James Lileks: Are clothing stores destined to become museum exhibits?
Published in Fashion Daily News
MINNEAPOLIS — The shirt I ordered was too big, so I had to take it back to the grocery store.
This is a sentence that makes sense in 2023, because we're used to ordering from Amazon and returning things at Whole Foods, which Amazon owns. But if you're a certain age, it's sounds like "buying clothes at Dayton's and returning them to Red Owl."
This particular shirt was not only too big — the size should have been listed as "Paul Bunyan on a diet" — but the fabric was somewhere between "burlap" and "fine sandpaper." I suppose it's great if you want to incorporate exfoliation into your daily life.
I got to thinking: The Mall of America might have some clothes in my size. There are 9,024 stores — one of them has to cater to the slight and short. Maybe there's a new Munchkin Republic. I don't care if the floor is paved with yellow bricks and the clerk comes out and reads a pronouncement on behalf of the Lollipop Guild and then sings in a nasal voice: "Not only does this fit you well / it most sincerely looks quite swell."
The first store I visited had jeans in my size in two styles: "Distressed" and "Relaxed." There was nothing in "Concerned But Not Overly Alarmed." Next step, the Gap store, where you head straight to the bargain rack. "Take an extra 60% off the 30% discounted price," or something like that. After four items, they owe you money.
The selection was spare. All the mannequins were naked and collected in a corner, like the staff had rounded up a herd of escaped nudist robots. Then I realized that the store was closing. How can that happen? Where else will I go for indistinguishable T-shirts I buy at the end of the season for 40% off and then put in a drawer and forget about?
I googled a bit and learned that Gap has decided to shift its strategy away from shopping malls. To where? Street corners? Going door to door? No: outlet malls, strip malls and, of course, online, because heaven forbid you should leave the house.
It was inevitable. Brands rise and fall. A few decades ago, people said, "Let's go to the mall and check out Wicks 'N' Sticks and buy some posters at Spencer's and then get jeans at County Seat!" Sounds like gibberish to youth today.
Sometimes brands are killed by changing tastes, fickle shoppers or the standard corporate idiocy: "Hey, let's overexpand, buy this chain we don't understand, assume massive debt, hire a CEO away from a company that makes tractors who will upscale the brand and alienate our customers, and let's do it all nine months before a recession!" Happens again and again.
If we're done with stores, it's because stores made us feel that they were done with us. The future is online, clicking through infinite pictures instead of feeling the heft of the fabric, seeing the true color, noting how the hem of the pants leg falls on your shoe. It's easier. It's cheaper.
But I have the same reaction to the "death of the mall" stories as I do to the "death of the office" articles. Remind me again what was so awful about a world full of people and things and random events.
Then again, I ordered some pants an hour before I started writing this, and they're already here. They don't fit, but I had to go to the grocery store anyway.
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