Thursday, August 31, 2017

Selling Kink on Madison Avenue

CreditKirsten Luce for The New York Times
I ONCE worked on a play with a dominatrix, who explained a troublesome producer with the smiling dismissal: “Oh, don’t worry about him. He’s such a John.”
Meaning: obvious, easily manipulated. Sex, in her mind, was smeared all over men’s faces and running down their bibs, rendering them too ridiculous for any reaction other than amused, affectionate pity.
We’ve hit an interesting impasse in the battle of the sexes. In one corner, we have unprecedented access to unprecedented amounts of pornography, which has been transforming sex into a kind of performance art (in some cases, literally). On the other side, we have actual women — who, while gamely eager to please, generally speaking, find themselves a bit overwhelmed or upstaged (or both) by this onslaught of visual fiction and the new standards dictated by an almost mainstream ubiquity of smut.
It has been astonishing to watch, in the slowing of the economy, how the classy sex-shop business model has thrived. Society becomes creative when its entertainments are confined to the home.
Agent Provocateur has “arrived,” as it were, on Madison Avenue, ready to underclothe the hooker fantasies of a whole new class of shopper. This comes as a bit of a surprise. Agent Provocateur in SoHo has been a rowdy counterpoint to the nearby dead-serious upscale kink of Kiki de Montparnasse. For silk negligees and 18-karat tongue vibrators, you’d go to Kiki; Agent Provocateur was the source for tongue-in-cheeky stuff: gingham cowgirl bikinis, rubberized nurse costumes.
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On Madison, it seems, the shop is all dressed up to role-play as Kiki de Montparnasse. The interior is black and classy. There are sumptuous dressing rooms with billowing silk curtains and cherry blossoms crawling up the walls. A sitting room is furnished with vampire-luxe Victorian club chairs. Murals sweep up the staircase: Aubrey Beardsley meets Edward Gorey in an evil garden full of nude Vargas pinups.
CreditKirsten Luce for The New York Times
The saleswomen still sport the old uniform: a tightly tailored pink shirtdress, black tights and pumps: equal parts sexy nurse, roller-skating waitress and lab assistant. It’s a look conveying the message: we’re licensed underwear technicians, here to aid your scientific research.
The Madison inventory seems geared to undress women in a particular “Mad Men” fantasy, classic stuff that appeals to the stag-film-and-martini-marinated male. To wit: marabou peep-toe slippers; lace merry widows in ivory and red. No black leather, no latex. In short, it’s the stuff you buy the chorus girl with whom you are cheating on your proud Madison Avenue wife.
Who, then (besides sex workers, for whom such dainties are, arguably, a professional expense), buys this tricked-out, candy-apple shellacked hot rod of outlandishly expensive yet adolescently cartoonish love for sale, on Madison Avenue? The women I saw seemed to want nothing more than to throw beige cashmere cardigans over these rococo brassieres. The store uncomfortably exposes people for their exact level of sexual maturity — or not.
While I was trying to solve the labyrinthine conundrum of tiny straps on a red lace “playsuit” ($370), a dapper couple in their 50s walked in, all matching glen plaid and horn rims. “Look, $280 — for just the bra!” the woman squealed, too gamely.
Her companion overcompensated by trying to act devil-may-care. The Russian beauty working the floor explained that the loftier Soirée collection was on the second floor (e.g., French lace nightie, $1,990).
“Oh, so you work your way up to the luxury line?” he asked, too loudly, using the bra as a prop. “I guess that’s when you rip this one apart!”
CreditKirsten Luce for The New York Times
It was an uncomfortable moment — his cool was already blown, and so quickly. The saleswoman gave him a polite golf-chuckle.
The main problem of the Madison Avenue Agent Provocateur: it’s on Madison Avenue, a shopping area for ladies-who-lunch of a certain age. I’m guessing that porn gear isn’t at the top of their shopping lists. It’s probably not even in the middle of their lists — and those are very long lists. In fact, chafing dishes, dog jewelry and even decorative pine cones would probably appear on most of their lists before pink leather spanking paddles.
“I didn’t look good enough in these to pay that for them,” a 40-ish woman exiting a dressing room said, with a joyless giggle. “But I’ll be back!”
I didn’t believe she’d be back. I doubt the saleslady believed it. She sounded as if she had seen her own shadow in that dressing room.
BEAUTY is relative, certainly, and in the eye of the beholder. And men, bless them, can be amazingly dumb. A set of sequined pasties with tassels doing a double whirlybird is apt to get their attention on a slow afternoon, to say nothing of gilded handcuffs or seamed stockings that spell “Whip Me” in cursive on the calf ($70).
Bottom line, girls: it ain’t fashion. Fashion is about glamour, which is about seduction, which is about intrigue, which is about suggestion. In this joint, all of fashion’s ingeniously composed double and triple entendres are burned down to one big fat entendre.
I’d wrap it up for you, Johnny Dearest, but the only girl I know who wears anything that skimpy is my gun, and she only wears leather. Here’s where I beat it.

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