I've never been big into name brands. Sure, I own a bunch of crap by Fred Perry and Doc Marten, but that's only because – in my perpetual state of arrested development – I'm still inclined to dress like the members of my favorite bands. Beyond that, though, I don't care much for labels and I know virtually nothing about fashion. I usually can't visually distinguish an item of clothing from J. Crew versus something from Kenneth Cole. I don't know my Prada from my Jack (or Kate) Spade, and I don't really care about the distinctions. If something looks good and fits and all that, that's fine, but don't ask me to get excited about the outlet that happens to be selling it.
There is one exception to this rule, though, and it all started with a baseball cap. When I was working at TIME Magazine back in the 90's, our Beijing bureau chief came into the office one day with gifts for the news desk staff. My present was a smart, black baseball cap emblazoned with the bright red flag of the People's Republic of China. I'd never consider myself a communist, but I enjoyed the fact that sporting the red flag frequently prompted sneers from rednecks, virulent Republicans and slack-jawed xenophobes. More to the point, though, the cap was really well made and fit better than any baseball cap I'd ever owned. About a decade and change later, I'm still wearing it. It arguably makes me a poser (being that I am entirely unable to quote from the musings of Mao Tse Tung), but I sure love it. The cap came from a then-newfangled clothing line called Shanghai Tang.
From that day on, I became intrigued. For a wedding present, someone gave Peggy and I a handsome set of high-end chopsticks from Shanghai Tang. When we went to London in 2002, we stopped into one of their shops there and I picked up a lovely pair of cufflinks (in a nifty, star-shaped silver box). It was also there that Peggy discovered their signature room spray (an aromatic blend of indescribable niceness). I bought one of their sleek black wallets several years back which I still cherish, and just this year, Peggy sprung for a lovely new Shanghai Tang watch for me, which I assuredly did nothing to earn. It seems I've become a bit of a `Tang fanboy. This is highly incongruous given the chronically shoddy state of my bank account.
There are worse things to be a fan of, I suppose, but I've always felt slightly self-conscious about it. I guess that's why they call them "guilty pleasures." I know Andrew Eldritch of the Sisters of Mercy shares my affinity for the `Tang's togs (in a futile effort to shrug off his band's iron-clad goth image, Andrew started wearing blindingly colorful Shanghai Tang tops to upset and singe the eyeballs out the hordes of uniformly black-clad buffoons in his audience). That said, Andrew Eldritch can probably afford to outfit his dungeon and coffin-shaped wardrobe with all things `Tang, whereas these days I can barely afford a jar of Tang the breakfast drink. Har har.
Also, I suppose I should probably boycott the `Tang on human rights principles, although the chain was bought out by a Swiss company called Richemont in 1998 -- I have no idea under what conditions their goods are made. At the end of the day, they're ultimately trading in shamelessly luxurious indulgences, and that stuff generally puts me right off. But lemme tell ya, this stuff is awfully nice.
In any case, after Peggy bought me that watch, we somehow ended up on their mailing list. Not only did we get a lovely handwritten Christmas card (!!!) from the shop assistant who helped Peggy pick the watch out, we were invited to a "private party" on Wednesday night to celebrate the Chinese New Year. After mulling it over for a moment, we thought we might as well go check it out. What the hell? It at least sounded like something different (and free), and got us out of the neighborhood. Peg RSPV'd, we called up a sitter and made a plan with our next-door neighbors (also big fans of the `Tang) to attend.
Unfortunately for me (and anyone who invites me anywhere), I tend to get to places really fuckin' early. As such, after killing time buying a surprisingly maudlin smurf at FAO Schwarz next door, I sheepishly walked over to Shanghai Tang's swanky new Madison Avenue outlet. I was coming directly from my office in midtown, whereas Peg was making the trek up from downtown and Bruce & David (the afore-mentioned neighbors) were coming from their respective midtown offices. Unsurprisingly, I was the first to arrive. As I walked in the door, I immediately felt a wave of self-consciousness wash over me. What was I doing here? I bit my lip and entered.
I was greeted by a svelte, clipboard-wielding temptress in a form-fitting black dress who checked my name off her list and carried my clunky winter coat away as if she was disposing of a wet, shredded garbage bag. The fact that I was wearing my afore-mentioned Shanghai Tang baseball cap and my new watch made me feel like a goddamn Trekkie. The other people in attendance made up a predictable rogues gallery of slick fashionistas, perma-tanned Eurotrash, super-affluent Upper East Siders, foppish hair-flippers and bitchy hotties clutching the inevitable martini. All and sundry looked at me as if I'd wandered off the street looking for an action-figure convention. I made my way back to the bar, hoping a dragon might leap out at any second and swallow me whole.
After procuring a needlessly frilly ginger-tinged vodka drink from the beer-less bar (sigh), I perused the merchandise, hoping for the rest of my gang's swift arrival. The place was filling up, but the clientele wasn't getting any cooler. But really -- what was I expecting? I helped myself to a complimentary pork dumpling and a clutch of surprisingly tasty fortune cookies, vainly pretending not to feel like a ridiculous goofball.
After an awkward eternity, Bruce and David finally arrived and I got my sea legs back. By this stage, the place was so crowded that browsing was pretty much out of the question. That was just as well, really, as even though there was a 15% discount in honor of the holiday, the merchandise on display was still crazily expensive ($80 for a t-shirt???) Despite the thickening throng, someone started banging loudly on a drum and out popped a couple of overenthusiastic Chinese dragons (where were they when I needed them earlier?) A disarming dance ensued that seemed destined to result in something expensive being knocked over. No such luck, alas.
Peg arrived shortly afterwards and joined us in the enjoyably outrageous people-watching and the making of crass commentary. Not put off by the scene, Peg actually bought something; a thimble-sized bottle of some admittedly sumptuous liquid. The bottle came with an eye-dropper. Evidently you're supposed to drop tiny amounts of the stuff on a lightbulb, and it summarily releases a warm, exotic scent.
Feeling that we'd done our part, we prized our coats back from the clip-board siren, ducked out into the night and made our way back downtown. While the inherent ludicrousness of the evening didn't entirely cure me of my fetish for Shanghai Tang junk, it certainly has put it all in a bit of perspective. I can't imagine anyone -- rockstar or otherwise -- throwing around that sorta dough in this economy.