Moment: Brand Spanking Slew!
Melissa and I were in South Africa early last week to do some administrative stuff. But while we were there we just had to go shopping at the “Biggest mall in the Southern Hemisphere” Menlyn Mall. The urgency of the errand was heightened by the fact that our luggage did not make it onto the flight, and the sweaters we were wearing to ward of the 4 a.m. Nairobi chill threatened to kill us when we got to 98-degree Pretoria. So we floated on a pool of sweat and a year of built up retail deprivation to Menlyn (pronounced Main-Lan with an Afrikaner accent) excited to heat up some plastic…
But when we walked in the doors and began traipse around the well-stocked pile of gilt-wrapped boutiques that awaited us like so many unopened Christmas packages, something very odd happened. We recognized the STUFF that belongs in malls (clothes, accessories, good-smelling fast foods) but we couldn’t recognize our SELVES in that stuff in that mall because… we didn’t know the brands.
Like Darwin’s beloved Galapagos island, an entirely unique biosphere of brands developed while South Africa was isolated from the global economy until it abandoned Apartheid (though there are still whiffs of it in the air in Pretoria, truth be told). Not only did we not know the brands we didn’t know who the brands were for. Am I a Queenspark or a Truworth’s girl? Can I get business clothes in a Pinky’s? Could I possibly find something to read in CUM Books? Who in the heck is Ginger Mary, and how many times can I wear one of her dresses before it falls apart? Is Spilhaus a home store or a sexually transmitted disease? Mr. Price seems pretty self-explanatory, but there’s also a Mr. Coq and the intriguing Soviet. Salvation sounds cool and Pandora too—could they possibly live up to the hype? Who would ever guess that Clicks is an awesome pharmacy!?
Even though this brand ignorance should have made me a better shopper able to focus only on the quality, style and fit of the garments without the baggage of million-dollar campaigns whispering in my ear, my ignorance was paralyzing. Without my brands in the mall, I had a veritable identity crisis. In the states I am Banana Republic/Ann Taylor for foundational business and dress up, Loft/Gap/Anthropologie for weekend wear. Express for fitted button-down shirts. Victoria’s secret for favorite yummies, Fossil for bags and watches, Adidas/Athleta for gym wear, and Pottery Barn for the hell of it. Pier One delights. Sephora is an annual pilgrimage to the sacred temple of beauty. Justice is Melissa’s tweenage spiritual home. I never even bother walking into Kate Spade or Coach (Ok. Fine. But I’ m JUST LOOKING!). A great department store is best for shoes, with Sketchers appealing to my streak of whimsy. Kids clothes: TARGET. Full stop.
But how depressing is it that my ever so unique aesthetic can be summed up by a Venn diagram of marketing director-created customer archetypes? And that this internal GPS that locates me in a universe of possible buying decisions makes me buy more stuff? I hate being a cliché—Even more I hate being a market segment! But there it is.
So Melissa and I wandered for a good 2.5 hours in complete confusion, until finally, through the heat, sweat in our eyes, and brand blur, we found redemption (and it wasn’t a store name). First we saw a Jocky shop (comfy undies and PJs—yes!) then a Sketchers and Fossil. Levis was there and Crocs too. We bought some flip flops—just to ground ourselves, plus Colgate and Pantene. A Maybelline mascara helped us to resume breathing. After FOUR HOURS in the mall, we each left with a single sundress, a pair of cool shoes, a package of Jockies, and the vaguely haunted look of people who have Been Through Something. Is it any surprise that in spite of the amazing food in South Africa, we had dinner at McDonald’s?