Good Taste Invades Times Square. I Hate It.

High-concept blandness in (formerly) low places. Fortunately, some of us are still allergic to it.

Austerity, rampaging beige, and a glut of good taste have invaded Times Square, and I hate it. The new Muji store, that temple of high-concept Japanese housewares, opened late last month across from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and the notoriously louche denizens of that historically seedy corner must wonder what it's doing there.

I arrive too late on opening day to receive one of the 500 boring notebooks the store is allegedly handing out; in fact, by the time I get there, this vast expanse of plate glass and track lighting, so new that the screwdrivers are still buzzing, alive with the woodsy aroma of new-store smell, is surprisingly uncrowded.

The merchandise—urethane-chip organic pillows covered in greige linen; mud-brown cotton duvet covers; linen wrap dresses so plain they look like something you'd don at a hair salon—practically reek of elegant restraint. Am I nuts? It's a recession! We're at war! Who wants dull-as-dirt Calvin Klein–esque frosted-glass storage bins? I want color! Bring on the embroidery! Fringe! Spangles!

Well, luckily, in Times Square, you don't have to go far to enjoy a big gulp of vulgarity. "If you don't have a food allergy, would you like a free chocolate?" asks a perky young miss at the Hershey store, and, despite the vaguely nauseating chocolatey odor pervading the place, I take a half-melted Kiss. (No, I don't have a food allergy, but I am a teensy bit overweight, a condition she wisely does not ask me and the other far chunkier patrons about.) The store, a fake-old emporium, has a sign outside that says "The Great American Chocolate Company," a jingoistic theme recapitulated inside, where an elongated stuffed plush Reese's peanut-butter cup is holding a torch aloft in imitation of the Statue of Liberty. In addition to the predictable panoply of dull souvenir stock—T-shirts, baseball caps, not very cute bears—there are a few fresher items, like a pillow in the shape of a Hershey bar (not, to my knowledge, stuffed with organic urethane chips) and a pair of unspeakably hideous sweatpants in turgid pink with the word "Kisses" marching down the legs in turquoise.

These minimal efforts to break out of the predictable merch box are laughable compared to the goods at the M&M store directly across the street, where a gigantic animated sign affixed to the outside of the building shows an M&M climbing the Empire State Building, King Kong–style. (Unfortunately, he doesn't fall and break into a million pieces or, better yet, smash into a pedestrian's head, like the old story about killing someone by tossing a penny off the top of a high building.)

No one could accuse the M&M store of being unpatriotic. A snow globe not only offers an M&M in Statue of Liberty drag but also has an American flag wrapped around its base. But it's not just Liberty dolls, key chains, and tees: In an explosion of design creativity that would put Ralph and Martha to shame, the store offers M&M coatracks, beach towels, golf balls, Christmas stockings, boxer shorts, and even candy statues wearing sunglasses and playing the saxophone in a blatant rip-off of the California raisins. (I must say the pajama bag caused me to raise an eyebrow—do you really want this M&M character, whose persona is of a frisky reprobate with mischief on his mind, in your daughter's bed?)

There may be leather jackets and boxer shorts, but I don't see any M&M-spotted keffiyehs, or any other items with a global outlook, and I don't expect to see any soon, especially after the shameful kerfuffle that arose recently over the scarf that Rachael Ray was wearing in a Dunkin' Donuts online advertisement. When right-wing nightmare Michelle Malkin complained that Ray's foulard (in reality an apolitical paisley number) looked like something a Middle Eastern terrorist would wear, the spineless idiots at the doughnut company pulled the ad, saying that "the possibility of misperception detracted from its original intention to promote our iced coffee." Boycott Dunkin' Donuts! Move your business to Krispy Kreme!

The very last words about Sarah Jessica Parker I'll ever write, I swear:

What with all the hoopla about the riotous array of high-priced designer duds the women in the SATC movie don, I decide to visit Steve & Barry's in the Manhattan Mall to view Sarah Jessica's Parker's Bitten line, a famously cheap group of clothes. "It is every woman's inalienable right to have a pulled-together stylish, confident wardrobe with money left over to live," reads SJP's manifesto on the Steve & Barry's website, a sentiment that is hard to argue with.

Frankly, I would have checked out this place earlier, but I hate the Manhattan Mall, a vertical shopping center at Sixth Avenue and 33rd Street full of chain stores without a whit of eccentricity. My feelings are not shared by the other shoppers, who are toting shopping bags from Aeropostale and Victoria's Secret and seem to be having a very good time, in contrast to all the pickle pusses one regularly sees at Bergdorf's and Barneys. At Steve & Barry's, there's a special promotion going on, and everything in the store is $8.98, which means that "I Sex and the City" or "I'm with Mr. Big" tees seem curiously overpriced.

Huge posters of SJP decorate the wall, some with her hair half-obscuring her face, some with her chin disappearing behind an apple she is chomping on, Eve-style. (Get it? Bitten?) And by the way, how obnoxious are the creepy ravings of the Observer's Rex Reed and the Post's Andrea Peyser, both of whom have gone on at length in recent articles about the SATC actresses' physical imperfections? "There's nothing wrong with Sarah Jessica Parker that couldn't be cured by wart-removal surgery," sneers Reed. Chimes in Peyser: "When did the story of four aging broads—and these women are about as far from being 'The Girls' as Phyllis Diller is from puberty—turn into a horror show? Time and the tyranny of the camera close-up have not been kind to Sarah Jessica Parker, who at 43, looks positively ghoulish as the still-single Carrie Bradshaw." It's as if Parker and the others are required to look like supermodels, not character actresses playing presumably regular New York women.

Anyway, back to the clothes. At first, I think that pricing everything at $8.98 is a little like all-you-can-eat sushi (how good can it be?), but I am surprised that the Bitten fashions look miraculously like something SJP herself might wear, especially the white wide-legged cargo pants and a black cotton dress that comes in three versions and could take you from a reading of your new book at Barnes & Noble (assuming there are any bookstores still open in the city in the next several months) to a last sad dinner with the gang at Florent.

lyaeger@villagevoice.com

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