Wolves in cheap clothing: in search of substance in the new downscale style

Wolves in cheap clothing: in search of substance in the new downscale style – Cover Story

Katherine Boo

In search of substance in the new downscale style

With hundreds of nightclubs in Manhattan alone-clubs with palm trees, red velvet, strobe lights, men showering in litde glass stalls–you’d think there’d be no shortage of places for two guys to throw a party. But when events planner Edward Jowdy and jewelry designer Simon Wilson decided to fete 250 artists, writers, and fashion types this May, they knew none of the usual clubs would do. “The club scene is totally contrived, totally segregated,” says Jowdy. “We wanted a more natural setting.” They wanted –they had to have–Al’s.

For nearly 50 years, Al’s bar in the Bowery has catered almost exclusively to men with lousy luck and shaky hands; the atmosphere accords with that niche. The house wine is fortified Wild Irish Rose, which starts to flow promptly at opening–8 a.m. The decor consists of POW-MIA flags and an Elvis poster. Still, Wilson and Jowdy were willing to pay for visitation fights. So on a Saturday night last May, Al’s became, for a brief moment, the place for Manhattan’s beau monde to be featured.

And featured they were, the next Sunday in the style section of The New York Times, a week later in The New Yorker, and a week after that in Newsday. The consensus: the Bowery bash was a style coup. While party chatter centered on the usual things–furniture prices and newly bankrupt young designers–the guests arrived, not in Armani, but in thriftshop high heels, retro-chiffon, and sweat suits. “Hip,” approved the Times, “in a Charles Bukowski kind of way.”

If Al’s seems about as far away from eighties’ boites like Indochine as you can get in Manhattan, that seems to be the point. “I’d be embarrassed now to step out of the back of a stretch limo,” Jay Mclnerney recently confessed during an interview at the once-chic, now empty restaurant Odeon. As usual, Mclnerney’s articulating a trend. According to the marketing gurus at DDB Needham, who publish regular reports on American living and buying habits, our urban elite is in the process of a significant style shift-down– and the circumstantial evidence is everywhere.

Had Vogue’s 100th anniversary occurred three years ago, no doubt its cover would’ve drowned in haute couture. But it came this April, so it featured a bevy of barefoot models in white T-shirts and jeans. Richard Price’s tale of a Jersey drugdealer, Clockers –Bonfire Without the Vanities, as someone put it– threatens to be the book of the summer. Washington Post matriarch Kay Graham has parked her limo in exchange for a four-wheel drive. And a recent issue of Money magazine–one of the prime purveyors of the eighties’ show-show ethic–actually celebrated people who left Wail Street to hang wallpaper or work at Jiffy Lube. Naturally, haute-yup advertisers are scrambling to adjust to the gestalt. Perrier, which for years channeled its water through French countryside and operatic soundtrack, has launched a new ad campaign featuring neighborhood bars and a rundown snack shack.

From the exclusivity of Nell’s to everybody’s Al’s, urban trendies young and old seem to be atoning for the overt materialism and snobbery of the eighties. Even the remnant fetishes, like Shaker furniture, seem penitential. “I think that’s one of the big stories now-denial of the eighties,” wrote Michael Thomas recently in The New York Observer. “Everybody’s looking around in a faintly guilty manner, the way people do when someone has silently broken wind at a tea party.” And every night, that guilt-or whatever it is–propels the fashion-forward past the fin-de-siecle fussiness of the eighties’ restaurantes d’etre to danker environs like Acme, where chickenfried steak is a specialty and the industrial sign at the entrance crystallizes the lowered expectations of the age: “An OK place to eat.”

Care society is yielding, it appears, to a sort of lunchcounter chic. And while that may not indicate, as a Time cover story panted recently, “a revolution in progress,” it is a somewhat hopeful sign. Instead of hankering for Hermes and other means of telegraphing superiority, the urban elite are searching for common ground: plain food, cheap clothes, basic cars, down-to-earth places like Al’s. In a hyperdivided country, as politicians and sociologists wring their hands, the affluent, of all people, seem to be launching a top-down assault on snobbery, insisting that class distinctions be minimized and communal values exalted in the name of style.

Could it be, possibly, that fashion is hinting at an anSWer tO American class isolation? Sure it’s hinting. It just can’t commit.

Radical cheap

The nineteenth-century French toasted it as nostalgie de la boue; in the sixties Tom Wolfe singlehandedly put an end to it with his acid “Radical Chic.” But nineties-style downscale chic differs in a few key ways from its predecessors. First, the privileged aren’t just importing the underdog into their penthouses like Gruyere and tulips; they’re stepping out themselves. And second, the impulse is less political or “artistic” than economic.

In the sixties, Wolfe theorized, the elite aped the less privileged because they were rich enough to get away with it. The nineties seem to argue that the rich ape the poor because it’s cheaper. Mclnerney may have felt yoked as a fact-checker at The New Yorker, but what with tens of thousands of jobs lost on Wall Street and the publishing industry foundering, today’s bright young thing is grateful to be a coatchecker at Wetlands. And many style-conscious eighties’ yuppies are now saddled with mortgages and kids. With so many of the young and youngish elites experiencing cash-flow problems, expensive is no longer practical as a determinant of style. So chic’s strange alchemy has gone to work. Six years ago in Washington, for instance, Sol Price opened a group of membership-only warehouses in deepest suburbia to sell bulk goods to Korean grocers. The Price Club is still a bleak congregation of buildings, but now the parking lot’s filled with Jaguars and lawyers can be heard at Washington parties bragging about getting 36 rolls of toilet paper for four bucks. The Price Club hasn’t changed much–although it now carries cellular phones–but its popularity with the elite has boosted its status.

Downscale chic started with, and is continually reinforced by, economics, but by now it’s transcended necessity. Donald and Ivana may be struggling, but they didn’t have to go to K-Mart to buy theft kids’ school supplies last winter. Hollywood mogul Barry Diller isn’t struggling, but when he visited D.C. this winter, he forsook the usual French places to sup at the working-class, hamhock-stewing Florida Avenue Grill. And necessity’s never been the chief motivator of New York entrepreneur lan Schraeger, who recently opened the mid-priced, much-hyped Paramount Hotel, which can best be described as a YMCA with attitude. Schraeger is also the brain behind one of the city’s most decadent hotels, the Royalton, where rooms run about $400 a night. The Royalton’s so exclusive it doesn’t have a sign, or even an address, out front–a fact that surely delights the cognoscenti as much as it confounds the substitute mailman. Still, there’s something sort of eighties about the Royalton, and Schraeger’s genius is in knowing which way the wind blows: After five years of whining about downward mobility, people now seem ready to revel in it.

For the compulsively stylish, there’s a practical payoff to this trend. Until recently, the business of being chic was damned expensive, and a finely calibrated taste could dictate an entire way of life. If status was determined by the car you drove and the clothes you wore, you had good reason for staying at Goldman, no matter how much you hated it. Today, if an ’84 Escort is chic and you can take your date bowling in the Port Authority instead of dancing at Xexon, there’s a lot less pressure to devote one’s life to getting and spending.

But it’s also easy to envision a more cosmic return from downscale chic–the subversion of America’s snob tradition. Not, mind you, that the consumption of expensive goods is necessarily an indication of snootiness. People like what they like. Sometimes that’s 25-year-old Glenlivet, sometimes it’s Pabst Blue Ribbon, and so what? The trouble starts when your pleasure comes, not from savoring the libation, but from signaling your superiority–demonstrating the style chasm between you and everybody else. And for most of the last half-century, magazines and advertisements have tenderly nurtured that symbolism, until by the eighties it seemed perfectly reasonable to believe that one’s education, intellect, sensitivity, and income level were reflected in one’s choice of lettuce.

Downscale chic, on the other hand, seeks to sever, or at least muddle, the commodity/class connection. It tells you, even if you are spectacularly wealthy and educated, that it’s okay not to blow the equivalent of Haiti’s annual per-capita income on an entree. In fact, it tells you it’s better not to. And, posiness notwithstanding, that makes the ethic pregnant with social potential. We all know that America is increasingly segregated by race and class, a separation that was heightened by the money-driven style cues of the eighties. Today, however, the interests of society and style have momentarily converged.

The credibility Gap

Or at least, judging by the Levis and the cornbread, they should be converging. Unfortunately, some downscalers are intent on preserving their differences, although now it’s more complicated than it was in the eighties. Now one has to demonstrate superiority to both the rich and (this is where it gets ugly) the ordinary.

These days, if an advertiser or a magazine wants to convey its downscale hipness, the easiest way is to send up the old glitz–so easy that when the June Spy calls Bijan “the horrible Irani immigrant who sells vulgar clothing for thousands of dollars and now has an eponymous perfume,” you sense its heart isn’t in it. Less jaded magazines seem to pull it off more gracefully. How to convince you that the Park Avenue Care is hip again? All the June Esquire needs to promise is, “No more tongue confit with almond cookies !”

But if the downscalers know that they hate ostentatiousness, it sometimes feels as if they’re not quite convinced they like the alternative. Consider a recent essay in The New York Observer on the new, more catholic definition of sophistication. While commending herself for identifying true sophistication, not just in well-groomed Chapin grads, but in ambulance drivers and inner-city teachers, a columnist still can’t resist an offhand swipe at “debutantes from Jersey City.” And while Spy may despise rich clothiers, its promotional campaign lampoons a parading Shriner in fez and minicar.

The veiled exclusivity in downscale chic can best be viewed in one of the primary testaments to the phenomenon: those ubiquitous black-and-white portraits hawking The Gap. The message of the beautifully photographed ads seems at first democratic: Gee, I can wear $15 T-shirts and jean jackets and still have style. But wait–who are the folks Gap’s creative types have chosen to feature in those ads? Dockworkers? Waitresses? Mass icons like Roseanne? Of course not. Instead, they’ve selected such regular guys as Tony Kushner, Joan Didion, Gus Van Sant, and John Richardson. If the ads actually explained to you that Van Sant makes movies about edge-dwellers in the Pacific Northwest or that Joan Didion writes sociological essays for The New York Review of Books, they wouldn’t work. Their effectiveness depends on their implicitness: their ability to make you feel good–attuned, fashionable, superior –about recognizing the folks in the photos. (Bonus points for knowing the Very Famous Photographers who took the portraits.)

Of course, the exclusivity impulse isn’t always as subtle as a Gap ad. Let’s go back to that style-triumph Saturday night at Al’s–back before the elite arrived in the Bowery. First, the party planners furiously scrubbed and scented the bathroom. Then, before the guests arrived, they kicked Al’s regulars out. “It’s a derelicts’ bar,” explains party-planner Edward Jowdy. Still, it’s not derelicts he really seems worried about–it’s style-striving suburbanires. “We’re kind of against publicity,” he avers. “Something comes out in the press and you lose control over who shows up.” And given the choice between exclusivity and popularity–genuine inclusiveness–there’s really no contest, even for the downscalers.

Small change

Why does the elite crave distinction from the masses even while dipping into mass culture? This is something to chew on while dining at the Bob’s Big Boy in Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia. The menu looks a lot like Acme’s: fried clams, mashed potatoes, peach cobbler. And, like Acme, it’s an OK place to eat. So what makes this orange vinyl experience so unchic? Maybe the difference isn’t just that the Big Boy dinner runs about $10 less. Maybe it’s that everyone eating at Acme is in on the joke. If you’re sitting with working-class types at Bob’s, on the other hand, people might mistake you for one of them.

And when it gets down to it, that’s the sign of the snob, bejeweled or bejeaned: an unwillingness to be mistaken for the ordinary. What thrilled Tom Wolfe’s East Siders about hanging out with Black Panthers? The same thing that thrills fashion writers about hanging out under a POW-MIA flag. “It is the matter,” Wolfe wrote, “of the marvelous contradictions on all sides. It is like the delicious shudder you get when you try to force the prongs of two horseshoe magnets together… them and us.”

But the sneaky thing about chic, downscale or otherwise, is that the them-us tension is hard to sustain. As yuppies learned, ordinary guys are bound to catch on before long. Today, even the Sizzlers Steakhouse chain offers blackened redfish, and the grand prize in a new contest sponsored by the VH-1 cable channel (MTV for the Dockers crowd) is a summerhouse in the Hamptons. Just as the GI bill devalued a college education–almost any hayseed could get a B.A.– mass appropriation of yuppie geegaws has sent their status value plummeting. At New York cocktail parties, the true elite is repeating it like a mantra: We hate the phony Hamptons scene we’ve found a wonderful stone farmhouse in Bucks County….

If that’s a partial explanation for downscale chic, it’s also the death knell. The style-conscious middle class had to bust their butts to get that BMW or Rolex back in the eighties. The great wonder, and the great flaw, of downscale chic is that anyone can play, even if they don’t get all the nuances of those Gap ads. It’s harder than ever for the elite to keep the hoi polloi at bay.

Consider Sylvia’s soul food eatcry in Harlem, one of the protodownscale establishments, which has managed to be an early casualty of the style. In the late eighties came the elite, and soon after, the press. Sylvia’s price barrier, unlike, say, Lutece’s, wasn’t formidable enough to intimidate the curious. In the past five years, then, Sylvia’s has attracted so many suburbanites and Northern European tourists that the owners have erected an annex to accommodate them. Now Sylvia’s is a joke on “Saturday Night Live” and the elite stay away in droves.

Of course, it’s hard to get misty-eyed over the fact that rich folk no longer venture to Harlem in locked cabs for brunch. Yet if one considers the alternative, it’s also difficult to feel wholly gleeful about downscale’s likely demise. Downscale chic teases us, in small ways, with the promise of unity. Even if it’s snobbery that propels folks to pool halls, there they will at least have the chance to discover that they have more in common than they thought with the Hispanic asbestos removers at Table 9. With time and heart, the willingness to dress and play like the less privileged could conceivably bloom into a willingness to live with them.

OK, so this is America; it’s probably not going to happen. In fact, the backlash has already begun. “Ripped jeans. Pocket tees. Back to basics,” sneers a new ad by the upscale clothier Chanvari. “Wake us when it’s over.” (Many businesses, needless to say, have a great stake in returning cheap to its original tacky status.) Still, the cost of letting downscale chic go without a fight should be clear. Lose the opportunity, and the only thing to endure from this style-blip of the nineties will be exactly what we don’t need: a smug sense among the elite, after a few years of cheap clothes and bowling, that they’ve been there, gotten down with the masses, identified. They’ve learned what it’s like to really do without. And they did it–there’s the beauty of it–without ever having to compromise style.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Washington Monthly Company

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