Shopping Is Also the Drug

Dave Hickey

Bryan Ferry was so right: “Love is the drug.” But love is not always available in the form you want when you want it, whereas shopping is generally pretty much something you can do whenever you want, fulfilling wishes and fantasies and passing the time (whether or not you can pay for your purchases).

I haven’t really given my shopping habits much thought, but I was just reading an essay Dave Hickey wrote for Art in America in which he discusses the conscious vs. the unconscious mind. This was inspired by Timothy Wilson’s book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, which updates Freud’s gothic notions of the more submerged consciousness for the age of software.

I’ll leave the explication to Hickey, but in the essay he elegantly compares his conscious mind to Waldo Lydecker, the acid-penned critic played by Clifton Webb in Otto Preminger’s film Laura (1944), and his unconscious or adaptive unconscious mind to Joe Cocker. I can relate to this model, although I would cast Nick Nolte as my unconscious mind and George Clooney (as Michael Clayton or Danny Ocean, not Harry Pfarrer of Burn After Reading or Everett of Oh Brother) as my conscious mind.It was a slow moment in a tedious work week, and after reading Hickey’s essay I decided to stretch my legs and go shopping. And somehow I began reflecting on the nature of my shopping—how much of it is the product of rational thought and how much of it is driven by demons from the erotic mire or monsters from the id.

My unconscious mind

My conscious mind

Thinking about it I realized that I have bought several expensive cars and, if I remember correctly, several expensive art works and some pricey antique jewelry for my wife when hungover. Now, I have had pretty good results. I especially liked the 1995 BMW 735 that I bought after too much fun and kept for five years. My wife still misses that car.


Actually buying expensive items is one of the only activities that I have ever found was helped by a hangover. I don’t know if that deliberately self-inflicted malaise helps a sales resistance born of years of being a starving artist, but maybe that’s it. Guilt over those few-too-many may serve to assuage the guilt of spending. And I’m sure I wouldn’t have bought the Michael Goldberg abstract expressionist painting if I hadn’t had quite a few drinks at that benefit for Bomb magazine. And the same might be said of the Joseph Kosuth sofa. I actually regret not having a hangover the day I didn’t buy that 1973 Citroën DS station wagon on eBay. Will I ever find another?


I also believe that shopping releases endorphins. Or is there another, more exclusive neurotransmitter involved? It was a common saw in my childhood that women’s depression could be eased by buying a new hat. Of course women don’t wear as many hats today, and the hats they do wear lack that fantastic element that characterized those of the fifties and sixties; and now there is an entire category of drugs designed to do what hats by Halston or Lilly Daché or Schiaparelli once did. But do those drugs do as well? Somehow I doubt it. In fact I suspect that shopping is perhaps the most effective of all anti-depressants. It generally only has one side effect: debt. But a good shopper knows his needs and his rhythms and can turn this often mundane activity into something of an art (just as we do with cooking).

Yesterday I needed a boost and a relief from the tedium of office work (I wasn’t hungover but was suffering from allergies), so I skipped out and bought: a black cotton tie with white flowers; a black bucket rainhat and a lightweight cotton scarf from Agnès B.; and a silk tie (navy blue with golden birds on it) and a pair of pajamas at Paul Smith. It’s not like I went wild. I actually resisted buying a shirt and a sweater at A.P.C. I felt like I was very successful. I didn’t do a lot of economic damage, but I bought key accessories that would dress up existing clothes—except for the pajamas, which I thought might liven up my dreamlife. (They did. Those multicolored stripes seemed to have conjured up a certain erotic ecstasy, at least once.) The black bucket rain hat replaces a favorite one that I bought in the Burren, my favorite corner of Ireland, and then lost. And the scarf is part of my new Paris-inspired policy of wearing a scarf into weather where coolness is only a possibility. You see, all of these purchases, except possibly the tie with the birds on it, can be seen as rational decisions, even if they were initiated from some deeper urge. And as for the bird tie, well, I am considering that emblematic of my interest in augury, or the auspicious movement of birds which I have been studying lately.

The Burren

The artistic shopper is precise, exacting, and wide-ranging. To be a good shopper you have to cover a lot of ground because you’ll never find all the things you seek in the same place. Or even in the same time. I periodically return to all my favorite vendors because even for those style-conscious who are relatively immune to the vagaries of fashion, change can surpise. For example, things come back into style. For years I was looking for tab collar shirts, like the ones I wore as a teenager and the ones Bob Dylan wore so creatively, buttoned and tabbed but without a tie, and this year, here they were again. The same for the club collar with a pinhole built in. I was unable to find these even used, but then this season there they were at Brooks Brothers in the fall preview.


About ten years ago I could not find a three-piece suit off the rack and had to have them made at Anderson & Sheppard. A few short years later the racks were following my lead. And I’m not going to even get into the saddle shoes and bucks story. (If someone can tell me where I can get a white powder bag made to brighten up white bucks, there is a reward in it for you.) Anyway, style might be permanent but retail fashion is cyclical, so those of us who are elaborately set in our ways must be vigilant or else elaborate in our commissioning of the bespoke.

For years I waited for ties to return to a reasonable and proper width, and had to content myself with wearing mainly Hermès ties and vintage, but today I have no problem finding ties in the 3-inch width range. If something is good and right it will come back. So I am always looking out for pants with a belt adjustment in the back, thin white hose, the perfect black raincoat, natural-shoulder sportcoats that button up around the neck against a chill, a good herringbone sport jacket, and the perfect polo coat. And it seems that just when you’ve despaired someone comes along and gets it right. Today I’m wearing one of my Black Fleece oxford cloth button-down shirts by Thom Browne. For years it was impossible to find the right cloth (not too thin), the right body (not too full), and the right collar roll. Mission accomplished, Mr. Browne.


But that’s why shopping is a drug. You get what you want, but you never get it all. It’s a lifelong quest. Last year I saw the perfect roll-up panama hat at the prototype for J.Crew’s “Liquor Store,” dreamed up by Mickey Drexler and Andy Spade, but by the time I got there it was gone. I probably need a 7 1/2. And a Citroën wagon.


Shopping is a drug unlike any other. I believe I have described how it can act as a sedative and anodyne. But shopping is also a trip, pun intended. Going into a store is a way of testing your own personal sensibility against that of another, often a sort of tribal personality that defines an affinity group. All stores have personalities and some of these are virtually archetypal. Think of mid-century Brooks Brothers; it was an institution that defined a way of life. Virtually all luxury brands with longevity have this quality—think of Cartier, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermès. But you’ll find unspoken ideologies throughout retail, even at Wal-Mart.

Visit Wal-Mart and Old Navy and you can tell by your own reactions how you stack up against America. Visit Hermès in Paris and you might have certain illuminations regarding luxury and value.

Shopping can be a dangerous drug, of course, for those who can’t handle non-substances, but I find it consistently rewarding. If you want to understand America and the world you must shop. At least window shop. It’s an easy portal into the world of dreams we all share, that collective unconscious of aspiration and desire. You may find yourself hypnotized, but this is a test. This is our dream time, our sweat lodge. Should you find yourself entranced you can wake yourself up. Just memorize this little mantra: “attention shoppers…attention shoppers.”

Sorry I Didn't Write!

The author at the Chanel show, photo by the Sartorialist.

Okay, I was in Paris. But I was working, covering Fashion Week, for almost two weeks. In Paris they shouldn’t call it Fashion Week because it’s not; they should call it Fashion Fortnight. Or le fashion marathon. Or “Survivor: Paris.” It does drag on, but it’s a lot easier than Milan’s event, which crams about the same amount of shows and business into half the time. It’s still a lot of work if you’re really trying to check everything out. I heard that Vogue’s editor Anna Wintour packed up and went home in protest two days before the end, to pointedly point out that a week shouldn’t drag on for eleven days. (Unless, in my opinion, it’s a vacation week.) Apparently when she did something similar in Milan a few years ago they cut their extravaganza down to five days. But I hope it doesn’t change. If you’re in Paris you don’t want to work harder than the 35-hour-a-week locals.

Hey, its Paris, not Marseilles, or Cleveland. So as hard as you work, as much as you run around, you’re in a beautiful and inspiring place and you want to have a good time. I had that Billy Strayhorn lyric to "Lush Life" bouncing around my head, sometimes in the voice of Nat King Cole, sometimes Johnny Hartman, with John Coltrane wailing behind.

A week in Paris will ease the bite of it,
All I care is to smile in spite of it.

A week in Paris is very nice, even if you spend a lot of it hanging out in weird industrial spaces waiting for an over-the-top fashion show to start with a bunch of bitchy, tired, stressed-out journalists. But I promised myself I wasn’t going to write to you fellows about the women’s fashion business. I’ll just pass on a few observations about Paris. Yes, Paris does ease the bite of it.

It starts with the physical environment. Being in such a beautiful place puts one in a good mood, thanks to a lot of dead architects, who were often proud enough of their work to sign and date it. Obviously the builders of Paris saw the city, most of which was built during a relatively short, colonialism-funded period, as an artwork on a grand scale. Paris is like Venice in that it’s not hard to envision yourself in another era there. Temporal regression is easier in Venice because cars don’t get into the picture, but Paris today isn’t all that different from what it was a-hundred-and-fifty years ago. It’s an atmosphere designed to be beautiful, harmonious, and inspiring. Like Rome, Paris is designed to instill classical values in its inhabitants, and perhaps an ancient sense of the divine. While Paris is filled with beautiful churches, one probably feels the presence of Apollo and Aphrodite more than that of Jehovah or Jesus. The spirit of Paris seems to have the touch of the goddess, and no doubt any genuine capital of fashion and style is under her protection. Let’s not forget that the city is named for the fellow who chose Aphrodite as the most beautiful of the goddesses.

Paris finds Aphrodite (Venus) the fairest of them all.

This trip I stayed at the lovely Hotel Raphael on Avenue Kleber. If I stick my head out the window I can see the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. And when I get out of the elevator on the ground floor I’m looking at an actual Turner oil painting. The Raphael is grand and gracious and it dates to an era when people came to hotels to stay awhile. My spacious room had five closets, enough to unpack a couple of steamer trunks. The service is excellent and friendly, as long as it doesn’t involve electronics. When I was unable to order a pay-per-view movie one night the concierge didn’t offer help, just regrets and apologies. He kept saying he was sorry so sincerely that I felt guilty for complaining. When it came to the wireless internet connection they were more baffled than I was. But when it came to room service, well, that was lovely. One night after working late I ordered dinner and a bottle of wine. They also had a half bottle of the same vintage. The room service man asked if I wanted a full bottle or a half bottle, but before I could answer he said, “Yes, a full bottle. Why not?” And I knew that he was reassuring me that I was making the right decision, doing what he would have done himself.

The Raphael

It’s also nice when you’re in a hotel and two days later absolutely everyone knows your name. In a city not your own it makes you feel you have, if not family, then loyal retainers. You want the staff of your hotel to care if you get that restaurant reservation, and that your taxi driver knows where he’s going. But that’s Paris. One thing that they do very very well is the hotel. There are hundreds of them in Paris. I used to stay in cheap, charming hotels on the Left Bank in my starving artist days, and I always felt at home: the Angleterre, the Hotel de Seine. I just looked up one that I liked—the St. Andre des Arts is still 71 euros for a single. Like all of the aforementioned it’s walking distance to La Coupole, Café de Flore, Les Deux Magots, and Brasserie Lipp.

I visited Café Flore, the old hang of Jean-Paul Sartre, once on my trip. I was meeting some friends before going to the opening of La Montana, a new club just down the block, hosted by Olivier Zahm and Andre. Andre just goes by just one name, like Cher or Madonna or Fabio. You know if Andre and Olivier are involved that there will be a certain fabulousness to the place. Anyway La Coupole seemed completely the same as ever. There was a table occupied by the celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, his actress wife Arielle Dombasle, and a glam entourage. (Obviously they, too, were destined for La Montana.) HBL, as he is known, looked fabulous as ever. I wondered about his hair products and who were these people he was with. Were they also glamorous philosophers? They looked like it. But you have to love a country where a philosopher can be a gossip-star. I sat with my artist friends Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag (together known as MM/Paris) and Camille Bidault-Waddington, a very stylish stylist who is married to Jarvis Cocker, and a woman friend of hers. We drank champagne except for Mathias, who was on martinis and speculated as to what sort of meal Olivier Zahm would serve at the Montana at what was described as a small, intimate dinner. Would there be food? At the table next to ours, facing the BHL posse, a peculiar-looking fellow kept turning around and smiling at us and waving. I couldn’t tell if he was a friend of someone’s or a benign, well-dressed nut. He proved to be the latter but I still liked that he somehow approved of us.

Decor at the Montana, photo by Olivier Zahm

La Montana is a sort of lovely hole in the wall of rue Sant Benoit, a short stagger from the Flore. A former jazz club, the ground floor is mostly taken up by a long bar and the cavelike downstairs, the domed ceilings of which have been handsomely decorated with mosaics. There are walls featuring entomology drawings, a bar room, and a miniature discotheque room. While some of the more naïve waited for an actual dinner, despite the almost complete absence of tables, the savvy and hungry stuffed themselves on heavy hors d’ouevres—caviar, smoked salmon, blinis, taramasalata, and so on, as the Veuve Cliquot flowed along with Andre’s new Belvedere X vodka. It was a sort of summit meeting with Purple covergirl Diane von Furstenberg, Betsy Catroux, sexy movie stars Milla Jovovich, Jessica Alba, and Lou Doillon, sexy supermodels Angela Lindvall, Kate Moss, Sasha Pivororava, sexy fashion editor Anne Christiansen, the tall redhead from the New York Times, sexy coatcheck, sexy barmaids…. If I lived in Paris I might actually go to a nightclub once in a while.

Audrey Marnay at Montana, photo by Olivier Zahm

Paris is sexy. No doubt about it. It’s the world capital of sexiness. Just try to get across town and you see people kissing on all the bridges. Walk through the Tuileries and you see people kissing. Walk past the sexy Richard Serra sculpture toward the big fashion show tent in the Tuileries and photographers are snapping all the sexy assistant fashion editors who look like movie stars.

I even feel sexier in Paris. I don’t think I look any different there, but I seem to get better results. In New York I get accosted by male Korean fashion stringers; in New York I get accosted by beautiful girl photographers. I suppose if I spent more time in Paris it might start to affect the way I dress. I know that when I packed for the trip I packed three different scarves. I wouldn’t have done that for Toronto.

It’s important to wear a scarf in Paris, especially if you want to pass as a local. When I’m in Paris I’m always flattered if someone stops and asks me for directions. It means I look good. I feel the same way in Rome. It’s a compliment. I actually packed three scarves for Paris, and could have picked up a few more. My second to last night there I actually used my big checkered Paul Smith scarf as a face mask when John Galliano made it snow indoors, using some suspiciously noxious chemical that had the front row stalwarts in coughing fits, as part of a spectacular though annoying light show that accompanied his riotous runway parade. In Paris you should always wear a scarf, even if you’re in a T-shirt.

Parisians aren’t over-the-top fancy dressers the way Italians or Britons are. They generally a favor a simple look, but one that is well thought out and has the finishing touches. As with my Friend Olivier, who looks basically the same every day in his jeans, leather jacket, and aviators, each item has been carefully selected, and what looks the same is actually one of similar rotating elements. He has lots of variations on those amber aviator glasses, the jeans, and black leather jackets. A man should have a look of his own, and not be a mannequin. Clothes don’t make the man, the man makes the clothes.

Parisians can be spectacularly eccentric in their turn out, but you rarely see someone that you would describe as a fashion victim. You do see ensembles that are very extravagant and costly, but rarely do you see someone dressed head to toe in someone else’s idea. Parisians have a knack for putting a look together out of components in their own style, and often it is charmingly retrospective.

Paris encourages quirkiness. This is, after all, the land of the beret. It’s okay to have a moustache here. Or smoke a pipe, or wear a fedora or a Bavarian hat. Or have a dangling watch chain. I think that what would ordinarily seem to be affectations are encouraged here because they are not so much affectations as affirmations. They affirm the individual within a context of tradition. There’s something rather nice about the peculiarities sported by Parisians as personal trademarks. Maybe the expression “doing your own thing” reaches its zenith here, accent on the own. Bohemianism is quite acceptable and almost de rigeur in some ways, and so a person marks his stylistic turf. And while this is the capital of fashion, there is no mania for the latest except among the hardcore bourgeoisie. There is no pressure to conform to this season and abandon last year’s garment. Paris loves variation but is suspicious of gratuitous change, which is one of the reasons that buildings and institutions are preserved. There is a lovely form of conservativism to the French. It has its excesses in intolerance and xenophobia, but it is no coincidence that the word resistance tends to conjure up the word French.

One of the things I enjoy about the French is their formality. Their language is formal. We don’t have the tutoyer, the formal and familiar form of the second person. We have abandoned thee and thou, perhaps unfortunately. But the French go around saying, basically, “I prithee have a glass of champagne.” They don’t call people they don’t know "honey" and "sweetie," and while this seems like a small thing I believe that it informs their entire social structure. It always bugs me in New York when I meet someone and on taking their leave they plant kisses on my cheeks. It doesn’t happen in France and I wound up discussing this with a French business colleague. I told her “I don’t kiss on the first date. Or the first meeting.”

If an American is an intellectual or an aesthete or bohemian or cool then conservatism is generally considered a bad thing, but this propriety of the French, when you look at it, is not at all the enemy of change. The Parisian creatives have a certain adorable fuddy-duddyness to them that their American counterparts lack. They appreciate the old niceties, the aesthetics of the brasserie and the café, the coffee and baguette and pastis and the coupe de champagne that is unchanged. The old cuisine that has fought back against the new cuisine. If something is perfect, why change? And so much of Paris remains the same while the skies go from gray to blue to that comforting gray again.

A week in Paris, a long week in Paris, does ease the spite of it. It’s a nice break from the electronic assault of America, from the tabloid-ism and the trend worship and New York’s horrible architectural travesties, weird towers going up where you used to park your car. I always come back from Paris a little happier and a little slimmer. I don’t know exactly why slimmer, because I eat what I want, but I think that the culture has a way of making you not eat too much or drink too much. Maybe there is a clue in the croissants, in the raisin danish, my personal favorite. In Paris the latter is a large communion wafer. In New York it’s the size of a shuffleboard puck. And a croissant still looks like a croissant, not a football.

Yes, I enjoy Paris more and more. It’s a city made for a stroll, where it seems easy to strike up a conversation about jazz or poetry or the meaning of life. You can call a taxi or watch the Eiffel Tower strobe madly on the hour. And maybe some day on a stroll I’ll come across my dream car, A Citroen DS station wagon, parked there with a sign that says "a vendre." It’s a place where dreams come true.