Shopping Malls, Cosmetic Branding, and Other Capitalist Miscellany: The Madeleines of My Things Past

by anna on September 17, 2008

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The mall in my hometown had just one department store, unless you count Woolworth’s. I don’t. Although I suppose it was, strictly speaking, a “department store” in that it had “departments.” But if we use that definition, then Walmart must also be a department store, along with Target, Sears, and K-Mart. And though I do love Target, I have always thought of a real department store as one that carries the Estee Lauder family of products. At the very least.
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The Broadway carried not only Estee Lauder, but Clinique, Lancome, and Elizabeth Arden, and had three levels, the middle of which boasted a restaurant. I would go to the Broadway cafe on occasion when my grandmother–”Noni,” we were to call her, because even though she was not “Eye-talian,” the adoption of this foreign nomenclature somehow made her feel better about having a grandchild–was in town. There, I would eat lime jello, or maybe chocolate pudding, and she would smoke, because that was when you would go into a restaurant, and people would say, “Smoking, or Non-?” And my brother and I would groan, and slink over to the smoking section of the Broadway Cafe, or Loops Cafeteria, or Bob’s Big Boy, or wherever. With Noni.
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Later on–during the Clinique Skin Regimen and Cacharel Anais Anais days–my friend R and I used to dispute if the store should be referred to as “The Broadway” (my contention) or, simply, “Broadway” (her contention). Admittedly, “The Broadway” sounded overly formal, but that’s what the sign said, quite clearly: with a regular serif font for the “broadway” portion, and a comparitively ornate script font for “the.” If anything, it seemed to me, the “the” was emphasized on the sign. And it’s not as if we had any kind of idea of what a “broadway” was . . . I suspected it had something to do with the lingerie department, though it seemed unlikely that they would name a store a code name for “The Womanway” or something short for “The brassiered way.”
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But truthfully we were somewhat bumpkinish in that day, even if we thought we were terribly sophisticated.
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I grew up a little over an hour outside of Los Angeles, and I remember the first time I went to the Beverly Center for the back to school shopping trip. I was in middle school. Christian Dior’s Poison was the scent of the day. Seventh grade, I think. My mother and I went with my friend . . . oh, let’s call her Stephanie . . . and her mother. Stephanie and I were fast friends after being on the same AYSO soccer team the year before, which her father had coached. The Beverly Center’s centre pompidouean tunnels lead down to street level, where we lunched at the Hard Rock Cafe, which was terribly cool at the time, and then back up to Macy’s and Bullocks, and, more importantly, Contempo Casuals, where I could sometimes find Guess jeans that would fit over my thighs–just barely.
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The friendship was a package deal–my parents had become friends with Stephanie’s parents, and we would all go out to sushi together and it was all quite cosy. Stephanie and her parents were over at my house the night that Brad, the boy on whom I had a nasty crush during middle school, and his friends decided to egg my house in seventh grade. And though my dad and Stephanie’s dad chased them down the street, they escaped through the church parking lot, but I always knew who it was anyway. Stephanie and I would remain friends until sometime in 8th grade, when Stephanie called my new basset hound ugly and I subsequently referred to her with the epithet “Fireball” in a clandestine note written to another friend. O Middle School! and your tangled web of intricate social relationships!
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As time passed, and I would continue to make trips to the Beverly Center with different friends, I would always come away feeling frumpy and less-than. Less-than everyone and everything. It was clear that everybody in Los Angeles–and perhaps the world–was better looking, better dressed, more intriguing and just generally a superior person to me in my suburban pathos. I began to buy things by mail more and more often, choosing baggy pants and sweaters in odd, unflattering colors like bright orange and puce green. R and I called these things “heinous,” a word she had learned during SAT prep at her private high school, where people’s parents visited them in helicopters and bought them “cheap” 3-series BMWs for their sixteenth birthdays. And they would complain about it.
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We set about developing the heinous aesthetic studiously because it was a way of not trying to belong. Not trying to be beautiful, because why try if it were impossible? I was still wearing Clinique’s honey gloss and using the Lancome anti-cellulite buffer and cream, but I had discovered the Smiths by now and heaven knew I was miserable then. I was working at a small market, the name of which you wouldn’t believe if I told you, and I was dreaming of going away to college. It was there that I would work on my infamous student body election campaigns and finish my admissions essays.
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Later on I would become acquainted with one of the greatest malls in America–The Stanford Shopping Center–which had Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Saks, you name it. I had access to all of the best cosmetics brands available in the United States, for the first time in my life. I would start wearing Origins lip pencil in Eggplant, and using eyeliner for the first time. Then I discovered that that pretty, impeccably dressed and tastefully made up girl that I had tried to befriend on the first day of living in my freshman dorm–the girl who had snubbed me, shown no interest in me–she was Estee Lauder’s granddaughter! And no wonder she had Gucci shoes!
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And in desperation and insane jealousy I would swear off Estee Lauder products indefinitely. What I didn’t know then was that Estee Lauder owns most of the makeup industry, and what they don’t already own they would buy up, over the course of my young adulthood. So every year of my twenties, they would add another brand, and I would have to switch my perfume or my foundation, and that would last a while, and then I’d have to switch again. And this would go on, as the Estee Lauder conglomorate would grow more each year. Until I was using stuff from a tiny parfumeur probably located in a backalley of Paris, that you could only buy on the internet or from even tinier boutiques, and getting my sunscreen shipped to me from Canada or France in unmarked packages.
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And the insane micro level boycotting would continue. And continue. And then one day I started a blog, and by then I had started dipping my toe back in the Lauder product sea. A little Bobbi Brown here. A little Prescriptives there. And I would look for sponsors, and who would accept my applications? Prescriptives, Origins, Benefit–the Estee Lauder family of products.
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Irony.

{ 14 comments }

PauvrePlume September 17, 2008 at 11:12 am

Ok, I’ll be honest: I haven’t read this post yet. But I just had to comment on the Proustian madeleine reference, because… well, duh. :) Gotta run to class, but I’ll read this and probably give you an ACTUAL comment later.

Amy September 17, 2008 at 11:29 am

Whenever I try to boycott something, the same thing happens to me – the company I am boycotting turns out to own everything else. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Estee Lauder owns AT&T (or vice versa).

HeatherPride September 17, 2008 at 12:47 pm

Ok, first of all it was totally THE Broadway. It says so on the sign. You were right.

Second, Estee Lauder’s granddaughter appeared on an Oprah episode – I wonder if it was the same one you went to school with? My mother and I both thought she had lifeless hair and you couldn’t even tell she had makeup on at all. I’d say she’s gone downhill since the old college days.

anna September 17, 2008 at 1:12 pm

That was probably Aerin Lauder. I went to school with Jane. They both work for Estee Lauder, but I think Aerin is the one who usually does all the PR stuff, she’s higher up in the company and is the older sister.

AKD September 17, 2008 at 1:17 pm

You think YOU were bumpkinish… my mother just foisted off on me some of my old elementary school homework. On a worksheet that asked for things that people should know about me I wrote as #2, “I like elevators.” Apparently, since we lived in the boonies in Humboldt County, my friends and I never got to ride on elevators/escalators, and when we traveled to a larger town, like SANTA ROSA (which was the “big city” where we did Xmas shopping), all we wanted to do was ride up & down the elevators.

anna September 17, 2008 at 1:20 pm

Hey, Mini likes to ride up and down the escalator. Sometimes it’s the only way we get through any kind of shopping trip. And he’s an LA native.

Mary Anne September 17, 2008 at 1:58 pm

This gave me a flashback to High School shopping and I remembered what perfume I wore….Georgio! …and now, I can’t get the phantom smell out of my nose.

Juliet September 17, 2008 at 3:44 pm

I am LOLing at that picture of the then state-of-the-art futuristic Beverly Center escalator. Hee! It was right across the street from Ma Maison restaurant and there was a chain of cafeteria-style French bakery/restaurants called Cafe Casino that had a branch nearby. My grandma’s sister lived on Gardner x Melrose and we’d meet most weekends for food & window shopping and often we’d head over to Beverly Center after hitting the outdoor flea market at Fairfax High. Beverly Center was THE place to go. This was I think slightly before the major remake of Century City and Beverly Center had one of the first multiplexes (even though each theater was teeny tiny.)

There used to be this great old school dept store called Buffums. Anyone remember? We would go to the Buffums tearoom for “milady’s pleasure” which was a cup of soup, tea sandwiches, and tea. They were also one of the last dept stores to offer a full hat department lol.

There was another great dept store back in the day called Judy’s. Judy’s was more trendy/fashionable than your typical dept store. I was in this group at school called Future Business Leaders of America — kind of the urban competitor to Future Farmers of America lol. FBLA was an offshoot of Future Homemakers of America and my home ec teacher was our advisor. I went to their annual convention and got to shadow a fashion buyer and a merchandiser. The buyer was from Judy’s and the merchandiser was from Jospeh Magnin (trendier/younger dept store than I. Magnin) – both at South Coast Plaza near where the annual convention was.

Then there was the fateful job interview while I was a student at UCLA — Bullocks Westwood dept store. My childhood friend worked there and somehow something (??) happened and I didn’t get the job! How do you not get hired as a p/t sales clerk at a dept store when you’re a college student who has worked as a p/t store sales clerk before? (I worked at a bikini shop at the Santa Cruz boardwalk while in high school.) So there went my fashion buyer/merchandiser dream up in smoke lol.

Anyway, your post brought back memories. BTW the movie Jackie Brown has The Broadway, but they call it something else (also starts with a B because there’s a giant B on the side of the bag.) Tarantino never uses real products in his movies. If they are an actual real product, he uses now-defunct ones like old candy or cereal from the 70s that aren’t around anymore.

anna September 17, 2008 at 4:17 pm

Yeah, those escalators have been redone now to be slightly less absurdly 80s looking. I do remember Judy’s! I had totally forgotten about that place. They sold a brand of eye shadow (it was mostly clothes, but they had just a few cosmetics also, at least where I grew up) that was totally powdered and not pressed. We used to mix it with vaseline and use it as lip gloss.

And when I say “we,” I mean, of course, just me. Only me. :)

NGS September 17, 2008 at 5:02 pm

My husband and I went to visit his relatives in Iowa a couple of months ago and when we went into a restaurant and they asked us, “smoking or non?” I think I became, quite literally, slack-jawed.

First, people still smoke?

Second, people are still allowed to smoke in enclosed public places?

QB September 18, 2008 at 5:17 am

The Stanford Shopping Center does kick ass. It’s small, but packs a powerful punch in terms of quality.

It’s interesting how department stores are so different now. In my hometown, what is now Macy’s used to be a locally-owned store with excellent service- in fact, my mom bought her wedding dress there in their wedding dress salon. Then Rich’s (in Atlanta) bought it, and Macy’s bought Rich’s. A lot of people (including my mom) refuse to shop there because the service is so bad- in part because they remember how good it used to be, so the contrast is sharper.

deb on the rocks September 18, 2008 at 6:58 am

I inexplicably loved Clinique Bonus Time even though the colors of the giveaways were usually shit for a young woman.

It’s ironic, but you won! So there’s that!

Linds September 18, 2008 at 1:22 pm

This is going to sound pretty lame, but it’s really freeing to hear that people who lived so close to LA felt like bumpkins sometimes! When I was growing up (ok, and even now!), I always feel like anyone anywhere near LA has a coolness factor that I could never dream of! The same issues are everywhere, even the cool, glamourous-seeming places!

Mary Anna September 18, 2008 at 7:49 pm

OK, I think I can take the Bumpkin cake. I grew up in a sad suburb of Houston and remember when we’d go to the Galleria for ice skating and Strawberry Stretches (virgin Daquiris) at Bennigans. Oh – and you could walk though Neimans without anyone batting an eyelash. Same for Lord and Taylor – but then again, you had to pass through L&T to get to the other side of the shopping center. Years later, I’d return to hit the Final Call sales racks at Neimans and jaunt through Saks (took over the L&T space) while sipping my expensive latte and carrying my overpriced handbag – and no one batted an eyelash.

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