In her monthly column for Document, writer and fashion theory knave Maya Kotomori finds age 25 while Black Friday buying
The suburbs are evil. There’s the sprawl that feels selfish, with manicured lawns that use too much water, maintained by people with enough useless junk in the garage to be labeled hoarders. To confront the overstuffed, overfed lives of suburbanites feels like dying. When my dad first taught me that plastic “never goes away” at age eight, I wept, thinking, How on earth could people use this stuff! I imagined a future where there would be no trash; I also imagined everyone wearing really cool clothes, because I thought that style was a right all should be afforded. A sense of environmental doom colored my imagination, ironically pushing me towards fashion as a form of creative expression—a glitzy industry responsible for 10 percent of global carbon emissions as of this year.
I’ve realized, however, that I was not actually interested in fashion: I was interested in shopping, which is a very different beast. You can mentally escape the suburbs by playing dress up in your head, or by drawing women in full ensembles made from cartoon hats—but saving your allowance to buy Harajuku Lovers t-shirts from Nordstrom will only lead to a sad IKEA Malm six-drawer dresser overflowing with wacky superfluous goods. Shopping as a means of fulfillment is the foremost endeavor keeping the American masses bound, both to the idea of the value of consumption, and to a misunderstanding of what fashion actually is. As a kid, I fell for the narrative that the only way to become fashionable was to buy into it. Later on, as a young person in higher education, I learned that fashion is the history of a craft (Queen Elizabeth); style is the practice of taste (Elizabeth Taylor); and shopping is, well, Ann Taylor. Shopping does not fashion make—a concept that I had to learn (as well as teach) in undergrad, rendering me the class provocateur, as well as a huge bitch.
Ahead of my 25th birthday—which would just so happen to fall on Black Friday—I sought to break the cycle of stunting on my contemporaries with such pseudointellectual verve. So I did the most subversive thing a graduate of a liberal arts program can do: I finished a book. Lee Eisenberg’s Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What is a largely anecdotal text about the fraught emotional relationship Americans have with the act of buying. He talks about shoppers of all creeds: Those looking for thrift (namely, hoarders of kitchen goods), romance (at one point, he describes a Ford F-150 in relation to fetish theory), and downright addicts whose purchasing habits resemble substance abuse. Eisenberg’s most endearing story serves as the framework underpinning a harder theory about consumption—that the free market is an inescapable, manipulative force in the Western world, and that buying stuff can be a lot of fun. As he shops for the perfect little black dress with his wife Linda, her decision fatigue and neurotic this-or-that across the local mall leads to a life-long purchase from the sale rack at Bloomingdale’s.
These days, I want an experience like Linda’s. But I’m plagued by this line of inquiry between fashion and style. Shoptimism reminds me that real people shop. I shop. I am American, therefore my strongest bonds to both concept and object are consumption first, understanding later. Accepting this fact let me give into my impulses, choosing to celebrate my birthday with the most suburban activity possible: Black Friday shopping at the famed West Coast luxury outpost, Desert Hills Premium Outlets.
Black Friday is a yearly foray into the darker aspects of humankind. It feels so cheap that it could be fake, like an email from a Nigerian prince asking your hand in marriage, along with your Social Security card so that he may claim his throne. It’s called ‘Black’ for many reasons. Some say the name comes from being “in the black,” because shoppers would spend so much after Turkey Day that retailers “in the red”—or at a fiscal deficit—would be saved. Other sources report that Black Friday was a phrase used by Philadelphia police in the ’50s to describe droves of outer Pennsylvanians and tourists who’d flock to the city for the Army-Navy football game—held annually the Saturday after Thanksgiving—taking care of their holiday shopping afterwards. Retailers tried to change it to Big Friday in the ’60s, fearing ties to Black Monday, the day of the famed 1929 stock market crash; but it didn’t hold. The “in the black” narrative has been the strongest since the ’80s, aiming to center the day around boosting the economy.
“I learned that fashion is the history of a craft (Queen Elizabeth); style is the practice of taste (Elizabeth Taylor); and shopping is, well, Ann Taylor.”
Black Friday is fascinating when considered next to the psychology of color, and how it’s used in marketing. In 2006, Canadian professor Dr. Satyendra Singh produced a research paper that purported that, across age and gender demographics, the color black engenders sad, lurid, and generally negative emotion. The data also shows that 62 to 90 percent of all purchases are influenced by color. It makes you think about the violent attitudes of Black Friday shoppers en masse, especially before the reign of e-commerce: Remember the Walmart employee who was trampled to death in 2008 by some 2,000 rabid patrons? It all goes to suggest that, sometimes, negative emotions don’t turn us away from buying—they actually have the potential to ignite consumeristic mania strong enough for us to see discounts first, fellow man second.
This was not the case at Desert Hills, which was by all means tame. My shopping partner was my dad—child-adolescent psychiatrist by day, pure flaneur by night—who quickly followed my lead in both crowd management and people watching. There were a lot of TikTok-y youngsters searching for the most hype Balenciaga piece to tell the Internet about later; friends yelling at each other (and sometimes salespeople) in different languages; and my favorite—your average guy buying bulk at Nike for his all-American teen, in need of gear for an impending season of high school sports. The landscape was generally peaceful, apart from shop floors littered with various snack wrappers, receipts, and—as I saw in the new Givenchy boutique—misplaced children’s toys. (I found this hilarious, because the environment of your run-of-the-mill luxury store, even in outlet form, is so incredibly up-itself, and cleaner than a dentist’s office). Still, you could detect the faintest hint of desperation on nearly every face, whether it seemed like they were relying on this day to participate in the ritual of gift-giving, or just wanting fine leather goods at extremely discounted prices. That expression of abject need I’ll never be able to forget.
I’d like to apply Shoptimism to my own want for a very expensive Bottega Veneta bag, referring to Eisenberg’s six-step process for Buying, quoted here:
1. We decide we need or want something.
2. We then seek out information we use to narrow our choices: we pay attention to ads, scout around online, seek recommendations from people we trust, retrieve impressions of products and stores we’ve acquired through the years.
3. Next we zero in on the details of what we think we need or want. We need or want a new shirt—should it be striped, solid, or plaid?
4. We then weigh an assortment of finer variables—fit, size, price, brand, available parking.
5. We buy, often with a credit card.
6. Finally, we render a verdict (deliberation time varies). Did what we buy satisfy, fulfill expectations? Or did the Buy let us down, leaving us pissed at whoever or whatever conned us into buying it in the first place?
The thing about Eisenberg’s steps: No one actively shops with a list like this in mind. His point—which I came to understand after a first browse through Bottega, a minor sunglasses purchase at Celine, one too-small coat option at Balenciaga, and then another round at my initial location—is that the American consumer will always be passive in weighing opportunity cost: the expensive purse, versus paying your bills on time. When we say, I’ll think about it, peruse the racks elsewhere, and then come back to make a decision, that time spent away does not usually make the heart grow fonder. It engenders a kind of shopxiety (official DSM definition pending) through which the potential Buy grows lustful. Because so much deliberation goes into the Buy-Don’t Buy paradigm, to actually purchase becomes an act of relief. In the end, it’s like going straight to Eisenberg’s number six: where “the Buy lets us down.”
In rare cases, the bag you want could be one of Eisenberg’s four types of Buys worth making. Specifically the last one: “Good Buy 4: The By-This-We-Shall-Be-Remembered Buy.” This tote could defend against what feels like a breach of my youth; it could give my quarter-century anniversary lifeblood—a bovine-scented souvenir by which I may remember 25 as the day I bought the beautiful purse, rather than when I started to feel “mature” (in the derogatory way). The potential Buy is sexy, and it’s something that I can own and love forever, because I am not the average consumer—I know about fashion!
Reflecting on my own flawed decision-making, Mary Douglas comes to mind—revered anthropologist and eternal shoptimist referenced at the end of Eisenberg’s book. She waves off conservative notions of shopping as pure evil in her text The World of Goods, instead proposing that, as Eisenberg summarizes, “the things we don’t buy say more about who we are, or would like to be,” than what we do buy.
All of this is to say that I didn’t buy the Bottega Veneta medium Arco tote in the color Fondant—not just because I don’t need it, or because, even discounted, it cost more than my rent. In that moment, I refused to shop as a mere human passenger to my want. After all, the kind of indulgence required for me to make such a purchase seemed as decadently useless as urban sprawl. As a former suburbanite, I am not just a sack of meat with the opposable thumbs required to swipe a credit card—and active participation in the act of shopping employs the same tenets of creativity, moxie, and dedication that drew me to fashion to begin with. We might be what we don’t buy, rather than the other way around. Because of Eisenberg, and Douglas, I am proudly purseless, because I’d rather be bespoke than spoken for by an object.