Tuesday, July 29, 2008

When the whole place is the washroom....

It has been brought to my attention by a friend living in Qatar that Brasserie Paul - which is like all other shops obliged by the law to provide an Arabic equivalent of its logo - actually reads: "Bol" which in Arabic means urine.... Hmmm.... Well, at least you don't have to ask where the washrooms are - they're all over the place!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sowar Magazine: Picturing Lebanon

Above images copyright of Abed Kobeissy (Faces of poverty), Waleed Saab (Arguile culture) and Cassandra Mathie (Memento)

Anyone who is still not familiar with Sowar Magazine (www.sowarmag.com) should rush immediately either to a newstand or to their website. Their current issue, Number 3, is about the Lebanese civil war. The selction of images is impeccable - revealing the depth, complexity and dichotomy of the Lebanese society. The image, taken by Joseph Chami, of the hooded militiaman playing the piano during a ceasefire in the hotel war is a classic. Finally, someone can see beauty through all the rage and escape the tired cliches everyone expects of the war in Lebanon.

Adventures in bargain luxury

Luxury retail has one guiding principle: "If you ask how much it costs, it means you cannot afford it." Some luxury brands even push the limits of this maxim going as far as taking a blank check from the customer and filling it themselves: A case in point is Rolls Royce. Other brands use this motto in a different way: The house of Louis Vuitton does not have any "sales." You are to pay the same sum for your product, regardless if you're getting it at the beginning or at the end of the collection. Being "scarce" is also one such technique used. In 2003, when launching the sporty Lexus SC in Saudi Arabia, we wanted to give a gift for the first one hundred buyers in the shape of two Vuitton weekend bags complementary of the dealership. The Vuitton people were categorical: One bag only, never two. Sometimes it is the small details that matter, Lebanese luxury youth oriented Aizone (A declinaison of Aishti – Lebanon's answer to Neiman Marcus) issues two different bags: A transparent red thick plastic one for those buying at the beginning of the collection (that yuppie youngsters and early adults love to show off while walking in malls), and the cheap paper ones which are reserved to the sales period. Little do people realize however, that it is once taken out of the bag that the product either stands on its own as one of good design, or does not. Bargain hunting, alas, is not a technique in which the Lebanese specialize – the more the sticker price, the better it is for the shopper's ego. I once distinctly heard a teenager bragging that she got the same bathing suit as her friend but she "managed to get it before the discounts." Speaking of bargains, I once had a serious discussion with a friend of mine if my "Americanization" process happened when I went to Hooters' (Yes, the place where young women are scantily clad) or when I got to Filene's basement – the place that actually made out of bargains an institution: The "bridal race" in the miscellaneous news on TV where soon-to-be-wed women go to pick their dresses for a meager fraction of the original price actually takes place in Filene's basement. Whereas we never managed to settle on an answer, I must admit that I take pride in my sharp eye when it comes to bargains – not when it comes to bargaining though! (At such cheap prices, it is unethical to bargain!) An excellent place in Lebanon to find such treasures is Souk el Ahad – or the "Sunday market" which is our own flea market. With a big of culture and patience one can unearth gems there. Yes, one has to go through stacks of haphazardly piled stacks of clothes, but delve in and one can never know what is to be found. Just last week, I fished a Dries Van Noten shirt for 5,000 LBP (That's 3,33 USD at the current rate), a Trussardi tank top, and a handmade artisanal cardigan – I had seen the same earlier this year in Syria for 25 USD but got it for free as a bonus for buying the two shirts in question. The Levi's overshirt I got late last year – which has proved exceptionally handy in the village winters – was a piece the vendor had no idea he had in his stock. This is a line of clothing which Levi's has stopped making, and so vintage wool shirts are notoriously difficult to come by – so far I stopped counting the offers for resale by interested individuals. One thing luxury shoppers are oblivious of is that major designers get inspired by retro fashion to make their new "upscale" lines. Fashion house Dsquared2 has been almost single handedly credited for the revival of the "blue collar" 80s look – so instead of purchasing one their reissues (A checkered front shirt with off-white sleeves handsomely priced at 600 USD) I went to a retailer with old stocks right above the American University of Beirut and got the original shirt their based their copy on for 13 USD. Very recently, when the "Comme Des Garcons" guerilla store closed its doors in Beirut (Comme des garcons opens outlets for exactly one year in different cities of the world, and Beirut's turn came and went – the strategy gives them so much media buzz and coverage), I was invited to the closing party because I had participated in the original pitch. The point is that, for a few years now, Comme Des Garcons has been specializing in African-styled shirts and baggy pants, that day I so happened to be wearing a shirt a friend of mine got me from Ghana. And so upon my entrance, someone quipped that it was "awfully nice of me to wear a Comme Des Garcons shirt for the party." To which I replied, "No, this is the original deal – it only costs 3 USD." Early this year, I got a tuxedo shirt from the flea market for the whooping sum of 2 USD, since it was huge in size, I got it to the village couturiere – Malvina – who fixed it for 3 USD. So, my made-to-measure dress shirt actually cost me 5 USD. I once wore it to one of the universities where I teach, and coincidence had it that I was brainstorming with students about the correlation between luxury marketing and social status. And so I asked them: "How much do you think my shirt costs?" The most conservative estimate was 60 USD, the most outrageous 130 (Naturally, the student who had put that price tag assumed I got it from Aishti during sales). When I revealed the correct sum I saw looks which embodied sheepishness. However, to get the morale of the troops up again, I added: "But look at my cufflinks, they cost 90 USD from Paul Smith in Stockholm – and that's during sales!" Somehow, a sigh of relief propagated through the audience.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

SG1.... So Generous one!

For a few years now, I have been addicted to a magnificent anime which I watch over the weekend on Saturday and Sunday on New TV from 8:30 am till 9:00 am. Entitled "Yu-Gi-oh" it is a fascinating story of a bunch of youth who are monster duelers which are out to save the world - as everyone is these days!... But what really fascinates me is the way it is introduced by that young woman who serves as a relay speaker between programmes, invariably she says things like "now our young viewers are eager to follow the adventures of the nice YuGi and his cute little friends...." and the "Surete Generale" - the censorship body which gives ratings to programs has classified it as "SG1" or "Suitable for all ages." One thing you can take from me: I would never let my three-year old nephew pass in front of the TV while I am watching it and for serious reasons....
Let me try to explain:
First, let's talk about YuGi, yes "nice" YuGi has two souls in him - one is a highschool student and the other is a 5,000 years old reincarnated Pharaoh - whereas modern psychotherapists normally classify this under schyzophrenia - Surete Generale begs to differ.... Now, his rival Seito Keiba - an orphan who got adopted by a demineering multi-millionaire - ousted his stepfather from the holding after masterminding an internal coup and appropriating the controlling share of Keiba Korps. That's "cute" isn't it?
The rest of the bunch aren't too well off either - Joey Wheeler is in love with Mae Valentine who keeps changing sides between the goodies and the baddies (Every helpful for child psychology), and Tristan, Duke and Serenity (Joey's sister) seem to be locked in a love triangle.
The parental absence is only too marked in the series: The only father figures are YuGi's grandfather and a scientist who is also a grandfather (Of a girl named Rebecca) - but otherwise, immediate fatherhood or motherhood are totally absent. One episode specifically involved a dueler who was a "slave" and entailed an introduction to mental sadomasochistic practises.
I forgot to mention that when the Seal of Orichalcos card is played, the contestant who loses the duel also loses his soul which goes to feed an evil monster called "Levithian" who is supposed to either "save" or "destroy" the earth depending on whom you believe...
Kazuki Takahashi, the creator of the series, once said "The story is quite violent, isn't it?" but naturally, violence is deemed to be "suitable for all ages."

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Albert Sharpstein

Legend has it that a Chinese emperor summoned his court philosopher and presented him with a twig, then told him "Make it shorter without breaking it. Give me back your answer in one week or else you shall perish." A week later, the philosopher came back with two twigs - the original that the emperor had given him - and a second one, taller than the first. And he said "If we put these two twigs next to each other, your twig will be "shorter" without being broken." And so everything is relative, even relativity (Sorry Albert!). This is what the new Sharp refrigerator is marketing.... Pineapples looking as small as eggs and melons the size of cherries... Maybe the whole thing initiated from cherry tomatoes, but all things considered - and relatively speaking of course - it is a catchy ad which makes it statement well.