Maya Seligman
Swarthmore College
English 95: Fictions of Consumption
Prof. Lisa Cohen
March 19, 1997
Paper #2


Spend an hour or several in the store of your choice, "shopping" and taking notes. Write a 5-page essay on this experience, in which you analyze the following: the principles of display at work in the store; who you see shopping there and how they behave; how the space, along with any of the other factors that go into the store's self-presentation, affect you. What (goods, experiences, identities) are they selling? Also tell us: what you can learn about the employees (who they are, and what they need to know to work there, and how they are compensated for working there); how the employees treat the customers; what kind of advertising you see the store using; what you can learn about the store's history and how it has evolved into what it is today; any similarities with or differences from The Ladies Paradise that you may notice.

Your essay should also engage with at least one of the critical texts we have read so far. How do the insights or analysis of this text confirm or complicate what you observe?

Be specific. Be creative.

Drag Queens, Nuns and Roman Warriors: Exploring the Consumerism of iT

Miami strikes me as a surreal city, shimmering with its pastel colors of Pepto Bismol pink and lizard green. Almost always sunny, its beaches and sidewalks are filled with body-baring people, many only wearing bikinis, spandex and rollerblades, seeming very conscious of the images they present to the world. Image, fashion, style and cutting-edge hipness are integral elements in the culture of Miami, drawing in droves of tourists every year. I became aware of this phenomenon when I visited Florida for several days of my spring break. IT is a store unlike any other I have seen, for its atmosphere stretches the boundaries of consumerism to new levels through its artistic displays, strategic imagery and redefinition of a salesperson.

Walking through South Beach one Saturday afternoon, I got the chance to see blocks and blocks of bright hotels and restaurants, interspersed with tourist shops selling postcards, tee-shirts, sandals, sunglasses and surfboards, all in neon colors. One particular window display stood out as different than the others, making me stop in my tracks to look at the store. In the center of the window display hung a large canvas painting (72" X 62"), semi abstract with deep, rich colors; the red edge appeared to offset the big green eye at the top and the blue rose held by a chubby baby's hand at the bottom. As I looked closer at this canvas, I saw that the dark background was actually a man's muscular torso, my eyes following it down to his white gartered fishnet stockings. The small tag in the corner revealed that its name to be "Forgive," selling for $1820. To the side of the hanging art was a stepladder with an individual platform shoe on each rung. Standing next to the ladder was a male mannequin, with his hands on his hips, his head turned to look at the center painting. He wore tight sailor pants, an aviator's cap and sunglasses, with bare feet and no shirt. Another mannequin was on the other side of the display, this one female. Facing the street, her glittery lips sparkled in the sun; she wore a white-blonde wig, vinyl pants and a matching top baring her midriff and exposing a gold cross on a chain around her waist. Despite the gaudy showiness of this display, the store's sign was rather simple and discreet: a small square above the door, reading "iT."

Intrigued by the whole display, I decided to enter the store. As soon as I walked inside, I was overwhelmed by the many colorful sights squeezed into the long rectangular room. The walls are different hues of orange, hand painted in a swirling spongy texture, while the tall ceiling looks industrial with its black pipes and hanging metal lights. Additional lights are on the walls in the form of simple, geometric sconces, and the floor is terra cotta tile. I immediately felt welcomed by a casual setup of armchairs and a sofa around a low coffee table at the front end of the store, where a man sat reading a catalogue and snacking from a can of Cheez Curls. I was surprised to see that besides myself, he was the only other person in the store. He looked up at me and gave me an authentic smile, saying hello; he appeared to be in his early 30s, stylishly dressed in a Calvin Klein shirt, jeans and a black baseball cap with "Zero" on the front. I ended up sitting down to talk with him, as he, Javier Font, is the owner of iT, a shop claiming to offer shoes, fashion, gifts, furniture, accessories, art, jewelry and antiques. He was eager to share with me the store's interesting history, speaking in his strong Spanish accent.

Javier moved to the United States six years ago; he used to live in Barcelona, where he owned a dance club that closed when he left. He also founded a store similar to iT in Spain, on an island called Ibiza, where it is now still open, managed by someone else. Javier opened iT in October of last year, using the same name and logo of a club in Amsterdam, with the permission of its owner, his friend, who gave him the right to patent the label. When talking to me, Javier pulled out a photo album, showing me all the stages of development that iT went through before opening. The first picture captured what the space looked like before it was renovated: a small, bare room with plain white walls and floor. With the help of his wife and friends, Javier created a lively store filled with stylish displays. Racks of clothes now line both sides of the shop, the center filled with tiers of shoes and jewelry cases. Despite the relatively limited space, iT is brimming with creativity, stretching the typical boundaries of a store through its artistic expression.

A television set is in the corner, showing the muted VH1 station (which, ironically enough, was playing in the lobby of my hotel in Havana, Cuba later that week) -- it shows images of a fashion walkway, a woman swimming in a big blue pool, and then a group of pouting supermodels. European club music is playing on the store's speakers, first in French, then Spanish, then English, and I see that the tunes are recorded onto CDs for sale in a display case, labeled with the iT logo and riské photos of naked dancers. A Betty Boop cardboard figure is leaning against the wall, next to a tall rack of sunglasses, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean dolls, clay angels, silver platters, a gold baseball cap, black belts and a fake-fur backpack. A sign in the front window announces that there is an "art expo inside." Sure enough, a number of large paintings are on each wall, all by a Venezuelan artist named Carios A. Pereira, including the piece in the window display. On the right wall, near the back of the store, three interesting canvases are evenly positioned above the dressing rooms (which are actually just semi-circle bronze racks coming out of the wall). Each one shows a different angle of the same subject: a squatting naked man with developed muscles and a six-pack stomach, his legs spread to show his penis.

I noticed that there are many glamorized images of nude males throughout the store's displays. Feminized, gender-defying men were also prevalent. On top of one jewelry case, nestled in a blue feather boa, was a gilded picture frame holding the photo of a smiling, trans-gendered face -- it is male, yet with a wig and heavy makeup. Nearby is a poster advertisement for "Cunty," a drag queen giving performances later in the month. Another ad is taped to the front door, announcing a "musical comedy celebrity impersonation revue" called Boyz R Us, starring Kandi Kane, Dana Danzel and Joanna Janies. A seven-tiered shelving unit was covered with platform high heels interspersed with pictures of beautiful models, both male and female. There are many shots of a particular model, a buff African-American man, without clothing in most photos; according to Javier, he lives in Miami and was hired for iT's advertising.

Javier explained that iT caters to Miami's gay community, bringing in many male customers who want to wear flashy clothing and shoes. Advertising is an effective means of tapping into this demographic group, as iT spends $300 for a small ad in Hot Spot, a magazine produced for a gay male audience. Other publications with iT advertisements have been the New York Times, Wired ($500 for half a page), Vanidad ($2000 for a full spread in 35,000 U.S. copies) and other magazines. These and others (Attitude, MAN, Details, Cosmopolitan, etcetera) were on the coffee table in front of us, allowing Javier show me the ads as we discussed them. He justified the advertising money as well-spent, as it tends to make a real difference in business by spreading awareness on a national level. It is especially essential for tapping into the local community, increasing business to a full year instead of just the tourist season.

Almost all of iT's spreads also advertise the Linchini shoe label, as Javier's friend owns the business that provides the store's many styles of platform shoes and boots. With its factory in Spain, Linchini now has sales outlets in New York, Amsterdam, Paris and Germany, regularly shipping shoes to Miami's iT store. The shoe styles are valuable to drag queens, Javier explained, since they are made in large sizes for both men and women's feet, which is quite unusual for high heels. Looking around the store, I saw a wide range of unique and appealing designs, the sizes striking me as abnormally large for their look: six-inch high heels in patent leather red, silver glitter, shiny black, rusty orange/gold and almost every other color of the rainbow, as well as boots in varying heights (up to a full-leg thigh-high style).

In addition to the shoes, iT has many distinct clothing fashions. Raking through the hanging articles, I found leather cowboy chaps, vinyl jeans, short skirts, sequined dresses, satin tank tops, orange bell bottoms and a transparent polyester shirt with a neon pattern of flowers and pineapples. One headless mannequin wore an elaborate outfit of pink rayon pants with a matching buttoned top. Atop a clothing rack on the left wall was a male figure without a head, arms or legs; it wore a leather vest and an intriguing pair of underwear made of foreign brass coins, layered to form a metallic jock strap, which evoked the image of a Roman warrior standing guard above the store. This figure is an illustration of "the soldier" discussed in Rachel Bowlby's seventh chapter ("Make up your mind") of Shopping with Freud. She points out that the "military paradigm" is a ubiquitous element of salesmanship, one of the four stories used in the process of selling commodities. Like iT's camouflage-patterned clothing (styled after army fatigues), the warrior mannequin was a literal version of this military sales story; yet in its purposefully revealing sexy undergarments, the model also embodies Bowlby*s fourth story of the seducing lover. As she writes, ". . . Military and erotic scenarios in any case have a long history of overlapping, as object of desire and object of attack coalesce in the 'victim' of love's wound or a lover's onslaught" (104). This intermingling of themes seems to be a deliberate strategy for iT's displays in selling commodities to gay males, as other stores, advertisements and magazines use to attract the same demographic audience. The eroticized seducer is used in multiple images throughout the store, as was earlier discussed.

Focusing on yet another of Bowlby's cited stories of salesmanship, "the priest," many images in iT (such as the aforementioned cross around the waist of the figure in the store window) tend to have religious qualities. On the back wall of the shop, a bright spotlight illuminates a large framed statue of Jesus Christ, wrapped in velour swaths, with a placard on the bottom reading "REINARE;" made of shiny fake gold, this haloed bust seems to be almost tongue-in-cheek, brimming with religiousness. Another piece of art, titled "Sacred Heart" (selling for $425 and measuring 48" X 6"), is a realistic oil painting depicting a man*s holy face, with rosy lips and a dark goatee, situated above a red, heart-shaped vase flickering with bright flames. The glass shoe shelves in the center of the store are plastered with pseudo-religious images: a blue-faced woman deity with an Indian headdress, a crucifix carrying model and a beautiful young nun with heavy makeup and a bouquet of roses. Dispersed around the store in almost a subliminal manner, these images do not have any obvious link at first glance; I did not see the sacred commonality until I started taking notes of the various displays. Javier's images are set up in such a way that each display at first seems to have its own unique theme, yet further analysis shows that the store in fact has an undercurrent of strategic motifs to sell the products. Bowlby cites religious conversion as an important sales performance story, with the seller profitably using the evangelist's modes of selling religion, casting the buyer into the role of a prospective convert (103). This theme is clearly shown in iT's displays, despite the fact that Javier's motivations may not have been acknowledged as such a purposeful selling strategy.

Observing the store for a large chunk of the afternoon, I was surprised to only see about eight customers come into the store, and of those, only one bought anything. Javier explained that business is good -- and has been ever since iT first opened -- yet afternoons are not the peak times; evenings get the heaviest flow of customers, particularly after five or six o'clock, since beach-goers tend to spend all the hours of sunlight outside, only shopping after a full day at the ocean. As Javier stated, bad weather benefits profits since "people go shopping when it's raining." He also estimated that an average of fifty percent of his customers end up buying something, while the other half merely look. From my observations, only about one-eighth of iT's consumers spent money there, though it was very interesting to observe people's reactions to the store's displays and goods.

The first customers I saw were a typical Miami couple: tan, young, blonde, wearing very little clothing, sweeping through on their rollerblades, interested in the shoes but not enough to buy anything. I noticed that Javier only gave them a brief greeting yet did not press himself upon them in attempts to sell anything. He told me that he prefers not to have any unnecessary interaction with customers, never asking "How may I help you?" unless they look like they really need assistance. Only two other people work here on other days: Javier's wife and his friend from Holland who is manager of the store, both of whom also take the same attitude of passive salespeople, for iT has a philosophy of leaving the customers to look at things at their own pace. As the buyer, Javier told me that when he is shopping in other stores, he detests sales clerks who push themselves on him, aggressively urging him to purchase things, often using an overly-friendly facade in their interactions. Therefore he never wants to put his customers in that position when he is the seller.

When the next group of customers entered the store, Javier remained in his reclining position on the sofa, sipping his Arizona ice tea and reading a magazine. There was no unnecessary small talk, nor an insincere attitude -- he simply gave them eye contact and said hi. I could tell that the three male customers felt comfortable in this store, walking to the back with smiles on their faces, looking through the hanging clothing and shelves of shoes with curiosity and true interest. They took their time (unlike the rushed pace of some other stores) and talked to each other as they shopped. One man approached Javier with a question, asking about the store's logo, which looks familiar since he is from Amsterdam; Javier was immediately attentive and friendly, going back to his office area to find the business card of his friend's iT club in Amsterdam to give to the customer.

Javier's approach to selling his commodities is atypical of how the average salesperson is taught to act. Rachel Bowlby emphasizes the important role of the sales clerk, claiming that s/he plays a part in every stage of the consumer's experience: Attraction, Interest, Desire and Sale (104). These stages have their climax at "the meeting," a moment when the prospective buyer's mind is set apart from his/her environment, a time when, ideally, the situation is "sealed off so that nothing can make its way into the buyer's mind but what you, the salesperson, put into it or make up for it" (103). Looking at iT, we can see that the inverse is actually true, as the actual salesperson shifts his/her responsibility of sale to the store's captivating spectacle of images. Unlike the salespeople of The Ladies Paradise, Javier does not want to interrupt the consumer's relationship with the commodities on display, thus he plays a quiet role of observation. This reality actually embodies Bowlby's definition of the climactic moment, yet just with different players, as the store's displays act the part of the salesperson.

IT is certainly all about display, not only of its commodities but also of the actual consumers themselves. As I mentioned in the beginning, the typical bikini-clad Miami resident appears to have a heightened awareness of her own projected image, taking great care to present herself a certain way. As Bowlby writes, "All the world's a showroom, every man or woman is an advertisement for himself or herself, aiming to 'impress' and please his or her consumers" (95). The men and women customers in iT certainly get a dose of their own image since many mirrors line all walls. The back wall has a huge framed mirror hanging at such an angle that reflects the entire store, meaning that you can see yourself in it no matter where you are standing in the room. In addition, a number of full-length mirrors are between the shelving units, making it impossible to avoid seeing oneself when walking through the store. I noticed that almost every single customer ended up looking at themselves in a mirror at some point in his/her shopping, revealing the power of the mirrors to dictate people's focus of attention. This selling strategy is a clear example of Bowlby's claim that "nearly all human relations involve gaining attention, arousing interest, using persuasion" (94). These elements are certainly embodied in the atmosphere of iT.

Spending an afternoon in Miami's iT store revealed a great deal about consumerism for me. Javier Font strategically set up displays to capture the buyer's interest, often tapping into what Rachel Bowlby classifies as distinct stories: the soldier, the priest and the lover. IT's advertising and imagery attempts to capture its consumer's attention (particularly the demographic group of gay men) by utilizing the sensory stimulus of mirrors, naked bodies, international music, bright colors and a wide range of shoe styles. Together these elements take over the responsibility of selling the products, as iT's actual salespeople assume the passive role of noninterference, creating a comfortable, slow-paced atmosphere for its consumers. I left the store with a feeling of satisfaction, knowing that I had gotten the chance to see a truly wonderful arena of consumerism. While imagery and appearances are always going to be key factors, here I saw the essential roles of artistic expression, global cultural sharing, queer tolerance, transcended gender roles, outrageous creativity and sincere salesmanship -- all an inspiration.

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