Bugaboo New York

July 8, 2007

For the uninitiated, Bugaboo is a Dutch company specializing in the production of ergonomic baby strollers with modern designs. Their strollers are modular, highly modifiable, made from quality materials, and come in a white lightning streak of fashionable colors (the “denim collection” being the latest addition to the coveted line). You know a Bugaboo when you see one. It screams high concept like no other stroller.

If you want to get your baby into one of these babies, however, it’s going to set you back somewhere between $700 and a cool grand. And then there are the accessories: parasol, foot muff, sun canopy, snow wheels, cup holder. Only the best for little so-and-so.

To spot Bugaboo parents, with their Bugaboo babies, bugabooing about, you need only frequent the gentrified enclaves of America’s cities. The Bugaboo parents are strolling around in Los Angeles and San Francisco, more than a few certainly could be found in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Miami, and then one or two no doubt down there in Austin or around the Plaza, in Kansas City.

In New York, it all goes to another level, however. In New York the Bugaboo is not merely a stylish possession, to be spied in the hands of the lucky few. It is a status symbol like few others, with mothers clambering over each other, trying to establish their rank in the baby-fashion world order. This clambering was all supposedly started, years back, by the appearance of a Frog model Bugaboo on “Sex and the City.” Subsequent to the rise of the Bugaboo to bourgeois cultural icon, of course, there’s been a bugabacklash. Even buga-highway-robbery.

Still none of this is very surprising for a city awash in money and status like New York. What actually makes me stop and scratch my head is the number of Bugaboos I see coming out of the vast blocks of public housing that cast outward toward the east river from my apartment building. Certainly the desire for status is understandable from anyone, anywhere in the socio-economic hierarchy. But if you’re living off of public assistance where do you get the money for a Bugaboo? Or are these underground Bugaboos? Craigslist Bugaboos? Miracle knock-offs from lands far away? Perhaps, but I have yet to have anyone try to sell me a Bugaboo on the subway, like a pirated DVD.

Nonetheless in New York, you see it all the time. And not just the latest and greatest stroller, in the hands of someone who is not otherwise playing the part of yuppie, but the coolest phones, the newest and slickest laptops, outrageously fashionable clothes, and every other high concept commercial item you can think of. In New York, yuppie affectations are somehow not always a yuppie thing. Youthful flare is not always a youth thing. And gaudy extravagance is not always a wealth thing.

I myself have developed a taste for shoes that it would never have crossed my mind to purchase when I lived in California. For example, I recently bought a pair of Japanese tennis shoes that aren’t, you know, real tennis shoes, but shoes that just look like tennis shoes, for, you know, when you’re going out. When I got them, it seemed like the most mundane and normal of acquisitions. It was not an attempt to stand out from the crowd. If anything, it was more of a semi-conscious gesture of fitting in. Yet all I have to do is leave New York in these shoes and suddenly I feel like a disco freak dressed for a night on the town, but somehow ending up in church instead. Only in New York could shoes like these seem banal.

So in New York, status symbols and desirable consumer items aren’t really the exclusive domain of a narrow class of people. They flow around more freely and somehow more pervasively. In large part, I suppose this is because fashionable items are so readily available here and often surprisingly cheap.

It helps certainly that Manhattan is in many ways just a giant shopping mall. There is not one Kenneth Cole store, but one for every neighborhood. A “vintage” clothing store doesn’t sell clothing from the 40s or even 70s, it sells last year’s best Chanel dress. There are stores for labels you’ve never heard of, heralding local niche fashion at outrageous prices, and then unloading piles of leftovers for next to nothing in “sample sales”; and I mean hundreds of stores like this. And it’s not unheard of to find a practically new stereo or art deco leather chair, piled up on the sidewalk in the garbage. Indeed when the myth is perpetuated that Manhattan has “everything,” so demonstrably untrue when applied to food or culture, it is nonetheless never more true than when applied to consumer items.

I find myself wanting to conclude from all this that New York probably has the most branded population of any place in the country (if not the world). It is a commercial culture in a profound and exhaustive way. This makes living here both an eye-opening exercise in what really makes the world economy tick and a sort of collective logo-fied delusion. It also shows the capitalist promise of choice for what it is: an inexorable movement towards sameness and expense, casting all people inevitably into the dark maw of the generic, while simultaneously pickpocketing them on the way down.

But don’t get me wrong, I like my shoes.

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