Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Real Deal

This is going to come as a shock to VISA and Mr. R -- but I'm finding that buying stuff is just not the thrill it used to be.

Maybe it's just that I'm passing out of that coveted 18-49 demographic. You hit a point in life where you're no longer obsessed with the mating sweepstakes, don't have much left to prove, and are increasingly aware that every cent you spend now is one you won't have stashed away somewhere sweetening your income when you retire in a decade or two. For whatever reason, you just sort of give it up on the consumer front. Life is what it is, and I have what I need. There's not much I can buy at this point that can make it better.

And the world, she's a-changing, too. What I'm hearing from our Big Blue Mama these days is that she really, really needs us to stop owning so much crap. Or, at the very least, pay a whole lot more attention to where it comes from, where it goes, and what the whole process is costing her. I do not need a steak nearly as much as she needs to be supporting fewer cows. So I cut back on the beef, and give her a hand.

Maybe it's just living in a great big house with itty-bitty closets. (The architect was European, and built the place for himself, which -- as we shall see -- may have had something to do with it.) Over the four years we've lived here, I've had to get ruthless. If I'm not wearing it, if it's not fabulous, I don't have room to keep it. Making the effort to own less stuff has forced me to pay much closer attention to what I invest in, what gets to stay, and what's really worth keeping.

Which brings me to the principle of the Real Deal.

I've noticed that Mr. R and I, between us, have a few items in our closet that will never, ever, ever go away. Some of them have been around for a generation or two already, hand-me-downs from his parents or mine. Others are things that we invested in at some point in the long ago ourselves -- and have proven so reliable that it seems likely our own kids will inherit them.

They're the Real Deal -- items of clothing (though the principle extends to tools, furniture and housewares, jewelry, all kinds of things) that are so incredibly well-made, so beautifully styled, so satisfying to own that you buy it once, keep it forever, and never feel the need to replace it.

A while back, I started making a list of things that are the Real Deal. A perfect pair of cowboy boots. A Pendleton shirt. Hudson's Bay Company point blankets. Hand-knit Cowichan sweaters -- or one of Dale of Norway's classic heritage numbers. A traditional wool kilt. A Rolex Oyster. A Louis Vuitton bag. The original Alberta fur mukluks. A string of pearls, or a squashblossom necklace. A classic black cashmere overcoat; or the Burberry khaki trenchcoat made famous by Edward R. Murrow and James Bond. Levi's 501s.

As the list grew longer, common traits began to emerge that pointed to the essence of the thing -- the universal criteria that sets these things apart into their own rarified realm within the great mass of The World's Stuff.

To be The Real Deal, I realized, an item must be:

-- The original one of its kind. Everything else is a knockoff -- and they're very often knocked off. But you have accepted no substitutes: you went out of your way and got the Real Deal.

-- Incredibly well-made and durable. In an age when we're increasingly aware of how finite the earth's resources are, these items are made by people who honor the excellence of the materials by turning them into the most beautiful, functional, sturdy items possible. Yours has got every feature you'll ever need, and will hold up through whatever you dish out.

-- Timeless. It will never, ever, ever go out of style. You can buy it when you're 20, and it will still please you when you're 80 -- assuming no disaster befell it, or you outgrew it.

-- An automatic heirloom. The Real Deal is so durable and so classic that if you do outgrow it, there's always somebody who's happy to take it off your hands (and will often pay handsomely for the privilege). And if you can't afford to buy one new, you're beyond thrilled to come by it second-hand, and pay whatever the dealer's asking. Even if it's now a fusty old antique, it's still so beautiful and so full of character and style that it's an investment worth making.

-- Satisfying to own. You look and feel perfect every time you put it on. No matter what else comes on the market, you never even think about replacing it. Why? You've already got the best one there is. Styles come and go, but nothing in the stores compares to the one you already own. If you have enough of this stuff (and a little goes a long way), it makes shopping downright uninteresting.

-- Often expensive to buy up front (though not always); but always much cheaper in the long run. A thrifty Scotsman will pony up a steep $700 for the kilt with dress jacket and all the trimmings -- knowing that he's now covered for every state occasion for the rest of his life. He'll never wonder what he's wearing to the party, never feel out of place at a solemn event, never have to go out and rent a tux again. And the kilt itself -- with sweaters, jackets, or a casual shirt -- will get out of the house a couple times a week, also for the rest of his life. (Most kilt dealers have full racks of well-used but still-gorgeous kilts that proved more durable than their owners). If you calculate the cost per wear over the decades, that one kilt works out to be cheaper than a pair of jeans.

Same with those pearls, or the boots, or anything else. My son just inherited my father's collection of two dozen bright and beautiful Pendleton plaid wool shirts, which (with vest and bolo tie) were Dad's standard work uniform. Some of them date back to 1950. Dad wore them, year in and year out, for four decades. They were expensive items on a teacher's pay -- but Dad got a lifetime of stylish use out of them, and my son may get that much more again. At this point, the cost-per-wear on those shirts is probably well under a penny.

The Real Deal is a very old idea whose time may be coming back. This is how prudent people everywhere used to buy things before the postwar consumer boom -- and how many Europeans, pressed to reconcile elegant taste with limited space and money, still shop. You bought the very best thing you could afford, and used it until it fell apart. If you were rich enough, you bought the very best one there was -- not to show off (though that's a perk, too); but because it was an investment, a piece of family capital. You spent the money right the first time, so your kids wouldn't have to go out and spend it again.

Many of our present designer labels originally built their businesses on this trade. Louis Vuitton made indestructible luggage that would take the beating of hard travel for at least a couple generations, perhaps more. (There are century-old examples still on display in their stores.) Hermes started out making custom saddles and boots that were coveted by people who spent their lives on horseback. In these days of consumer excess, ingenues splurge on extravagant new handbags every few months from companies that once specialized in making bags so perfect, so classic, that a rich woman could buy just one, carry it for the rest of her life, and never wish for another. Rolls-Royce cars, Turnbull & Asser shirts -- the whole selling point of these business was that you could buy it once, and never have to buy it again.

In other words: The rich didn't buy this stuff to show off their money. They bought it because they were cheap, and taking the long view. In this downscaled era, it's a consumer ethic that those of us looking to get more value and satisfaction out of less time, space, and money can take a lesson from.

Looking around at a world full of cheap, vulgar, tasteless crap, made of inferior materials by people working under horrific conditions, piling up in our houses until any hope of elegance, order, or serenity is gone, and then destined to spend eternity in a landfill, I'm starting to think that putting our focus back on The Real Deal might be one important way out. Instead of a dozen shlocky things that waste resources and won't last, I want to save my pennies and buy One Perfect Thing that supports a skilled craftsperson, honors the earth's gift of materials by enhancing their beauty and ensuring they'll enjoy a long and useful lifespan, and will increase the overall level of fabulousness in my life for a very long time.

I don't need six pairs of cheap jeans: I need one or two perfect pair, and am willing to invest in the right ones. I don't need a new watch; I inherited my mother-in-law's Rolex, built way back in 1972 and still happily ticking 35 years later. However I got to this place -- whether by grace of age, ecological consciousness, or just being squeezed into it by tiny closets -- having invested this way for a while, I'm reaching the point where there's very little any more that I do need, beyond replacing the basics. Every spring and fall, I open up the storage boxes to greet elegant, delightful old friends to see me through another year's adventures. Every time I go out shopping, I find myself walking through stores thinking with a heavy sigh: "You know: if you buy that, you'll just have to own it."

More quality. Less crap. A better life for me, for the earth, for the goods themselves, and for the people who make the stuff. This is what you call your win-win-win situation.

Living the Real Deal philosophy, of course, starts with figuring out what The Real Deal is. One of my favorite websites devoted to the ethic of The Real Deal is Cool Tools, which catalogs an ongoing collection of truly marvelous, durable, well-designed, timeless stuff. I'm sure there are others, and I'm eager to hear about them.

What's the Real Deal in your life? What good things do you own (or covet) that you expect to see you all the way through? Who makes the Real Deal stuff that we should be supporting? What makes it the Real Deal for you?