…with patent leather trim and embellished with crystal and featuring a removable strap for hands-free mingling at gallery openings and galas… $898
When I interviewed for a sales position at Anthropologie, the retail paradise that caters to artsy, globetrotting people with deep pockets, I aced the first round with my response to the question, “Who is the Anthropologie woman?”
Me: “Well… I’d say that she’s artistically inclined, intellectually curious, and has a serious case of wanderlust. She’s probably an artist or designer with two houses and two dogs, and spends summers in France and Bali with her husband and kids. I think that I’d want to be her best friend…”
Hiring Manager: “Yes! But, forget about being her best friend. We want to BE her!”
The Anthropologie lifestyle is both inspirational and aspirational. Now that I’ve left that land of impeccably quirky style, I realize that my true work there was to observe an anthropological phenomenon (not entirely surprising, considering that the name of the store is the French word for that discipline). I interacted and ingrained myself within a carefully constructed consumer culture. Every work day felt like fieldwork within what author Haruki Murakami would call a “town of cats” — a seductive, intriguing otherworld that begs us to stay but holds some quiet danger of forever keeping us captive.
The Anthropologie-cal environment is far away from the “realness” of everyday life; working there was a way to enjoy rich escapism and dodge responsibility for trying harder for the career that I had really wanted. But, like a “cat town,” there is something quietly disconcerting about stepping into the Anthropologie realm. I felt this throughout my time there, and still feel it now: it is unsettling to place such a high, abstracted value on “inspiration” in the practice and pursuit of consumption.
I was a longtime aficionado and addict of the store before I worked in the sales floor trenches for two years and at two different stores. I reveled in a ritual of soaking up all of the sights of a faraway land of fashion meant for women who, like me, had an agenda in their sartorial choices. I met some of the most creative and innovative people I have ever known and I felt good being part of a greater aesthetic vision. I also had daily doubts about what I was doing there. During my hours upon hours folding clothes and merchandising displays of monogrammed coffee mugs, I pondered why I wasn’t actively taking more direction with my life.
I quickly saw past the we-are-the-world illusion of the woven wicker chairs and hand-dyed throw pillows … but I wanted them to furnish my dream house in Helsinki. The pay may have been (laughably) low, but the “inspiration” I got from the things I saw and sold was immense. And that was precisely what I was promised from day one: “an inspirational work environment.” In company communications, the word “inspiration” comes up frequently; you work with “inspiring” people, employees are commended for dressing “inspired,” and everyone is encouraged to share what they are finding “inspiring.” The main goal is to foster “inspirational” experiences that are driven by a continuous search for “inspiration” in any and all forms. After a while, that word, concept and ideal transformed into my everyday practice.
People love “Anthro” because it is under the radar; advertising is kept to a minimum, many of the customers are word-of-mouth, and stores maintain a “boutique” feel. And, the carefree, eclectic image that they perpetuate sells big time. They craft a mishmash of vaguely multicultural visual cues executed with conservative style. Predictable, with just that element of the unexpected, like an exotic vacation with a preset itinerary in which one would engage with the locals but not really take part in the culture.
Much of the “inspiration” behind Anthropologie’s designs and display comes from international adventures and encounters with cultural “others,” and that is the root of what is ultimately unsettling for me, as a customer and former employee. Sourcing directly from artists, artisans, places and cultures makes things murky. There is a risk, to the company and to their consumers, with the fine line that they straddle between “inspired” and “insensitive.”
If Anthropologie’s products are meant to play up the global-gatherer-nomad ideal, their mishmash of random objects comes across as underthought and irrelevant. Stuff is stuff, but it is the lack of context — be it through the physical presence of an “authentic” found object or the many modes of inspiration lifted from world cultures — that keeps Anthropologie’s products forever in a state of irresponsibility. Playing up the “artisan-ness” or “one-of-a-kind” nature of commercial wares acts as a way to remove accountability. Citing “inspiration,” be it found in any form, place, or collective cultural sphere, becomes an escape and an excuse.