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Acquiring Minds

Inside America's All-Consuming Passion

By April Witt
Sunday, December 14, 2003; Page W14

A blonde with a perfect blow-dry flips through the pages of Us magazine on the morning shuttle to New York. She's not interested in reading about celebrities; she just wants to check out what they're wearing. "I have this dress," she says, pointing to a photograph of actress Jada Pinkett Smith wearing a $2,300 bronze-toned satin Gucci cocktail dress with a wide belt shaped like a corset.

The fall shopping season is almost over, and Jamie Gavigan, a colorist at a Georgetown hair salon, is heading to New York City on one last fashion mission. She wants to find a killer cocktail dress and satisfy her special footwear urges at the Manolo Blahnik shoe salon.

Jamie Gavigan, who owns some $20,000 worth of Manolo Blahnik shoes, models her $2,300 satin Gucci dress. (Photograph by Kyoko Hamada)

Jamie shops in Washington, too, at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue and some pricey boutiques. But two or three times a year, the 36-year-old single mother flies to New York to more fully indulge her fashion passions. It's her reward for standing on her feet nine hours a day, mixing chemicals and working straight through lunch to earn the six-figure income that makes these shopping expeditions possible.

When the shuttle lands at La Guardia, Jamie hops into a cab and heads to her favorite department store, Barneys, at 61st and Madison, one of the culture's new cathedrals, where the affluent bring their soaring aspirations for better living through luxury shopping. "It's all good here," she says. "It's disturbing, isn't it? I like everything they have."

On her feet, she's wearing $750 Manolo Blahnik black suede boots with four-inch-high stiletto heels. On her arm, she's carrying a blue Birkin tote bag by Hermes de Paris. If you could buy one, which now you can't, prices for the Birkin would start at $5,000 for plain leather and climb to more than $70,000 for crocodile renditions with diamond-encrusted hardware. Swamped in recent years by demand for the bag, Hermes had been asking would-be customers to put their names on a waiting list. Jamie waited two years for her Birkin to arrive. Last year, Hermes stopped adding names to the list.

In Barneys's airy, light-filled fine jewelry section, Jamie bends over a display case and draws in her breath, the sound of sudden desire. Her long hair spills forward, and her Hermes handbag thuds softly against the jewelry case as she gazes upon a brilliant diamond brooch shaped like a starburst. At its glinting center lies a round glass compartment filled with dozens of tiny, loose diamonds. It looks like a profane rendition of a monstrance, the Roman Catholic vessel in which the consecrated Host is displayed on the altar for the adoration of the people.

Jamie wonders what the loose diamonds would sound like if she could shake them like so many flakes in a snow globe. But at $30,000, this bauble is beyond her reach.

"I bet it sounds good," Jamie says, smiling wistfully and adjusting her pale blue pashmina shawl. "I have a feeling it sounds really good."

Deny it, outraged, if you will. Rail against unchecked materialism like some puritanical scold. Pray for the soul of a nation wandering lost in the malls, more likely to shop than to vote, volunteer, join a civic organization or place a weekly donation in the collection plate of a local house of worship.

Consumerism was the triumphant winner of the ideological wars of the 20th century, beating out both religion and politics as the path millions of Americans follow to find purpose, meaning, order and transcendent exaltation in their lives. Liberty in this market democracy has, for many, come to mean freedom to buy as much as you can of whatever you wish, endlessly reinventing and telegraphing your sense of self with each new purchase. Over the course of the century the culture of consumption and American life became "so closely intertwined that it is difficult for Americans to see consumerism as an ideology or to consider any serious alternatives or modifications to it," historian Gary Cross writes in An All- Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America. "This society of goods is not merely the inevitable consequence of mass production or the manipulation of merchandisers. It is a choice, never consciously made, to define self and community through the ownership of goods."

Luxury goods in particular -- from SUVs with heated leather seats to wide-screen TVs and stainless steel ranges the size of tanks -- have become such accepted symbols of the good life that they are considered must-haves, even by those who can't really afford them. The pursuit of them has become so intertwined with the pursuit of happiness that professor and author James B. Twitchell talks about the shopper's epiphany: "It's that feeling of, phew, I found it, I am saved."

Call it shallow, Twitchell says, but a belief system that allows people to reinvent themselves through shopping is a heck of a lot fairer than the old systems where rank was a birthright and largely immutable. And competitive consumerism is a lot less bloody than epic battles over whose God is greater.

Consumers like Jamie live and shop at the nexus of two of the most powerful forces shaping luxury consumerism: the concentration of wealth among top American wage earners and mass media that bombard consumers at every income level with images of the lush lifestyles that money can buy.

Celebrities in particular have become pied pipers of consumption. Salma Hayek wearing a corset-like Versace on the cover of InStyle magazine can trigger a nationwide run on the dress. Teenage boys watching "MTV Cribs" dream about owning the Mercedes S600 and G500 parked in the driveway of football star Terrell Owens's home. Viewers desire so much of what they see on "Sex and the City" that the HBO Web site offers virtual tours of the main characters' apartments and lists where to buy some of their possessions.

"The assumption is that celebrities have access to everything," explains Hal Rubenstein, fashion director of InStyle magazine. "Consequently, if a celebrity chooses to carry a Birkin bag out of all the things in the world they could possibly carry, then she in some odd way starts acting like an editor or personal shopper. If Sarah Jessica Parker can have all those things, and a Birkin bag is good enough for her, then it's good enough for me. It's that simple."

Nineteenth-century philosophers and economists who viewed goods as utilitarian envisioned a not-so-distant day when American technical and manufacturing prowess would easily provide for everyone's basic material needs, freeing all workers to enjoy more family time and leisure. In the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that within a few generations everyone would be working two-hour days.

"Their assumption was that our needs would be satisfied," Cross says. "That was the assumption through most of human history. What happened, of course, is that they were wrong. We never have maxed out on goods. Now, we realize that goods are not essentially about satiating material needs, physical needs, but rather psychological and social ones. And those needs, it would appear, are absolutely endless."

In the backroom of the chic Paul Bosserman Salon, four women are in varying stages of letting Jamie Gavigan turn their gray hairs into gold. Two sit under dryers. One is having her hair rinsed. One holds her head very still while Jamie painstakingly sections strands of hair, paints them with alternating shades of dye, then tucks them away inside squares of aluminum foil that she crimps and folds like origami. All four women have copies of the latest fashion or home decor magazines in their hands. They flip through the pages incessantly, admiring all the pretty things.

"I have this wallpaper, but not in blue," one elegant client tells Jamie.

Jamie, clad in her work uniform of sneakers and bluejeans splashed with hair dye, nods appreciatively as she paints and pivots and waits for the timer to ring, signaling another transformation complete.

Jamie has spent nine hours a day, five days a week for the past 16 years in this 12-by-14-foot space. She's one of the most in-demand hair colorists in Washington. Clients sometimes wait six weeks for an appointment with her and pay as much as $285 for a full head of natural-looking highlights. She's proud of what she does and the independence it buys. The commissions she earns allow her to send her 4-year-old son, Beckett, to a Montessori school and pay a nanny to pick him up after school and watch him until the salon closes. "I like it when Beckett comes to the salon," she says. "I like him to see that I work hard. Working hard makes me feel good. I like the idea that I can depend on myself and he can depend on me. I want him to know that it's important to be a dependable person."

Jamie learned both her work ethic and her appreciation of aesthetics growing up in Falls Church. Her parents had a passion for African art, which her stay-at-home mom eventually turned into a business by opening a gallery. Her dad worked for the U.S. Information Agency as an Eastern Europe specialist. Luxury goods not only weren't in the family budget, nobody really thought about them or talked about them, she says.

When Jamie started working at Paul Bosserman, she was 20 and most of what she knew about fashion, she'd learned from Madonna. Leather bustier? Very cool. At the salon, though, she was surrounded by style-obsessed colleagues and clients of means who were avid readers of Vogue and W. She pored over them, too, along with the other style bibles that arrived at the salon each month, and soon became an expert on fashion esoterica.

The first time she spent more than $500 for a fashion accessory she was 24. She'd seen a brown suede hand-stitched backpack by Henry Beguelin at Barneys and wanted it desperately. She was so hesitant that she needed encouragement from a salon colleague, who assured her she wouldn't regret investing in a well-made handbag. She didn't. "It was the first time as a real adult I had my own money," she says. "I've always loved that bag. I love touching it. I love the way it looks. I love that it won't fall apart."

Today her tastes are unabashedly expensive, and she knows what she wants the instant she sees it. This fall she paid $900 for a tiny white fur evening bag Michael Kors designed for the Celine line. "I obsessed on it," she says. "The woman at Neiman's said, 'Isn't that cute?' I said, 'That's quite possibly one of the cutest things I've ever seen besides my son.' I left it. But I couldn't stop thinking about it as I was driving home. I called the woman and said, 'Would you just send the bag?' "

Jamie makes almost all her major purchases in the fall, when the fashion magazines are fattest and new merchandise arrives in her favorite stores. To pay for them, she makes trade-offs. She drives a Toyota 4Runner instead of something flashier. She rents, not owns, a house in Northwest Washington. She saves, but says her mother worries that she doesn't save enough. She doesn't take long vacations, because if she doesn't work, she doesn't get paid. In the past, she worked extra days to fund special purchases. Now she'd rather have the time with Beckett. "I think that's part of growing up," she says. "I have my priorities straight."

Jamie tries to limit her shopping by not charging anything she can't pay for out of her checking account at the end of the month. Several years ago she accumulated more than $7,000 in credit card debt. She is determined not to repeat the experience. So she both searches for the next great thing, and then anguishes when she finds it.

"I remember maybe two seasons ago there was this pair of Balenciaga cargo pants," she says. "I really wanted them. But I was like, no, they are too expensive for cargo pants. But I kept thinking about them. They were in all the magazines. Everywhere I turned a celebrity had them on. They were everywhere. So finally I was like, you know what, forget it, I'm going to get them. I called Barneys. I have a girl at Barneys who will get me stuff. She was like, 'Those are all gone! You can't get those anymore.' I felt really cheated. I felt like I'd lost out."

By the time the salon closes one recent evening, Jamie has colored 17 heads of hair, and Beckett's nanny has fed him and delivered him to the salon door. Jamie and Beckett head to a toy store to pick out a gift for a birthday party the following day. Jamie drives with one hand because Beckett, ecstatic to see her, doesn't want to let go of the other. They get the gift, negotiate a toy for Beckett, too, then head to the grocery store. It's 8:30 p.m., and she's yawning in the checkout line. She's so hungry she opens a container of sushi right there and pops a California roll in her mouth. "Dinner," she says.

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