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The Gray Lady Wears Prada

Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

Praise Jesus and pass the chinchilla, fur is hot again. For the last several years, the skinned-animal taboo has been receding, and now, with Beyonce sporting the look and Neiman Marcus hawking fur scrunchies, everyone is panting after fashion's ultimate luxury symbol. Muffs, socks, mittens, wraps--you name the accoutrement, it can be upgraded with a touch of mink. Or, better yet, sable. When contemplating an expenditure of this financial and spiritual magnitude, however, it is important not to go off half-cocked, rummaging through the racks at any old department store. Not only must the merchandise be top quality, the shopping environs should offer reassurance that it is perfectly reasonable to drop five, even six figures on a piece of outerwear. The staff should display just the right degree of obsequiousness. Soothing music is a plus, proper lighting a must. And a cup of tea--or, better still, a splash of Veuve Clicquot--helps give the experience that extra bit of gilding. Because, without the proper atmospherics, the sacrament of buying a $20,000 sheared mink could wind up having all the luster of picking up a half-priced windbreaker at Target.

Thankfully, to help forestall such misfortune, The New York Times' Alex Kuczynski is on the case. The discriminating pen behind the popular "Critical Shopper" column, Kuczynski popped into celebrity furrier Dennis Basso's Manhattan salon not long ago to critique the ambiance, assess the service, and stroke the wares. Professing a squeamishness about fur ("I look at fur and think of Henry, my deliciously hairy miniature dachshund"), Kuczynski went looking to eviscerate: "I had been walking by the store all winter long marveling at the fur leg warmers strapped to the legs of the storefront mannequins; they look like the fur anklets worn by the grunting boy in `Mad Max.'" But then the charming Mr. Basso, his welcoming boutique ("comfortable in a kind of Madison Avenue meets Las Vegas way"), and his incomparable pelts began to work their magic: "I pulled on a black mink coat ($30,000).... Henry, forgive me: it was unlike anything I have ever worn: light as souffle, so silky and otherworldly I experienced the bizarre sensation of having never touched such material before." In the end, Kuczynski was so overcome that she picked up a yummy, chocolate-suede shearling coat for her birthday. ("It was $5,000, and all I can say is that I'm glad I spent the last year paying off my credit cards.") Her final assessment, as distilled in the handy box graphic:

Atmosphere Limousines idle outside; rococo inside.

Service Excellent.

Prices $1,000 to $150,000.

Key Looks Sable, chinchilla, mink, lynx.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. In the spring of 2000, Kuczynski, then a media reporter for the Times' business section, took a stylish slap at Conde Nast's new shopping-themed magazine, Lucky, for "break[ing] new ground for an American magazine in so brazenly and nakedly looking and reading like, well, a carefully created catalog." Kuczynski's disdain wasn't just for the vulgar advertorial feel of Lucky's content--"202 pages of stuff," typically accompanied by price and ordering information--but also for its very essence. "[T]he conceit that all women are interested in shopping as an activity--not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself--is not one to which every American consumer subscribes."

Six years later, Times readers can find Kuczynski penning a weekly column about the art and sport of shopping for "Thursday Styles"--a year-old section of the paper that, if one were feeling ungenerous, could be characterized as a smarter, higher-end variation on Lucky. Chock-full of product round-ups (complete with price and ordering info), online shopping tips, blurbs about store openings, and other features meant to be read with platinum card in hand, "Thursday Styles" is firmly dedicated to serving--and fueling--readers' urge to splurge. Need a new treadmill? "Thursday Styles" can help you decide whether to go with the $5,899 True Z5.5 Limited or the $4,499 Life Fitness T7-0. Wristwatch busted? Come explore the relative merits of the $28,500 Cartier Tortue versus the $10,900 Panerai Radiomir chronograph.

The Times is hardly breaking new ground with its foray into what may be best described as luxury porn. Most metro areas with the proper concentration of wealth boast at least one slick glossy peddling the luxe life. And, hot on the heels of "Thursday Styles," last September The Wall Street Journal introduced its own shopping-on-steroids section, suggestively titled "Pursuits." But it's one thing for a bunch of glorified ad vehicles--or even the rampantly capitalist Wall Street Journal--to be hawking designer duffel bags and skin cream priced higher than Jack Abramoff's legal team. After all, these publications unabashedly promote--and generally cater to readers who share--a Trump-esque mine-is-bigger-than-yours attitude toward wealth and consumption. It's quite another matter, however, for the venerable Times to lend its imprimatur to a genre so awkwardly at odds with its own high-minded liberal sensibility and intellectual pretensions. This, after all, is the same paper that, last year, ran an eleven-part series on class in America, in which it described economic mobility as "the promise that lies at the heart of the American dream" and exhaustively pondered its apparent decline. Social consciousness for The Wall Street Journal may mean crushing the welfare state, but, for the Times, it means earnest editorials packed with noblesse oblige. (Classic snippet from last Thanksgiving: "There is no shame in the poverty Americans suffer today. The shame adheres to those who do nothing to change it.") Wretched consumer excess may be the American way, but is it really the paper of record's business to lend it respectability? The disconnect is jarring enough that even "Thursday Styles" appears to be grappling with this question.

Meet Bertram Gabriel III--universally known as Trip--the man in charge of all things Stylish at the Times. The son of a New York toy executive-turned-Sun Belt real estate investor, Gabriel began his journalism career as a freelance writer, penning colorful pieces about international sports and outdoor recreation for publications including Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, and, of course, the Times Magazine. He joined the paper in 1994 as a reporter on the style desk, a remnant of the original "Styles of the Times" section launched in 1992 and killed just around the time of Gabriel's arrival. When the Times decided to relaunch the section in 1997, Gabriel was asked to spearhead the process and subsequently became the editor of the new "Sunday Styles," with its focus on fashion, leisure trends, sex, romance, and Manhattan society. ("When I'm feeling pretentious," he chuckles, "I think of it as the zeitgeist section.") Seven years later, when Managing Editor Jill Abramson needed someone to do the same for a new fashion and beauty-oriented section, Gabriel was an obvious choice. Now, a year into the job--and with his two fiefdoms recently combined and designated their own department--Gabriel is a dutiful defender of the "Thursday Styles" mission. As he noted in a recent phone interview, "I think people who whack it aren't comfortable with this new area of journalism about some of our tastes and consumption habits."

Clearly, the publishing industry has no such qualms. Luxury porn has blossomed over the past decade, driven in part by the proliferation of city-based "controlled-circulation" magazines--ad-driven glossies distributed gratis to households meeting certain economic criteria. (In the past year, not one but three such publications were launched in Washington, D.C., alone.) Other magazines, such as Millionaire (with its annual special issue, Billionaire), hawk the luxe life on a national scale, while still others focus on a particular category of consumption. Elite Traveler, in which featured accommodations often top $10,000 per night, instructs its readers (households with incomes over $1 million) on how to procure their own private island. Robb Report puts out a handful of luxury guides on subjects like home entertainment, vacation homes, and "ShowBoats." Similarly, Millionaire produces more than a dozen online magazines/shopping guides, each spotlighting a subset of extravagance like art, wine, cars, yachts, and private jets. These publications' business model is to attract advertisers with the richest readership possible. Ad buyers aren't promised a lot of eyeballs, just the right ones. (Why blow your budget tantalizing some schlub who cannot possibly afford a $42,000 Speedy Twilight watch from Louis Vuitton?) The stakes are high. The Times itself has reported that, by decade's end, Americans are on track to drop an estimated $1 trillion a year on luxury purchases.

With newspapers eternally on the hunt for ways to attract new readers--and, more importantly, new ad dollars--it was only a matter of time before the major dailies embraced luxury porn as well. The Times long ago laid the foundation by adding consumer news and lifestyle journalism. Former top editor Abe Rosenthal, in fact, is credited with legitimizing soft news--and, in the process, saving the Times--in the mid-'70s, when he overhauled the paper to include regular coverage of topics such as homes, cooking, gardening, and entertainment. Fascination with the rich also has a well-established history at the Gray Lady. As Nelson Aldrich recounts in Old Money, Times readers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries enjoyed detailed coverage of high society's comings and goings--who was invited to which soirees, who attended the Harvard-Yale boat races, how preparations were going for the famed Bradley Martin ball of 1896, and so on.

Far more recently, the Times' "Sunday Styles"--with its party pics, bold-faced names, and, most notably, its status confirming-status conferring wedding pages--quickly became a must-read for the elite and elite wannabes, as well as gawkers of every social stripe. But "Sunday Styles" has been fundamentally about people, not products, and its primary mission is anthropological. Debuting at a time when New York was less flush and more tribal, it provided readers with glimpses into different, albeit equally stylish, worlds--boho actors, Upper East Side ladies who lunch, gay chic. The focus today remains on the culture of the wealthy rather than just their stuff.

For the Times, the shift from anthropology to consumerism may have been nudged along by the bursting of the Clinton-era economic bubble. "Financial advertising, tech advertising, and business-to-business advertising took a big hit during the last recession, and it hasn't really recovered anywhere near to what it was before," says industry analyst John Morton. Shopping-focused sections, he notes, can help papers offset those losses by expanding their ad base to include more consumer ads. "Pursuits," for instance, is widely recognized as the Journal's response to the evaporation of its financial and business-to-business ad streams.

Not that "Thursday Styles" was created with anything so crassly commercial in mind. According to Gabriel, the section is an organic product of staff brainstorming rather than the cynical, ad-driven, focus group-tested product that many people assume such offerings to be (and that Journal reporters admit "Pursuits" is). Planning discussions began in late 2004, and, by February 2005, a prototype of a new section focused on the fashion industry had emerged. (In fact, "Thursday Styles" was originally called "In Fashion," until staffers expressed concern that no male reader would ever embrace a section so named.) "We bundled with that other aspects of `Styles' coverage that we weren't already doing elsewhere," Gabriel explains. "Most of it falls under the general category of coverage about appearance and image and what one sees looking in the mirror."

Indeed it does. On any given Thursday, "Styles" fans are treated to a melange of articles examining the hottest trends in looking good--everything from virtual personal trainers to ayurvedic massage to butt implants--with a whole lot of couture coverage in between. The front page features two or three longer pieces, including a photo-laden fashion spread and a nonshopping-related "lifestyle" piece on topics like parenting or online dating. ("We also don't want to be totally superficial," Gabriel explains, before swiftly assuring me: "I don't consider fashion and beauty to be superficial.") Inside, the pieces are quick, frothy, and heavy on the artwork. Columns abound. But, unlike its Sunday counterpart, "Thursday Styles" focuses not on glamorous others but on you, the reader. The section is intended less to give you a glimpse of a rarefied world of privilege than to help you attain it. "Front Row" keeps an eye on the catwalk. "Open for Business" lists notable store openings. "Online Shopper" provides the thrill-of-the-hunt details from the columnist's latest Web quest for an espresso-bean grinder, a trip to Paris, or a raincoat for her pet papillon. "Physical Culture" features product round-ups and editors' picks with a fitness theme. And then there's "Critical Shopper."

Almost everything you need to know about "Thursday Styles" can be gleaned from reading Kuczynski's weekly confection, which Times staffers cite as the breakaway hit of the section. Looking beyond the array of goods for which we shop, Kuczynski plumbs the foundation of American consumerism by analyzing the stores themselves. Manhattan-centric, with occasional forays to the outer boroughs and beyond, she dishes on which venues have the widest selection, the narrowest dressing rooms, the snootiest staff, the worst lighting, the loudest music, and the most appalling decor. Though periodically venturing down-market to, say, the Container Store or even Target, she is comfier in the land of Hermes scarves (of which she has twelve) and Jimmy Choo mules. Kuczynski's eye is keen, her wit sharp, and her perfectly sculpted brows perennially arched: At Versace's renovated flagship on Fifth Avenue, "the sales staff appears to have taken a handful of Friendly pills ... as if Versace's director of human resources lowered a net into America's heartland and brought back a school of sweet-natured kids, ready to string up some lights and put on a show in the barn."

Recognizing that, in this society, you are what you buy--or rather, you buy what you want to be--Kuczynski dabbles in sociology, deconstructing what certain retailers are really hawking. Ralph Lauren offers "the power of implied ancestry." The Brooklyn boutique Butter, by contrast, sells badges of intellectual and social awareness to people for whom "a pair of pants is an opportunity to express environmental protest, or a silent essay on the meaning of war, or an artistic tribute to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi." Far from ducking the elitist focus of her beat, she makes constant, often snarky reference to it. At Versace, Kuczynski scorns a $4,600 purse, citing a "constitutional aversion to handbags that cost as much as the average Panamanian makes in a year." The lure of a $4,700 Dolce & Gabbana ensemble prompts a disquisition on the wealth gap: "I paused. Swooned. Perspective time. The top fifth of earners in Manhattan now make 52 times what the lowest fifth make: $365,826 compared with $7,047. Or, for every dollar made by wealthy households, poor households make about 2 cents. So if rich New Yorkers are paying $4,700 for a dress and jacket, the poorest would need divine intervention to help pay for the same bargain." True--although a peculiar digression for a woman who just a few months earlier had been extolling the magnificence and relative affordability of a Hermes Plume handbag: "At $4,900 or so, it is less expensive than the self-conscious Birkin ... [and is] the kind of crazily expensive but worthwhile possession that daughters will steal from their mothers' or grandmothers' closets in a few decades."

In fact, it's precisely this simultaneous mocking of, and wallowing in, our luxe-life obsession that makes "Critical Shopper" a creation of Frankensteinian genius. Plenty of Times readers may be dying to hear every last detail about the parking lot at Fred Segal's Melrose Avenue store, but some may feel a twinge of shame about their aggressive acquisitiveness. After all, the Times is bringing luxury porn to a much broader audience than, say, Millionaire or Rich Guy magazine. Those publications are preaching to the choir of conspicuous consumption--to readers who not only have scads of money but have few qualms, if any, about spending it ostentatiously. "Thursday Styles," by contrast, is seeking new converts, reassuring its more skeptical readers that there's really nothing wrong with showing off their good fortune. This is delicate work considering that even many ultra-affluent Times readers belong to the ambivalently wealthy ranks of the "Bourgeois Bohemians" profiled so piquantly in now-Timesman David Brooks's 2000 classic, Bobos in Paradise. A new breed of elites deeply conflicted about their material success, Bobos are morally appalled by any gaudy display that could make them look like "the vulgar Yuppies they despise." Writes Brooks: "Maybe off in Vegas there are still some rich peasants trying to conspicuously consume, buying big limousines, powerboats, and sports franchises and piling up possessions to demonstrate their net worth. But the Bobo renounces accumulation and embraces cultivation. He must show, in the way he spends his money, that he is conscientious and not crass." Unlike the typical in-your-face luxury porn, "Thursday Styles" grasps the conflicted code of the Bobo.

Kuczynski personifies this understanding. Herself a product of privilege (her father is the prime minister of Peru), Kuczynski is a creature of the rarefied world of which she writes (and in which she shops). Yet she comes across as almost embarrassed by her affluence. "Yes, I bought myself a $5,000 shearling coat for my birthday," she e-mails me. "Do I regret writing about it in the column? No. I thought about it beforehand. I did marry a man who has been successful"--multimillionaire investor Charles Stevenson--"but I've always made my own money and that's what I use in my life. And, frankly, I'm not 25 years old. I mean, at a certain point (I was 37, turning 38, when I wrote that column), you're going to be able to afford to splurge on yourself once in a great while." Indeed, Kuczynski and her hubby both fancy themselves more grounded than your average Manhattan elites. The couple eschews the New York society circuit as spiritually defunct. "I find that the whole benefit scene is just a reason to party," Kuczynski told W magazine in a September profile. "Isn't it demented? People getting dressed up for this merry-go-round of benefits who've forgotten what they're supposed to be raising money for." Stevenson, meanwhile, expressed his conviction that "people who hold large amounts of money ultimately have corroded souls."

It's hard not to see these remarks as absurdly out of place in an article detailing the elaborate weekend house party that the couple hosts annually at their mountain retreat in Idaho ("aside from the masseuses, she and Stevenson flew in a yoga instructor, three chefs, and a trove of delicacies for the larder"), the six-carat diamond ring Kuczynski sports (having reportedly refused the nine-carat stunner Stevenson originally pressed upon her), and the pair's Upper East Side digs. ("The exclusive co-op is the subject of a forthcoming book by Michael Gross titled 740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building.") But this cognitive dissonance is what keeps "Critical Shopper" so in tune with Bobo angst. In one breath Kuczynski muses about what sort of "depraved" culture spends $300 on jeans ("I'll use the word, as Thurston Howell-ish as it sounds--dungarees"), and, in the next, describes buying a $168 pair for herself. Similarly, complaining about the drive out to a mall well north of the city, she once quipped, "On my deathbed, I would like to be able to say I read Pushkin in the original Russian, not that I spent 12,458 hours in the pursuit of shopping." It's fine to spend absurd amounts of time and money acquiring absurd stuff, Kuczynski is assuring us, so long as you recognize the absurdity. Because the real vulgarity isn't greed, but rather a lack of self-awareness.

While Kuczynski is its most elegant purveyor, this kind of intellectual jujitsu is sprinkled throughout "Thursday Styles," tucked neatly between the sidebars, product lists, and photo spreads. Some articles take random pokes at our spendthrift silliness ($70 for a doggie sweater!). Others are wholly devoted to the ugly side of the beauty industry (unlicensed plastic surgeons run amok) or consumerism in general (how Disney turned Cinderella from an icon of inner beauty into a tiara-hawking tart). With its wink-wink, nudge-nudge asides and deep-thoughts window-dressing, "Thursday Styles" lets us indulge our desire to buy--or even simply to fantasize about buying--obscenely expensive trinkets while maintaining our intellectual integrity. "There are incredibly subtle gradations of reverse snobbery and counter-reverse snobbery at play," quips one Timesman. The section practically screams: Isn't this all so outrageous? Here, have another Zegna tie!

Gabriel rejects accusations that "Thursday Styles" is all about conspicuous consumption--though not very convincingly. "I don't think we're trying to serve only those readers who can afford a $10,000 watch," he objects, referring to a recent roundup of timepieces that double as "conversation piece[s]." When assigning a story like that, you always try to include a range of prices, he insists. "We didn't do a Swatch, but I'm sure we had a watch in there for a few hundred bucks." (In fact, the least expensive was an $890 Prada.) Realizing how elitist even this might sound, Gabriel tries again--"When you think about the fact that watches are jewelry..."--before pausing, switching gears, and musing about the section's audience. "I don't know what the demographics of our readership are, but I can guess. The paper's read by a lot of people, but I think there are some generalities." (In other words, "Thursday Styles" is not intended for the wash-and-wear crowd.) Love it or hate it, says Gabriel, luxury porn reflects a cultural reality. "People shop the same way people dine out, the same way people decorate their homes. These are consumerist pursuits. We are another department of basically consumerist pursuits--about the kinds of things that give people pleasure." Apparently satisfied with this characterization, he reiterates, "We are a section about people's pleasures."

Still, even Gabriel cannot prevent a shadow of Bobo unease from occasionally creeping into view. "Sure, some people are appalled," he says of the section, before quickly noting, "but I don't get any complaints any more internally." The Times is "fully behind its Styles coverage," he assures me, and he is personally committed to seeing that the beat is handled with the "integrity and aggressiveness and balance and thoroughness and sophistication" expected of the paper. "I hope we never embarrass ourselves," he says, not exactly setting the success hurdle sky high. "I think it's a great achievement not to fall on your face when you're doing this kind of news on a weekly basis."

More to the point, Gabriel tells me, the section isn't just about fluffy stuff. "Thursday Styles" also prides itself on running "hard-hitting lifestyle stories that are not about buying something." These pieces, "which try to look a little more deeply at how people live their lives apart from what they buy," are of tremendous importance to the section, Gabriel stresses. "There is always [such] a story, every single week on the front page." He stops, thinks for a moment, then corrects himself. "Tomorrow is the exception."

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic.