The Consumer Republic




Let Them Eat Fake
When Pino Luongo, the enterprising New York restaurateur, announced he intended to carve a little piece of Tuscany out of some pricey Rockefeller Center real estate, the only question was: Why hadn’t anyone thought of it sooner?
Tuscany is hot-and I’m not talking about the weather. It starts with Tuscan cuisine, an established culinary fashion. Having eaten the food, Americans now want to see the place. From 1993-’96, the number of American tourists visiting Tuscany tripled.
But as I learned on a recent Tuscan vacation, complete with villa and view, the Germans and the British got there ahead of us. Tuscany has already become a lifestyle experience, a landscape polished by foreigners and re-engineered for their comfort. On our first evening there, while jostling for elbow room in the market with other newly arrived renters, my husband dubbed it Tuscanyland.
Tuscan Square, the name Luongo gave to his one-stop shop, exists so Tuscany enthusiasts can eat the food, smell the smells and buy the tchotchkes of this fabled lifestyle. It would seem to be a can’t-miss merchandising proposition: a repackaging of a repackaging. Tuscan Square is a textbook example of today’s retail gospel: Customers want and expect virtual environments to dazzle them. It boasts the curving product displays, the artfully strewn merchandise, the jumble of product lines and the all-important theme or, as the theorists of retail like to call it, the “narrative.”
Of course, it does not evoke the “real” Tuscany, but no one expects that. What’s strange is that it doesn’t even manage to replicate the allure of Tuscanyland. Even its fakeness is fake.
Rather than suggesting a particular place, the space is more like an abstract exercise in lifestyle market think and brand-building. For example, what’s a brand these days without a bath-and-body line? Sure enough, to the left of the entrance stands what the October ’97 edition of the Tuscan Square Journal calls “our antique apothecary,” stocked with bathing crystals and soap. The bath oils, featuring “typically Tuscan scents, including rosemary, sage, cypress and figs,” are packaged in tall corked bottles to look like olive oil.
And if that’s not Tuscan enough for you, rest assured that all these products are made “exclusively for Tuscan Square by a small, family-operated company in the Tuscan countryside.”
Forget for a moment that water is a scare resource in Tuscany. “Italy” is not a word I would care to associate with bathroom if I could help it. As every American tourist can tell you, toilets are not one of the strengths of European civilization. True, the gap between the European WC and its American counterpart has narrowed greatly over the past 25 years. Certainly in Tuscanyland, facilities at the vacation villas have been renovated with an eye to fastidious American standards. Nevertheless, the Italian bathroom is not a place where I imagine soaking in bath crystals and inhaling the fumes of an aromatherapy candle. And who wants to emerge from the bath smelling like figs?
In Tuscan Square, merchandise is strewn everywhere, yet the space still seems understocked, a concept in search of content. Shoved in one forlorn corner are clothes whose Tuscanitude completely escaped me, despite their Tuscan Square label. Everything, needless to add, is plastered with a Tuscan Square label.
In the book section, among the Cucina Toscana cookbooks, my-year-in-Tuscany reminiscences, travel guides and art appreciation coffee-table books, there are a couple of stray volumes by Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, plus full-color celebrations of the very un-Italian martini, the pleasures of cigars and copies of Lifestyle Stories by Martin M. Pegler.
The result? Tuscan Square seems not merely contrived, but creepily cynical. Other retailers-Levi’s, Nike, Smith and Hawken, Pottery Barn, to name a few-have had huge successes turning things into experiences. Tuscan Square attempts the inevitable next step: turning experiences into things.
Since there is no shortage of places to buy aromatherapy candles, clothes and Tuscan cookbooks, I presume the fate of this enterprise will depend on the food-its main attraction. But far from being the next bold step in lifestyle marketing, Tuscan Square seems more like a warning for all such future endeavors. Its merchandising is predictable. Rather than evoking a foreign place, this cluttered emporium is a generalized tribute to the good life, American-style.
In essence, this kind of repackaging represents the sum of creativity in a constantly morphing culture, where everything is a version of something else. But sooner or later, this concept hits a dead end unless the package contains something inside.