It seemed like a world far away always landed in the mailbox during the holiday season. That was when catalogues with glamorous merchandise were the norm, providing inspirational ideas, according to our very own cultural ambassador, Gordon Kendall, who fondly recalls them in this exclusive look back.

I WISH I COULD HAVE THAT

The chic world on the coasts would remain a dream until I lived there as a young man and discovered it for myself. Until then, there was the holiday catalogue, which beckoned me from afar to aspire to dream about life beyond my ho-hum eighth-grade existence. To understand the Christmas catalogues I grew up with, you have to know something about the stores offering them. From the smallest hamlet to the vastly populated Manhattan, there were scores of local, regional, and specialty stores. These retailers worked with local groups and held store events where they learned what people would and would not want to wear. Around the house, to school, work, play, and holiday parties, these stores had you covered because they knew you. They had merchandise teams of buyers, not Excel programs, and programmed orders, determine what their shoppers would like, because they knew those shoppers, often personally.

The three-hundred-dollar dress would fly off the racks, but the five-hundred-dollar one wouldn’t because the buyers knew first-hand how to gauge demand. Red would sell better than green, solid ties, not printed cravats. The success of these stores relied on being part and parcel of their respective communities. So, when the stores put out Christmas catalogs, they were putting their best foot forward with the finest, most edited selection of goods they could create. Yes, they were the original influencers.

Some stores really got it right. Their taste caught on. Everywhere. Maybe they had a unique product niche, like New York’s (original) Abercrombie & Fitch with sporting goods, or FAO Schwarz with inimitable toys. Perhaps they had a particular point of view found nowhere else, like San Francisco’s sublime and now-resurrected Gump’s. Texas’ own Neiman-Marcus offered as much humor as high fashion with items like Chinese trunks and designer cocktail dresses. Whatever snobbishness there might have been was tempered by the genuine understanding that people like to have a good laugh. Although, as I think about it, that Lucite “N-bar-M” mouse ranch that Neiman’s touted was even funny to a kid like me. The point is, seeking out these memorable catalogues was part of the fun of holiday shopping. Something about them gave you the confidence to purchases their items…as best you could.

Magazines figured out the cachet of these special catalogues and how to partner with them. Remember those cards at the back of all your favorite, glossy lifestyle and fashion monthlies? Just fill them out, pay the fees, and within a certain timeframe, store catalogues from all over the U.S. would come to you. Thanks to this service, I was able to see what it would be like, and what it would cost to outfit myself in New York’s A. Sulka & Co.’s silk robes or wear the latest in Italian menswear from Wilkes-Bashford in San Francisco. Amen-Wardy in Newport Beach, California, took care of haute couture dressing for the ladies. It was the kind of catalogue where anyone would feel more affluent, just leafing through it.

Additionally, Tiffany & Co.’s iconic little blue catalogue was filled with coveted holiday gifts and included full-color photographs boasting both twenty-carat diamonds and sterling silver centerpiece Christmas trees. It was a far cry from the catalogues most stores distribute currently since those were printed in Switzerland and cost five-dollars. In the 1970s. Talk about luxury. They remain, to this day, collectible glimpses into yesteryear.

 

EXPERIENCE LUXE BY MAIL

Now, though, the stores are long gone or may soon pivot in response to modern shopping habits. Community has become a virtual concept, much less a local reality, and luxury has been redefined to mean experiences-and-friends-you-pay-for, not things you keep because you cherish them. The excitement of waiting for, and receiving, a catalogue from a store as far away as London means much less when that same store pushes its wares all the time, right on your computer. So, being part of some far-flung exercise group that only meets on your phone seems more exciting to some.

Prices of gifts have polarized, too. Expensive means very expensive, and low-cost means cheap in every sense of the word. There is no middle ground when it comes to profit margins, and we, the consumer, have spoken: lower prices unless we’re really going to splash out and, furthermore, who cares about quality when we’re not likely to keep it for very long, anyway? Maybe what has happened is that our dreams have changed?

Now, being well dressed, male or female, seems only a worthy goal for as many likes, followers, and tweets that one can garner from complete strangers. It doesn’t seem to be about how you might feel and how you’d like to define yourself personally. They, the hypesters on social media, who always have something new to be afraid to miss out on (defined as FOMO Syndrome–Fear Of Missing Out), have come to shape our aspirations, not the stores that at least knew us and offered their pride of place in catalogues confirming the acquired knowledge of their customer base. Now, one must wait too long even to receive the catalogues, much less the merchandise. But at least, with them, you made the selection and had the assuredness from the stores to give you confidence that, Hey! You got this!

Rockin’ the Christmas Stockin’ these days is an experience unto itself. I hold out hope that new stores will come on the scene, take hold, and find a way into my heart. These should be venues that come to know us as the people we are, not just the algorithms they are told to buy for. Moreover, they must take modern-day branding’s elusive mantra of authenticity to heart…and revive the glory of the printed and mailed Christmas catalogue that offered one-of-a-kind items you can’t find anywhere else. I’ll be looking for it in my mailbox again, won’t you?

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