Many years ago, I was business partners with a young man who was the very definition of Asperger’s Syndrome brought to life. I could tell a lot of stories about this fellow — the terrifying disappearances, the cars he killed, the Brazilian FN FAL that he kept in his bed, the chronic masturbation, the card counting, the accidentally picking up a prostitute on the way to work, the time that he crashed his mountain bike and my other friend tried to give him a tracheotomy — but I’ll save those for another time. The story I want to tell is on that he told he: My friend grew up dirt poor in a single-wide trailer with his Air Force dad, his Filipina mother, and his two siblings, way back in “the holler” of Jackson, Ohio. He lived off his brother’s hand-me-downs. The better-off kids would make fun of his family, singing this ditty to the tune of Electric Avenue:
We gonna rock down to
PAYLESS AND BUY SOME SHOES
They only cost a dollar
Alas, in the end the joke was on all those other kids, because my pal and his brother ended up surfing the turn-of-the-century tech wave into the kind of money where you never have to think about trailers, or Payless shoes, ever again. There’s a bit of irony to all of this, however, because nowadays the value of Payless shoes has gone from “a dollar” all the way to $640. In this brilliant prank-o-mercial, a bunch of “social media influencer” dipshits were invited to the grand opening of a store called “Palessi”. Once inside, they were given, and eagerly took, the chance to pay hundreds of bucks for shoes that can be found for $19.99 at Payless. The influencers gushed about the unbeatable style, materials, and prestige associated with being a “Palessi” customer.
The two immediate hot takes found everywhere on the web: Payless is smart, and influencers are stupid. Both of those takes are correct, but I’d like to be a little more perceptive than that, if I can manage it. My thoughts, in no particular order:
Maybe Supreme should sue for infringment? The infamous Supreme brand is basically Palessi; they put a small logo on overseas junk and mark it up somewhere between two hundred and one thousand percent. I confess that I am too old, too stupid, or just too unhip to understand the appeal. Most skaters or BMX riders will pay a little extra for commodity clothing that displays our favorite brand, since it gives us a chance to fly the flag, so to speak, but the vast majority of Supreme patrons have nothing to do with skating or OG street style in general. If Palessi had a cheap Futura Bold Italic logo, it would be indistinguishable from Supreme, except that in general the markups wouldn’t be as bad.
How many of the influencers knew the Palessi stuff was junk and got excited anyway? Chevrolet had no trouble finding real people who were willing to froth at the mouth when presented with a refrigerator-white Equinox LT:
Narrator: Now let’s see the vehicle that won J.D. Power’s “Most Interesting Ontario-Assembled Domestic SUV Between 176.7 and 176.9 Inches Long” award… three years in a row
Random Person: HOLY ASS-LICKING SHITBALLS! IF I LIVE A THOUSAND YEARS IN UTOPIA I’LL NEVER HAVE A BIGGER “WOW MOMENT”! (Faints.)
The autojourno landscape is teeming, locust-like, with undistinguished mouthpieces who can be reliably expected to become very enthusiastic about very uninteresting products so long as their travel, meal, and product-comp needs are met. Each and every one of them understands that only the most outrageous expressions of enthusiasm will be re-Tweeted or ‘Grammed for posterity. In this way, the media has essentially trained most of us to provide what the media wants, more or less on cue. The phenomenon of the eerily characterful local-TV interview has taught us all to go wooooo! So even if the “influencers” weren’t knocked out by Palessi shoes, they knew better than to express indifference. That way lies obscurity, dontcha know?
Not that the mainstream media is much better. Does anybody remember the days when one newspaper would “scoop” another one? Does anything like that ever happen nowadays? In 2018, the news arrives in coordinated fashion across multiple platforms, driven by “engagement companies” that dictate the nuts and bolts of media coverage the same way that high-end lobbyists are permitted to write the actual text of proposed legislation regulating the industries they represent. Consider the “Palessi” story: Did it really deserve a nationwide rollout of supposedly objective news coverage? Sure, I’ll discuss it here at Riverside Green because I’m fascinated by the mechanics and the message of it… but why, exactly, did USA Today have it front and center? Could it have anything to do with the fact that “Palessi” is going to be the subject of a major advertising push? Is the Palessi coverage you’re seeing today nothing but a long-form audition for Payless ad money? (We would absolutely accept a major partnership with Payless here, by the way. Payless — and get more!)
This kind of shit couldn’t happen in a country with intact families and even a vestige of middle-class structure. Something that the Palessi stunt put front and center in my mind: Could I, Jack Baruth, noted international bespoke client and ketchup-stainer of Kiton, be fooled in the same manner by a men’s Palessi? Let’s say, for example, that somebody claimed to have a new British shoe brand competing directly with Edward Green — but the shoes themselves were just Kenneth Coles with a different label. Would I fall for it? What about Chinese suits with a Zegna label? Or a fake variant of my cherished Tudor Black Bay Bronze?
Thirteen years ago, I wrote a long piece for a now-senescent mens’ clothing blog where I purchased “oxford”-style shoes from four different makers and attempted to compare them in detail, showing where each piece stood up and fell down. At the time, I felt that I have a pretty good handle on what makes for a quality shoe; in fact, I should re-do the test here using some of my personal inventory from Crockett&Jones, Bruno Magli, Grenson, and Edward Green in addition to the original four. It might be of interest to some readers. In any event, I don’t think I can be fooled when it comes to shoes.
With regards to other clothing items, I can readily distinguish the difference between fabric grades, hand vs. machine stitching, the composition of shirt buttons, and whatnot. But I have three significant advantages over the Palessi customers. The first is that men’s clothing, as a whole, tends to be of a much higher grade than women’s clothing, because we hold onto it much longer. (The white-label Armani coat I wore to dinner tonight? I bought it in 2002, making the amortized per-year cost of it less than what I’d pay for a new Men’s Wearhouse coat every year.) The second advantage is that I have a particular enthusiasm for the subject and am therefore reasonably well-studied on it to a degree you wouldn’t find in what LJK Setright called “T.C. Mits, The Celebrated Man In The Street”.
Lastly, however, I have something that very few, if any, of the Palessi customers have: I have a father who, from the earliest recollections of my youth, was didactic and forthright about what men should and should not wear. I learned the difference between Zegna and Brioni at his side the way other, frankly more fortunate, youth learned the hunting and skinning of deer. Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit Dad’s charm or his looks, so instead of being a dashing, perfectly fit fellow in a double-breasted Corelliani blazer like he was I’m a crippled, stumbling, shambolic Yeti in a Savile Row coat. At least I know what to wear, when to wear it, and why.
There was a time when most middle-class parents provided their children with a basic education regarding how and when to select and purchase clothing. Judging by the general sartorial state of my colleagues and co-workers, that time was some time before I was born, and my father represented the end of that tradition rather than its heyday. Yet I’m still capable of being shocked by modern indifference to gentility; last month I was involved in some magazine photography and the shooter asked me to button my jacket, which I did.
“Uh, could you do it with both hands?” he asked.
“No, I cannot button my coat with both hands, because I didn’t grow up in a trailer,” I responded. Didn’t everybody’s father teach them how to one-hand button a garment, either explicitly or through example? When Daniel Craig double-hand-buttons his dinner jacket (Tuxedo is a place, not a garment!) in Casino Royale, surely that’s meant to remind us that Bond was an orphan? Or was there not a single person on set who didn’t grow up in what the English call a “council flat”? Which leads to more questions: Does everyone know that you cannot leave oars at the dinner table? What about the length of visible cuff? Are there people who do not display a quarter inch of cuff? How far into anarchy have we slid, as a society?
In a perfect world, every father would teach his son how to distinguish, choose, and wear a quality garment. Each mother would do the same for her daughter. Those days are as dead as Marcus Aurelius. I can guarantee you that my son will be able to spot the difference between Neapolitan and Roman shoulders at a distance, but I don’t expect this knowledge to provide him with anything other than quiet amusement. It’s not just clothing, mind you. As we systematically break the bonds between parents and children in favor of forced obeisance to the Almighty Corporate Uniparty, all sorts of knowledge is being thrown away. How to repair simple machines, how to maintain a home, how to cook for a family, how to discipline and instruct children, how to manage one’s finances, how to recognize fraud, how to defend one’s self in a street fight, how to write a cover letter to a resume. It is a terrifying hollowing-out of society, leaving us with very little on which to build a system of values or even a self-image. Which is the point. The Uniparty breaks you down to make you anew — as genderfluid, as yellow-winged dragonkin, as a proud slut, as a soy boy, most importantly as dutiful consumer who receives and responds to marketing. Which brings me to my final thought, namely:
For most of humanity nowadays, the value of an item is solely determined as follows: multiply price by marketing. If you don’t know how to distinguish quality clothing, watches, appliances, or automobiles, how do you choose? The way most modern people do: figure out how much you can spend then purchase the best-marketed item in that range. Why not, when everything from our dishwashers to our interview suits are made in China by the lowest bidder, when we throw almost everything away before it is truly used up, when the pleasure of purchase outweighs the satisfaction of ownership by a long shot? The era of the respectable firm — Hickey-Freeman, IBM, Colt, Rolls-Royce — has yielded to a Bronze Age dominated by the all-powerful branding-of-the-moment — Supreme, OnePlus, Kimber, Bentley-by-Volkswagen.
There will continue to be people, like your humble author, who stubbornly insist on knowing the provenance of their goods and even meeting the creators of said goods. We will not exist in large enough numbers to matter. The future is meaning-averse, reality-distorted, highly-branded, where price is shorthand for value and a disposable name is hyped by disposable people through ephemeral social media until the excitement stalls and everyone moves on. Nothing will last. What you buy is garbage, what you own is meaningless, and the future holds nothing but more of the same, doled out in dopamine hits to keep you consuming and producing up to corporate standard. Ah, but would you truly want it any other way? Do you really want to build your home with your bare heands and wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life? Could you tolerate that life, should you accidentally achieve it? Having been born a housecat, could you ever become a lion? In the end, doesn’t it feel good to Palessi?