of classic suits and separates, the department’s push to attract younger customers have left its signature lines looking chintzy and Traditional Sportswear looking more matronly than ever.

Marked contrasts exist. A small but somewhat showy millinery section sits next to a comparatively dowdy suit and dress department. Pricey men’s cashmere sportcoats sit near an uninspiring selection of mid-market Bostonian shoes. An upmarket china selection is positioned near a rack of ‘As Seen on TV’ merchandise. To be sure, Hecht’s had similar contrasts at times, but never as pronounced or badly maintained.

Even the handful of high-end brands that sell well at the store can’t disguise the poor housekeeping and muddled vision this pace now has. Multiple burned out light bulbs in the ceiling and merchandise scattered in all the wrong places are things that Macy’s Friendly Center has that Hecht’s Friendly Center hardly ever did.

De-evolution on Wendover
How do you update an innovative department store? Apparently by removing all innovation.

Greensboro’s Hecht’s Wendover opened as a May Company test store for lifestyle merchandising, eschewing many of the traditional rules about merchandising and display in order to make the store more appealing to modern, time-starved shoppers. While not everything they tried was a success, the test results were strong enough that traditional Hecht’s stores started sporting some of the new techniques: brighter lighting, hipper brands, bigger signs, and more self-serve merchandise fixtures.

Macy’s Wendover represents the shunning of just about all that Hecht’s learned in favor of the tried and true, and decidedly boring. The Federated private labels add little to the mix. New merchandise adjacencies replaced a well-done Juniors’/ Young Men’s department with a Juniors’ department sitting next to matronly sportswear. Time saving ‘express’ checkouts near entrances were supplanted with barely-staffed traditional cash-wraps. Displays went from dramatic to anticlimactic. The total effect is antique merchandising set against a whiz-bang backdrop.

Your mileage may vary, but it’s becoming apparent, at least in this area, that things aren’t as great as they should be at Macy’s.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Gap Is in Need of a Niche


In the fall of 2004, Gap put on a splashy ad campaign called, “How do you wear it?” with Lenny Kravtiz and Sarah Jessica Parker. It featured the pair dancing in customized Gap jeans — his with metal studs down the seam; hers with a waist-to-cuff velvet ribbon.

It was just the kind of envelope-pushing fashion Gap needed to compete with popular new designer-inspired denim brands like Diesel, Rock & Republic and Seven for All Mankind.

But there was a catch: the bedazzled jeans, which Gap called a “celebration of personal style,” could not be found at its stores.

Consumers had to buy a pair of basic, unembellished jeans at the store and customize them at a special training sessions held at some Gaps, or take a trip to Home Depot and Jo-Ann Fabrics and figure it out themselves.

The marketing tease is a small case study in what has ailed Gap, which ousted its chief executive, Paul S. Pressler, this week after years of dismal performance at its Gap and Old Navy divisions.

At a time when small, narrowly focused fashion brands — Coach, Juicy Couture, Tahari, Laundry — have become ascendant in American retailing, Gap has served up a steady diet of simple, unobjectionable casual clothing designed to appeal to everyone.

How do they wear it, as the ads asked? Increasingly, they just do not.

In an era of niches, when exclusion is as vital as inclusion, Gap has become an anachronism: a single chain, selling only its own brand, with one point of view, chasing shoppers from birth to death.

“If you stand for everything in fashion today, you stand for nothing,” said Paul R. Charron, the former chief executive of Liz Claiborne, who is credited with revitalizing the clothing company by purchasing fast-growing brands like Juicy Couture and Lucky Brand.

“Brands like the Gap, brands broadly available,” Mr. Charron said, “have a special challenge to be relevant in a period when focus and exclusivity are so important.”

Indeed, consumers are abandoning the chain in staggering numbers. Sales at stores open at least a year, a standard measure of a retailer’s health, have fallen or remained stagnant for 28 of the last 30 months.

And the declines have not been small. Sales fell 8 percent in December and November and 7 percent in October — the most crucial months of the year. The word “disappointing” became a common refrain in every monthly news release explaining Gap’s performance.

Gap operates three divisions: Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic. All three have struggled, but only Banana Republic is on the rebound.

Niche brands, by contrast, have done so well that they have even reversed the fortunes of the American department store. In the last year, the performance of department stores like Nordstrom and Macy’s has quietly overtaken that of specialty clothing retailers like Gap.

The reason? “Consumers want brands, and we are all about brands,” said Stephen I. Sadove, chief executive of Saks Inc., whose sales have improved sharply in the last year on the strength of designer labels like Tahari and Theory.

“It’s very hard for the specialty clothing stores to keep themselves cutting-edge and fresh,” Mr. Sadove said. “There is a lot of sameness.”

Or walk into the handful of specialty clothing chains like Abercrombie & Fitch, American Apparel and Anthropologie, stores that, like Gap, design their own clothing but have managed to thrive by appealing to small slivers of the public.

Those stores’ environments leave no doubt who their shopper is supposed to be — vintage-loving, 30-something urban women (at Anthropologie); trend-obsessed, preppy teenagers (at Abercrombie & Fitch); and socially conscious hipsters in their 20s and 30s (at American Apparel.)

Abercrombie & Fitch is openly hostile to what it considers the wrong customer — typically anyone over 30 — warding them off with booming music, dark shades on the front windows and teenage employees standing out front.

Gap has veered to the other extreme, putting out a welcome mat to nearly everyone, with well-lighted, sparsely decorated stores and ageless fashions.

“The definition of a specialty store is focus,” said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting firm and investment bank.

Gap does not have that focus, Mr. Davidowitz said. And in trying to meet the needs of infants, teenagers, and even the elderly, its designers play it safe, season after season. “The merchandise is booooooring,” Mr. Davidowitz added. “Too basic.”

Patricia Longo, a 36-year-old makeup artist who lives in Manhattan, is the kind of style-obsessed shopper who has little use for Gap these days. She wears Ugg boots, a Betsey Johnson bag, a Pepe Jeans jacket and a cotton taupe Ella Moss dress.

“They don’t have the new fads,” she said of Gap. “When I look for something new and young and trendy, Gap is not coming to my head.”

And it is not that she buys only designer clothes. Ms. Longo covets designer knockoffs, which is why she shops at H&M, the Swedish retailer known for its fresh-from-the-runway fashions.

So what is Gap to do?

A Gap spokesman, Greg Rossiter, said the company was “totally committed to returning these brands to the leadership they enjoyed for so many years.”

For that to happen, retail analysts said, the chain could start by shrinking, to give its clothes the kind of cachet that Gap had decades ago, before it operated 1,295 stores (not to mention hundreds more Banana Republic and Old Navy stores, which bring the total to more than 3,000). Abercrombie & Fitch, for example, has 361 stores for its flagship brand.

Next, analysts said, it could experiment with brands, as several new specialty clothing stores have started to do. When Martin & Osa, a clothing store aimed at people in their 30s created by American Eagle Outfitters, opened in 2006, it carried its own store brand as well as bags from North Face, sunglasses from Ray-Ban and track jackets from Adidas.

Gap used to carry Levi’s jeans but stopped in 1991. Today, it stocks a single outside brand, Converse sneakers.

Finally, Gap could focus on a narrow group of consumers, and tailor clothing to meet their needs — a prospect that would probably require the chain to become much smaller. “They have to pick out a demographic and go after it with a maniacal focus, to the exclusion of anyone else,” said Bob Buchanan, an analyst at A. G. Edwards & Sons.

“If there is one thing you cannot be in the middle of the mall anymore, it is all things to all people,” he added. “And that is what Gap has been trying to do.”

Friday, January 26, 2007

Thanks to Baltimore, Air Force 1 still flying

Nike sneaker boasts 25 years of loyal fans

By Tanika White
Baltimore Sun reporter

BALTIMORE - In the 2002 hit "Air Force Ones," the rapper Nelly extolled his love for the sneaker in the song's title: "I need two pair," he drawled. "Give me two pair."

Clearly Nelly is not from Baltimore. If he were, he'd have far more than just two pairs.

Nike is launching a major promotion for the 25th anniversary of its Air Force 1 - a sneaker that Baltimore had a major role in saving and helping to become an urban fashion sensation of the past generation.

In contrast to the product hype often manufactured on Madison Avenue, the sneaker's following grew initially by word of mouth, before the Internet and with little TV advertising. The shoe originated in 1982, when Nike sales were one-15th what they are now and its future endorsement king, Michael Jordan, was still a freshman at the University of North Carolina.

Curiously, the buzz for the Air Force 1 centered in Baltimore, far from the major fashion centers and the only place where the model was sold for a time after it was all but discontinued.

"No city is as important to the Air Force 1 as Baltimore," Nike acknowledged in a booklet it sent to retailers recently for the 25th anniversary promotion. "The city rebirthed the shoe and set in motion a series of events that would change the way sneakers were perceived in the marketplace."

Nelly's two pairs wouldn't suffice for Melvin Bartee, for example. He has amassed at least 100 pairs of the $80 sneakers over the years, their orange boxes stacked to the ceiling in the basement of his East Baltimore home. "I don't even go down there to look for a pair anymore. I just buy new ones," said Bartee, 41, a youth basketball coach at the Cecil-Kirk Recreational Center.

Keith Holly of West Baltimore said he has at least 50 pairs of Air Force 1's. He buys them two at a time, wears them twice, maybe three times, then gives them away.

And even a trans-Atlantic distance couldn't stem Michael Boateng's passion for Air Force 1's. When he attended high school in West Africa, Boateng, now 29, said, "My parents mailed me the new ones when they came out."

While Nike helped shape the modern athletic wear industry with its line named for Jordan, the lesser-known Air Force 1 model has been the Oregon company's biggest seller, footwear expert John Shanley said. The shoe generated roughly $1 billion a year for the company at its peak, about $600 million in more recent years.

"I remember going to the malls at 7 a.m. and kids would be in line for those shoes," said Shanley, a New York-based analyst who covers the athletic wear industry for Susquehanna Financial Group. "There's no other shoe that ever created that kind of thing. Maybe some of the Jordans."

In 1982, Nike introduced the Air Force 1 as a high-performance basketball shoe. Moses Malone, who became the first basketball player to go directly to the pros from high school after declining an offer to play at the University of Maryland, was one of the first to wear the sneakers, starting a fad in urban areas.

"Back then, shoes had a limited run," Nike spokesman KeJuan Wilkins said. "They'd come out and then they'd go away forever."

By 1983, Nike was ready to discontinue the model for newer styles. But three Baltimore-area retailers at the time - Charley Rudo Sports, Cinderella Shoes and Downtown Locker Room - banded together to implore Nike executives to reconsider.

"The shoes were blowing out of my store," recalled Harold Rudo, then the footwear buyer for his father's store, Charley Rudo Sports. "I flew out to [Nike's headquarters in] Portland, Oregon, and met with the second-in-command."

Rudo and cohorts from the other two sporting goods stores persuaded Nike initially to continue selling two styles of Air Force 1's - white with royal blue, and white with chocolate brown - but only in their stores in Baltimore.

The first weekend the sneakers were re-introduced in Baltimore, Rudo said, he sold more than 100 pairs.

"Then, we started popping out new styles, color by color by color by color. We brought out one to two colors a month," said Rudo, who is known even today as "Mr. Shoe." "We were exclusive, the Three Amigos."

In pre-Internet days, word of mouth propelled sneaker-heads along the East Coast to Baltimore for Air Force 1's.

"We had people coming from New York, Washington, D.C.," Rudo said. "They were coming from all over Pennsylvania. They knew we had 'em, and they'd all come running to Baltimore to buy them from us."

Eventually, Nike concluded that Baltimore was on to something. About 10 years after the shoes' exclusive run in Baltimore, the company re-released the Air Force 1 nationally in the mid-1990s.

"This is something that is now on a global level," said Wilkins, the company spokesman. "People in Japan love the Air Force 1. People in Brazil love the Air Force 1. To think that it really started in Baltimore is kind of amazing. ... It has moved from being a performance shoe to a cultural icon."

Until Nike announced a 25th anniversary promotional campaign for the Air Force 1, only a select few were aware of Baltimore's role in popularizing the model early on.

"So often you think of L.A., New York, Chicago for this kind of thing," said Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

While Nike poured millions into promoting its Jordan line, it barely advertised the Air Force 1, lending the sneaker an underground appeal. Like Converse's canvas Chuck Taylors and Adidas' Superstar model, Nike's Air Force 1 became a phenomenon with a clean, simple look. As more colors were added, buyers continued to clamor for the shoe because no matter the outfit, there was an Air Force 1 to go with it.

"You can basically get any color to match your clothes, whatever you feel like wearing," said Boateng of East Baltimore. "I've worn 'em to church. I'll be wearing a blazer and then I'll have on my Air Forces."

Today, there are more than 1,700 different styles of Air Force 1's, although the shoe is essentially the same as in 1982 - unusual for Nike sneakers, even Air Jordans. There are versions in patent leather, multi-colored styles and some designed by graffiti artists. Wealthy rap artists and celebrities often take a pair of Air Force 1's and upgrade the "swoosh" with designer monograms, such as Louis Vuitton's signature LVs.

After-purchase customization of the Air Force 1 has become a cottage industry for some city artists and retailers.

Dwayne Gillard, 27, of West Baltimore, had one of his five pairs of white-on-white Air Force 1's professionally decorated at Mondawmin Mall with "Hundred Grand Federation," the logo for his side business as a rapper.

"You gotta have a pair of Air Force 1's. You put 'em on at night, and I swear you look like your feet are glowing," Gillard said. "Then you gotta have a second pair. The second pair you gotta get somebody to customize 'em for you. The third pair is the backup for that first pair. And the fourth and fifth is for when nobody's selling them no more. I got five right now because I know come May, I'm not gonna be able to find 'em."

Baltimore retailers sometimes struggle to meet demand, said Jeffrey Bowden, a spokesman for DTLR, formerly the Downtown Locker Room, which now operates from Atlanta to Chicago.

"It's absolutely a phenomenon," Bowden said. "It's clearly the Baltimore shoe. There were times there where it was hard for us to keep them in stock, through all sizes, from kids' all the way up to men's.

"That real hard-core demographic, they're like, 'Hey, I need a new pair of Airs,' just because they got a scuff on them. And they've got to have every color when they come out," he said. "I'm even guilty of that. I've had hundreds over the years."

Nike officials can't explain why the shoe has had such a foothold in Baltimore, but they are grateful for the love.

To promote the 25th anniversary version of the Air Force 1 - and the just-released Air Force 25 sneaker - the company built a pricey in-store display at DTLR in Mondawmin Mall, one of the first stores to originally sell the Air Force 1, Nike said.

The display shows players of the past in flight jumpsuits, such as Malone, beside a "second coming" of current stars such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, who are promoting the new Air Force 25s.

Local sellers don't expect the relationship to wane anytime soon.

"Twenty years from now ... it's going to be the same thing," said Greg Vaughan, manager of Mondawmin Mall's DTLR and a former salesman at Charley Rudo Sports, one of the three stores that saved the shoe. "I'm watching generations of kids growing right into it."

Thursday, January 25, 2007

i LV u

How much do you love Louis Vuitton?

Obviously, the iconic French fashion brand has become increasingly popular over the past few years across a wide spectrum of socioeconomic classes, spawning any number of imitators in its wake. But is it special enough to theme your entire wedding based on the classic LV coated cavas pattern?

I got this email the other day and it cracked me up (I've been on a 'posting spam' kick lately). Don't know if these picturea are real, but they sure are laughable.

The happy bride and groom.

A very creative fabric treatment on the train of the bride's dress.

Good enough to eat?

Only a fine automaker like Oldsmobile is worthy of the LV emblem. :-)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

a year of spam

Note from Steve: I got this email from my friend Sonya. It cracked me up!


  • I must send my thanks to whoever sent me the one about rat poop in the glue on envelopes because I now have to use a wet towel with every envelope that needs sealing.
  • Also, now I have to scrub the top of every can I open for the same reason.
  • I no longer have any savings because I gave it to a sick girl (Penny Brown) who is about to die in the hospital for the 1,387,258th time.
  • I no longer have any money at all, but that will change once I receive the $15,000 that Bill Gates/Microsoft and AOL are sending me for participating in their special e-mail program.
  • I no longer worry about my soul because I have 363,214 angels looking out for me, and St. Theresa's novena has granted my every wish.
  • I no longer eat KFC because their chickens are actually horrible mutant freaks with no eyes or feathers.
  • I no longer use cancer-causing deodorants even though I smell like a water buffalo on a hot day
  • Thanks to you, I have learned that my prayers only get answered if I forward an email to seven of my friends and make a wish within five minutes.
  • Because of your concern I no longer drink Coca Cola because it can remove toilet stains.
  • I no longer can buy gasoline without taking a man along to watch the car so a serial killer won't crawl in my back seat when I'm pumping gas.
  • I no longer drink Pepsi or Dr. Pepper since the people who make these products are atheists who refuse to put "Under God" on their cans.
  • I no longer use Saran wrap in the microwave because it causes cancer.
  • And thanks for letting me know I can't boil a cup water in the microwave anymore because it will blow up in my face...disfiguring me for life.
  • I no longer check the coin return on pay phones because I could be pricked with a needle infected with AIDS.
  • I no longer go to shopping malls because someone will drug me with a perfume sample and rob me.
  • I no longer receive packages from UPS or FedEx since they are actually Al Qaeda in disguise.
  • I no longer shop at Target since they are French and don't support our American troops or the Salvation Army.
  • I no longer answer the phone because someone will ask me to dial a number for which I will get a phone bill with calls to Jamaica , Uganda , Singapore , and Uzbekistan.
  • I no longer have any sneakers -- but that will change once I receive my free replacement pair from Nike
  • I no longer buy expensive cookies from Neiman Marcus since I now have their recipe.
  • Thanks to you, I can't use anyone's toilet but mine because a big brown African spider is lurking under the seat to cause me instant death when it bites my butt.
  • Thank you too for all the endless advice Andy Rooney has given us. I can live a better life now because he's told us how to fix everything.
  • And thanks to your great advice, I can't ever pick up $5.00 I dropped in the parking lot because it probably was placed there by a sex molester waiting underneath my car to grab my leg.
  • Oh, and I can no longer drive my car because I can't buy gas from certain gas companies!

  • If you don't send this e-mail to at least 144,000 people in the next 70 minutes, a large dove with diarrhea will land on your head at 5:00 PM this afternoon and the fleas from 12 camels will infest your back, causing you to grow a hairy hump. I know this will occur because it actually happened to a friend of my next door neighbor's ex-mother-in-law's second husband's cousin's beautician...

  • A South American scientist from Argentina , after a lengthy study, has discovered that people with insufficient brain activity read their e-mail with their hand on the mouse.

Don't bother taking it off now, it's too late!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Speaking Chic to Power

LEADING ROLE - Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, brings to her new position a sense of style that is admired on both sides of the aisle as well as in other departments in Washington.


LAUDING someone for their style on Capitol Hill is a lot like celebrating the best surfer on Florida’s Gulf Coast — it’s all relative, and some would argue irrelevant. Washington has never embraced fashion (nor, for that matter, has the fashion world embraced Washington), and for understandable reasons. In political circles, fashion is a loaded term, smacking of frivolity and vanity.

So, to a large extent, politicians have been fashion agnostic, sticking stubbornly to their dark blue suits, red power ties, multicolored scarves and lacquered hair.

But with the ascent of Nancy Pelosi, 66, widely recognized and admired for her Armani and easy fashion savvy, the days of the dowdy Washington dress code may be numbered. At least that is the hope of a number of women on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats, who see Mrs. Pelosi, the new speaker of the House, as a fashion leader, too.

What’s more, these women do not altogether fear that their seriousness as politicians will be undermined by speaking aloud about hem lengths or helmet hair, or what one of them, Representative Mary Bono, calls the “St. John uniform,’’ a reference to the safe brand of choice on Capitol Hill.

“I am so sick of the matronly box — the rest of America doesn’t dress like that,” said Ms. Bono, 45, who, with her Palm Springs address, affection for the martial arts and her marriage to the late Sonny Bono, is decidedly un-Washingtonian.

“We all want to be taken seriously and you certainly don’t want to be too sexy,” added Ms. Bono, a California Republican, “but you have to maintain your femininity. Pelosi is a beautiful dresser. I’m hoping she has great impact — fashion-speaking, not politically speaking.”

During her first week on the job, Mrs. Pelosi clinched votes in the House on the minimum wage, financing for stem cell research and Medicare drug prices, drawing two veto threats (for research and drugs) from a notoriously veto-averse president.

And she did it looking preternaturally fresh, with a wardrobe that, while still subdued and overreliant on suits, has seldom spruced the halls of Congress. On Jan. 9, a Tuesday, she wore an impeccable black and white tweed skirt suit, with strong shoulders and the jacket nipped at the waist; on Wednesday, she draped a red shawl insouciantly around a red suit outside the White House; and on Thursday, she appeared in a mod, deep-blue velvet, slimming pantsuit.

Fashion authorities say Mrs. Pelosi should be applauded for her color choice (burgundy on Jan. 4, the day she was sworn in), her playfulness with jewelry (chunky, but tasteful, including signature Tahitian pearls) and her suit selection (from velvet to tweed), all of which can be imitated at a more affordable price by women who are not wealthy. Women are already taking note of her style; orders of Tahitian pearls have skyrocketed.

“She wears the clothes and the clothes don’t wear her, and that is the way it should be,” said Pamela Fiori, the editor-in-chief of Town & Country magazine, who emphasized that Mrs. Pelosi’s words are nonetheless more important than her clothes. “If she can have a little bit of influence in the Senate and House or in the home, that is not such a bad thing.”

Just raising the issue of a powerful woman’s wardrobe choices strikes some people as sexist, an undermining of her talents and qualifications. And last week, when a reporter approached several of the female members of the House and Senate, or their staff, to talk fashion, some did not want to engage. Others cringed, at least initially. But when the conversation veered into the nitty-gritty — what do you wear, where do you buy it, what image do you want to project — the women in politics happily chatted away.

“Ah, Ferragamo,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, 73, a California Democrat, admitting she spoils her feet as a form of revenge on the Capitol’s marble floors.

Women in politics are the first to say that they give serious thought to their appearance because, like it or not, voters at home, powerbrokers on the Hill and the news media are all mindful of the slightest faux pas. It is wrong to look too risqué, they say. But isn’t it retrograde to equate looking good with being empty-headed?

“As women policy makers become more trusted on the issues, they may feel there is more leeway,” Representative Stephanie Herseth, 36, a South Dakota Democrat, said optimistically. She recently got an earful for lightening her hair.

The men have it much easier because unlike women, they seldom are punished for fashion mistakes.

So it is understandable that women in politics are so skittish about their choices. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, 59 was tortured for her monthly makeovers when she was first lady. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, 52 photographed wearing black knee-high boots, an above-the-knee black skirt and a military-style black coat in 2005, was called a dominatrix by the fashion critic of The Washington Post.

Women in politics are still operating in a male world and don’t want to appear as lacking gravitas.

“This is still essentially a man’s town,” said Susan Molinari, a Republican and the former representative from Staten Island who runs the Washington Group, a government relations and lobbying firm. “Elected officials deal with serious subjects and want to be taken extremely seriously. You evaluate everything you wear. Does this detract? Does this get in the way of my message?”

Even Speaker Pelosi has her limits. Her staff members, after repeated requests, declined to talk about her clothing choices for this article. In a recent interview on “60 Minutes,” Mrs. Pelosi said her husband often buys clothes for her.

The truth is that women’s choices on Capitol Hill are often dictated by their job. Legislators are constantly walking long distances across punishing floors (comfortable, low-heeled shoes are a must), wrestling with finicky furniture (think durable fabrics) and hopping from committee rooms to fund-raisers (versatility is key). It is not enough to look good for a mere three hours, which is why many women favor St. John knits.

“You want something that isn’t fragile, that won’t shred at the sight of a splinter,” said Representative Ellen Tauscher, 55, a California Democrat, who calls the wood furniture she sits on in committee rooms “older than I am.”

“At the same time, you want people listening to what you are saying and not looking at what you are wearing,” said Ms. Tauscher, who is a leader on military issues.

To say that constituents do not care about fashion or image is simply not the case for most politicians. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, 40, a Florida Democrat, said her constituents love to talk about her look.

When she started straightening her hair, her new look landed in newspapers and elicited an avalanche of commentary, mostly positive. The change did not detract from her seriousness; she is now chief deputy whip.

“I say to my constituents, ‘Give me advice,’ ” she said. “And my seniors, everyone, says, ‘Debbie, get yourself a haircut.’ If I look like a schlepper, I’ll hear about it.”

She, too, reaches for the St. John uniform (despite Ms. Bono’s wish). But unlike some other lawmakers, she adheres to a strict budget. Her St. John wardrobe was purchased on eBay, sometimes by her husband, she confided: “You can’t buy that stuff in the store. It’s expensive.”

In fact, the orange skirt suit she wore one day on the House floor last week was Valentino. “Rodeodriveresale.com,” she said conspiratorially. “You know how expensive Valentino is?”

Recalling her entree into Washington politics, Ms. Wasserman Schultz said, “I had to dress more conservative.”

“But being dowdy is not effective, either,” she added. Her closest friend, she recalled, recently ordered her to “stop dressing like your mother.”

Does she feel any freedom to be bold? “Not around here,” she said.

There has been progress. Image consultants said Senator Clinton appears to have finally found her fashion center — long Nehru-ish jackets with pants, often in black, a vivid shirt underneath and bold jewelry. Her hair mostly compliments her age and standing. In fact, many women senators now embrace the black pantsuit. On one day last week, 6 out of 16 of them walked the Senate chamber in black pantsuits.

With so many images of scantily clad celebrities and so few of well-dressed professional women, every little bit helps.

“You don’t have to grow up to look like a librarian,” said Lauren Solomon, founder and director of LS Image Associates, which has clients in the corporate and political fields. “But you don’t have to look like a hooker, either.”

portrait of the mallgeek as a young architecture student

These were done in 1994 for a class I was taking at Virginia Tech. The instructor was pretty laid back, so he wasn't shocked when I picked some fairly ordinary (heavily retail) places as design commentary charettes.

These almost shock me in their clarity. I remember clearly doing these and not thinking a lot about what they were, but looking at them now, I don't know if I have the kind of patience to do all that by hand anymore.

The subject matter shows I haven't changed much since 1994.

We asked this question in college all the freaking time. It became a running gag.

SouthPark isn't much like this anymore.

I was exprimenting with shading. All the cool kids were doing it.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Grand Old Apothecary, Version 2.0


NEW YORK - I am a traumatized consumer. Like many Americans, I have spent my entire life so bombarded by salesmanship and advertising that I have become cautious and rattled from all of it. If someone offers me help when I walk into a store, I want to implode into a tiny dot and disappear. I usually say, “No I’m just looking thank you so much!” even when I know exactly what I am looking for because I’m frightened that saying yes will mean I will be spritzed with a noxious tonic and forced to buy it along with a Mitch Albom book and a life insurance policy.

The skin- and hair-care company Kiehl’s, on Third Avenue in the East Village, is one of the few nodes of commerce where I drop my guard. Visiting on a recent afternoon, I knew what I wanted (I have been swimming a lot lately and needed products to counteract the drying effects of chlorine), and as I perused its well-stocked and orderly shelves, a totally relaxed woman in a white lab coat approached me and said, “Hey, find what you’re looking for?”

I’ve heard this line before, but her voice contained no trace of sales desperation. I found it easy to talk to her, and she showed me the Olive Fruit Oil Nourishing Shampoo (8.4 ounces, $18) and Extra Strength Conditioning Rinse (8.4 ounces, $19), offered Ultra Facial Moisturizer (8.4 ounces, $33), and suggested I try All-Sport Swimmer’s Cleansing Rinse (8.4 ounces, $15), designed to cut through the chlorine smell. Instead of pressuring me, she put samples of the rinse in little bottles and threw them in a bag along with a sample of Creme With Silk Groom for hair, and a packet of Abyssine Eye Cream.

Of course I’ve been to Kiehl’s before. If you have lived in New York any time in the past 156 years, then you know it as the Katz’s deli of drugstores, a cherished institution where you take your out-of-town friends because you can trick them into thinking they’re in a museum while you do errands.

Occupying the same space since its founding in 1851 by a Polish family, the store displays druggist relics — old anatomical charts, bottles of potassium chlorate and Epsom salt tins — in its windows as if they were dioramas in the Smithsonian, which, it turns out, holds many old Kiehl’s formulas in its pharmacological products collection. It’s really satisfying to imagine you are buying your basic skin and hair products in the same place where someone said: “I am so stressed out from World War I. Do you have anything for slackened skin?”

Irving Morse bought the store in 1921 and was involved in the development of many products still in circulation, including Blue Astringent Herbal Lotion, Ultra Facial Moisturizer and the Kiehl’s signature product Creme de Corps, which promises on its label that “continued use for 10 days will provide a skin texture heretofore unattainable.” Much of the eccentric language that appears on all of the generic-looking labels was written by Irving’s son, Aaron, a World War II pilot who took over the store in the ’60s. After his death in 1996, his desk was prominently placed in the store, along with some of his vintage motorcycles and his “Easy Rider”-era quotes like “Love what you do, put your heart into it and it will be rewarded.”

Aaron Morse’s Harvard-educated daughter, Jami, stepped in to take over in 1988, moving back home from Austria, where she had married the ski legend Klaus Heidegger and had been teaching aerobics to the Austrian Olympic ski team. (Hey, it was the ’80s.) A clever marketer, she eschewed pushy advertising and relied on word of mouth while supplying magazine editors with products and expensive gifts, which may make her the inventor of swag. The promotional budget was put back into development of new products and preserving key ingredients like squalane, a refined olive oil derivation used in many of its moisturizers, which has a similar chemical makeup to the body’s own sebum, making it highly absorbable.

Ms. Morse wanted Kiehl’s to be a place where avid patrons like Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and an East Village junkie would each feel comfortable, and she trained her staff to be gentle with customers, including high-strung patrons like myself, who could be considered a hybrid of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and an East Village junkie.

Most of the products are still made at its Piscataway, N.J., factory and delivered like fresh-baked bread every day. In 2000, Ms. Morse sold the company to L’Oréal, which has pledged to maintain the idiosyncratic environment and to stay as faithful as possible to the formulas Kiehl’s developed over its long history.

But now that the brand has exploded onto an international level with more than 25 stores worldwide, this can be a challenge and has provoked some grumbling among the store’s old-school fans. Dealing in a global market means that, yes, some ingredients have changed, but that’s the price we all pay these days for thinking globally.

Keeping up apothecary authenticity is not cheap, and while this can seem justified when purchasing a finely concocted moisturizer or eye cream, you may hesitate before buying an 8.4-ounce bottle of eucalyptus body cleanser for $14.50 when you can pick up a 32-ounce container of folksy Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap at Duane Reade for the same price.

But over all, Kiehl’s satisfies a lot of fantasies you didn’t really know you had about pharmacies — those desires for old-fashioned liniments and salves you harbor from childhood, when you played store in the backyard or watched “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”

The historical apothecary vibe of Kiehl’s may be the closest we get to seeing a doctor actually use a mortar and pestle to mix medicines. And they don’t care if you are just looking. Funny that the one place that actually may have sold snake oil at some time is where you feel no pressure to buy.

109 Third Avenue (between 13th and 14th Streets); (212) 677-3171

ATMOSPHERE -- Early 20th-century New York décor; a cross between the Smithsonian and Duane Reade.

SERVICE -- The funky sales associates in white lab coats are helpful without being oppressive and are armed with free samples.

KEY ITEMS -- Skin and hair care products and fragrances, including special sections for babies, pets and men.

PRICES -- Not CVS cheap, but worth it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Sneakerheads love to show off footwear

By Sarah Skidmore, Associated Press Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. --Matt Halfhill is crazy about sneakers. He worked in a shoe store as a teenager, buying shoes on clearance. He has charmed his wife with kicks, buying limited edition pink and red Nikes for her on Valentine's Day. He collects them obsessively, lining the walls of his home with about 500 pairs of shoes. Welcome to the world of the sneakerhead, where shoes reign supreme.

Collectors range from casual fans of sneaker fashion to those who buy and sell shoes like a cardboard-encased commodity. True fanatics will camp out overnight for the latest pair, buy multiple pairs (in case one gets scuffed) and sometimes even wear them.

It's an obsession that has been gaining traction in recent years, even as sneaker sales have grown only slowly. There are Web sites, magazines, books, movies and radio shows dedicated to sneaker culture. There have even been television shows, like ESPN2's "It's About the Shoes" that included tours of collectors' enormous closets.

"I think people are more aware (of sneaker culture), the general public, because of the media and Internet," said Alex Wang, creative director for Sole Collector magazine and admitted shoe aficionado.

Sneakers have been a part of urban culture for decades. Run DMC rapped about "My Adidas" in the 1980s, and it remains a part of hip hop culture with famous sneakerhead artists like Missy Elliot and Fat Joe.

But sneaker love has spread. British teen pop star Lilly Allen sings about her "trainers" and rocks them onstage while wearing a posh dress.

Everyone from Manhattan businessmen to Midwestern teens are coming in with a hankering for shoes, store owners say.

"You can tell so much about a person by what they have on their feet," said Andre Speed, 36, at a Portland specialty sneaker store called Lifted. "You might not have the freshest outfit but if you have the kicks, you are going to get the respect."

Shoes can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars depending on their cachet.

"The scene is on fire," Speed said.

Shoe makers are feeding off the energy. They work with artists to develop specialized pairs, such as Puma's electric blue and red trainers designed by Brazilian artist Frederico Uribe. There are stores where people can order styles of their own.

Shoe companies regularly rerelease old favorites and also market updated styles and limited edition shoes.

Adidas released 30 NBA Superstar shoes -- one for each team in the NBA -- in December. Shoes flew off the shelves.

In February the company will offer several player-specific shoes, like a Tim Duncan pair that incorporates his tattoos into the design and will only be available at the NBA All-Star weekend in Las Vegas.

Nike celebrated the 25th anniversary of its Air Force 1 last month with a huge party in New York where there were 1,040 different versions of the shoe on display.

One attendee described it as "awesome, out of control awesome."

The rest of us can catch a replay on Jan. 13 on MTV, which is airing highlights of the party as part of a special on the culture surrounding Air Force 1.

Some sneaker designers have become celebrities themselves, such as Tinker Hatfield, Nike's legendary leader of the Innovation Kitchen, who is the star of sneakerhead events.

Adidas has heard from university equipment managers who get calls from sneakerheads looking for shoes that aren't available to the public.

"It's absolutely amazing. Even if it's the smallest niche, they'll buy all of them," said Terrell Clark, a spokesman for Adidas USA, based in Portland.

NPD Group, a market research firm, estimates total U.S. footwear sales were nearly $42 billion in 2005, up 9 percent from the year before. But of that, athletic shoes only grew 3 percent.

Industry analysts say sneakerheads make up a small but crucial part of the shoe industry.

"There is incredible value for how it exists for the company as a tool for them to take a pulse for what kids will see as hip and relevant," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "You are always trying to find the Pied Piper for the industry."

Shoe collectors dictate what will be hot and what will be bought.

"Nike gets really great fashion and trend ideas from these kids, who are really cutting-edge," said John Shanley, a clothing and accessories industry analyst for Susquehanna Financial Group. "They can capitalize on (that) down the road from a mass production mode."

So shoe companies are compelled to reach out to sneakerheads.

They offer "quick hit" shoes, which might have a hundred or so pairs, and pop-up stores, which open for a day or week to sell a limited edition shoe and then disappear.

"It's always changing," said Dave Ortiz, co-owner of popular New York store Dave's Quality Meat. "As long as people have feet, they are going to have shoes. Walking around barefoot is not going to come back into style."

Shoe experts point to a mix of popular culture, nostalgia, technology and disposable income as drivers for the increased fascination with sneakers.

"It's hard to explain to a regular person," Wang said. "There is always a memory or a story with a sneaker, even if you aren't into it -- you had sneakers at one point."

Originals like Adidas Shell Toes or Puma classics remain strong. Anything related to Air Jordan, which revolutionized the industry with its mix of style, technology and an iconic player, remains hot more than 20 years after its debut. And some East Coast stores say they are seeing a lot of Vans heading off their shelves lately.

"That is the good thing about sneakers in general," said Wang, who prefers running shoes from Asics and Nike. "Everyone has a preference."

Collectors say they have a hard time specifying why they love their kicks so much.

"My wife thinks I'm crazy," said Halfhill, who runs a Web site called nicekicks.com. "She does complain to me to stop talking about shoes all the time."

But it's been a financially lucrative obsession for some. They say they could make a down payment on a house or pay off a car loan if they sold their collection -- not that they would.

Collecting sneakers is no different from collecting baseball cards or Barbie dolls, said Wang, who grew up watching basketball and worshipping Michael Jordan.

"It's just another hobby."

And sneakers are his.

Changing The Game On Nike

How budget sneakers are tripping up its basketball business

By Stanley Holmes

Like the National Basketball Assn.'s top-tier Dallas Mavericks, Nike Inc. continues to display a potent offense. Its recent second-quarter profit surged 8%, to $326 million, and sales jumped 10%, to $3.8 billion. The stock, up about 15% over the past 12 months, continues to fly high. "The brand is strong," Nike CEO Mark Parker told analysts in December. "The company is growing."

But the sporting goods giant is facing a full-court press at the heart of its U.S. business: basketball footwear. Industrywide unit sales of basketball shoes dropped 16% last year, says market research firm SportScanINFO. And Nike, which counts on basketball gear for an estimated 30% to 40% of its U.S. revenues, acknowledged last month that footwear inventories were 15% higher than a year ago. Running shoes and the apparel business remain strong, but John Shanley, who tracks the industry for Susquehanna Financial Group, says Nike will have to sell a lot of shoes in the coming weeks or suffer a possible hit to earnings. Nike CFO Donald Blair told analysts he believed the inventory overhang would not "have a material negative impact."

Nike has been the king of the basketball sneaker since the 1980s, when Michael Jordan-branded shoes first became a fashion statement on and off the court. But the current Jordan line is losing some cachet among suburban and inner-city kids. While a new release of the Air Jordan Retro did well over Christmas, some of the latter-day Jordan models are being sold at unusually deep discounts.

Nike has been betting on NBA up-and-comer LeBron James to help it make the transition from the Jordan era. In 2003 the company announced it would pay the Cleveland Cavaliers forward $90 million over a decade to promote its shoes. But while the new Zoom LeBron IV shoe has sold well, James is not a Jordan-caliber endorser, in part because the NBA is not the draw it was when Jordan was a star.

It's no secret that for the past few years, kids have been trading in their high-tops for skateboarding shoes made by the likes of Vans, dc, and Skechers. But the big news in the sneaker world is the advent of the cheap basketball shoe. Case in point: the Starbury One, which sells for $14.98. Made and sold by the discount clothing chain Steve & Barry's, the sneaker is endorsed by New York Knicks guard Stephon Marbury, who says 3 million pairs have sold since its August debut.

The Starbury and its ilk have the potential to undermine Nike's basketball sneaker business. According to researcher npd Group Inc., the low-cost shoe market—sneakers under $50—has grown nearly 9% over the past two years and now makes up more than half of the $16.5 billion of branded athletic footwear sold each year in the U.S. Nike sells its own cheap sneakers, but doesn't have much traction against such low-cost entrants as the $35 Amp runner, a creation from Payless ShoeSource. "If I were a branded athletic company right now, I'd be reconsidering my whole approach," says Jeffrey Bliss, president of Javelin Group, a sports marketing firm.

Nike has overcome big challenges before. It continues to dominate the basketball sneaker market and still sells 95% of $100-plus shoes. It has a hit with the Converse Inc. Dwayne Wade, a sneaker endorsed by the Miami Heat guard that retails for $100. Thanks to strong demand for the shoe, Nike says revenue at its Converse unit rose nearly 50% during the most recent quarter. The question for Nike is whether the current hunger for cheap sneakers is building long-term momentum or is little more than a fad.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

crawlin' like a (human) centipede

(Submitted to steve's blog by Al Cabino)

"Montreal artist Socalled (Josh Dolgin) turned himself into a 'human centipede' in this weird music video (oh yeah, did I mention that he turned traditional Jewish music into hip-hop?)"

‘human centipede’

Note from Steve: I think he could have doone better with Centipede by Rebbie Jackson. LOL

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

cracks in the tinted glass

Tanglewood Mall, Roanoke, Virginia. East exterior entrance near JCPenney, scheduled to be renovated. Photographed by me circa 2004 for deadmalls.com.

Tanglewood Mall, Roanoke, Virginia. East exterior entrance near JCPenney, scheduled to be renovated. Photographed 1/12/07.

Tanglewood Mall, Roanoke, Virginia. Original pole lamp at east exterior entrance near JCPenney, scheduled to be removed. Photographed 1/12/07.

In addition to these new stores, Tanglewood Mall will commence construction shortly on the Mall’s front entrances as part of the overall continued Mall’s exterior renovations. Construction will begin January 15 on the entrance next to Applebee’s."

Beckie Spaid, Tanglewood Mall Marketing Director

It came in a press release the other day. It was innocuous; a side note compared to the relocation of Hallmark and Stein Mart, but that little paragraph pretty much broke my good mood.

Those are MY entrances (41). Well, at least one of them still is. The exterior entrance at Tanglewood Mall near JCPenney still was in the same configuration that it’s been since 1973. Ever since I can remember, it’s been the same, and it’s been cool.

My The Price Is Right doors will likely disappear. Like I told you earlier, when I was younger, I used to pretend the automatic doors at Tanglewood Mall were my 'set' and I would walk out of them by myself to get that proper Bob Barker feeling. Keep in mind Tanglewood looked a lot like the TPiR set at that time!

Don't get me started about Bob retiring. He needs the rest, but it'll never be the same.

This planned exterior desecration comes on the heels of another relic at Tanglewood recently modernized beyond recognition, the old Woolco building, which was robbed of its exterior Woolco-ness so that T.J. Maxx, Staples, and soon, Stein Mart, would be able to express their more modern 'personalities.' Give me a break.

I know change is inevitable, especially in retail, but let me sulk for a while. (51) This sucks.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Get Your Kicks from 1986

Photograph by Jeff Harris

Geoff Van Dike
Men's Journal, February 2007 issue

The renaissance of all things ‘80s is, of course, part knowing irony and part earnest appreciation. With the reintroduction of athletic shoes designed in that era, the appeal tends toward the latter.

These were top-of-the-line running and skating shoes, worn by elite athletes. So they’re comfortable. And compared to today’s models, with their “shocks,” built-in stride sensors, and iPod hookups, they’re wonderfully simple.

The offerings shown here feature some new colors, materials, and other design twists, but they are essentially pure, from a time when a sneaker was just a sneaker.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

“'Tis healthy to be sick sometimes.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sick! It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it never seems to go away.

This latest bout started around New Years’ and has stuck with me for the last few days. At first I felt bad all over, but now, I mostly sound like shit, which doesn’t bode well for either job, where all it seems like I do is talk.

So here I am at home in my PJs on an involuntary vacation. I think, in some perverse way, God is giving me what I need: a reason to go sit down and not worry about everything and everyone.

As a rule, I don’t take vacations. Those long periods of unemployment I’ve had, I feel, have been vacation enough. But the body has to rest. It craves it. I try to avoid nature because my head is telling me that I need to do more stuff, but nature has a way of getting its own way, I guess.

So what am I doing other that hacking up stuff at regular intervals? Mostly sleeping and looking around on the internet. If you’re a regular reader of this blog and you have a website, I’ve probably been on it at some point in the last three days. My brain is scrambled form the medication, so my already semi-incoherent comments would come out worse, so I haven’t left messages.

But anyway, sorry that I’m partially out of commission. This stuff is breaking up finally, and things should be better soon.