Dream Spaces

An Afternoon on a Buying Trip in Milan

A lithograph of the Crystal Palace in London, which held the first universal exhibition in 1851. The exhibition "of the Works of Industry of all Nations" featured roughly 15,000 exhibitors and some 100,000 objects.
A lithograph of the Crystal Palace in London, which held the first universal exhibition in 1851. The exhibition featured roughly 15,000 exhibitors and some 100,000 objects. The Palace burned down in 1936.

I’m nodding off in the taxi, my heart palpitating irregularly thanks to the coffees I drank early this morning while reviewing pricing formulas at a hotel desk. As I find sleep, trying to go inwards as my head falls into my angora scarf, I hear the voice of someone who is smiling too widely: ‘Isn’t she just beautiful? She’s got a stretched calf-leather interior, super-soft, and quilted lamb shearling throughout. I know… gorgeous.’ (There is the sharp crack of a new zipper.) ‘Hand-stitched here in Italy in the same atelier as Saint Low-Raw and McQueen… Selling super-well, especially with the Asians.’ They whisper the word ‘Asians.’ My head slams against the plastic car door, and I am horribly awake.

This is trip four out of the twelve markets I will go on this year. Twenty-seven flights. Outside the taxi, the air in Milan is thick and wet so we fold our sheaths of coats, scarves, and bags in order to make a graceful exit. Market is better known as Fashion Week. The online videos and Instagram stories overlook the commercial aspect of what resembles a parade of glamorous product sponsorships and celebrities. Independently of that fanfare (wherever it is) we do our jobs. We are the worker ants bringing the microscopic morsels of food back to the colony. Clothing Accountants. Buyers. We are, more specifically, buyers for a high volume e-commerce luxury retailer. Or actually, I am the buyer’s assistant. This means most things are said to me in this tone:

‘Don’t put my face in it.’

I lower the iPad. Before me my boss Aimee is staring at me intently, thrusting forward a hanger bearing a pair of chartreuse green track-pants with the words ‘Amour’ and ‘Boss’ embroidered in sequins across the knees. We have been taking notes and photos for three-and-a-half hours. The room is quartered by clothing racks, packed tightly by colour story, standing perpendicular to a wall of windows that overlook an overgrown field. It would be a less oppressive space if the walls were not black and the ceiling not so low. We are falling behind, especially because the salesperson we are working with has lost all motivation to help us. She is wearing a showroom uniform: a bottle green cardigan, tired white shirt and bouncy lavalliere bow around her neck. The deliberate sweetness of her uniform throws her bad mood into sharp relief. She keeps asking us if we want more coffee and running to the bathroom. She must not be on commission.

‘Is my face in it?’ Aimee asks. I look at the iPad, and see her scowl pop out just above the drawstring.

‘A little. Just the mouth,’ I reply.

‘That’s Look Five,’ she barks. ‘Write it down or we’ll forget… write it on the iPad.’

She’s at a loss for words and gesticulating. This is how we spend our days. Luxury clothing is sold in showrooms, to buyers coming from various stores, who sell it to customers. It’s a Russian nesting doll situation and it can be hard to tell who should be pandering to whom, though, somehow, I always end up feeling it should be me. This salesperson surely agrees since she is correcting all my colour names as I read the descriptions back to Aimee. It’s not bright blue, it’s ‘Turbo.’ It’s not pink, it’s ‘Arousal.’ Arousal is iconic, and they would prefer if we used that expression. Massimo would really prefer that. She gets flustered and runs off.

‘That girl has no sense of urgency,’ Aimee says disapprovingly.

The salesperson re-approaches, grinning widely, dangling a T-shirt with a phallic motif on it. Now we are excited.

‘That’s free money!’ is Aimee’s favourite expression, and she uses it here. It means something we can go deep and wide into. ‘Deep’ means we will buy a lot in quantity, and ‘wide’ means we will buy a lot of colours. For a long time we consider colours for the phallus, and which direction it should point. (Sideways is chic, up or down is crass.)

‘Can we have an exclusive colour?’ I ask. Aimee is pleased, and she gives me a praising look. The salesperson says we have to ask Massimo, but probably the minimum order would be quite deep and they would expect a marketing push from our end. Aimee reminds her that last time we received an ‘exclusive’ it turned up on Farfetch in several different stores, so we would rather they did the marketing push themselves this time. We talk about background colours, while I pull up our most recent sales report by colour. As with the last twenty exclusives, we choose bright pink. It is, after all, what the colour report says we should do. Recent research showed that most orders placed on our site were sent to large, new condo developments in rural areas in the U.S. We think of our customer as an urban creative: an architect or graphic designer for an up-and-coming firm in London or New York. The shared aspiration seems to be beneficial for both us and our real customer: the wealthy suburbanite.

The salesperson steps away to make a phone call and Aimee tells me that this brand is shit. She can’t wait to get out of here and on to the next appointment. She rolls her eyes. I have a flash memory of reading somewhere that brands were supposed to be ‘spaces for dreams.’

We make small-talk with the vendor’s manager, whose Airbnb host is refusing to deliver more toilet paper. Aimee makes sure to hit all the important points: budget, delivery windows, order deadline. She goes to the bathroom and I let the manager know we will not be meeting the deadline. She comes back from the bathroom much more energetic and they use hot words with one another while I finish typing maniacally. Hot words are indoctrinated during branding meetings and they indicate you belong here. We use them much like a mating-call. So Aimee makes sure to say ‘Disrupt,’ ‘SEO’ and ‘We really aren’t calling it a store, it’s more of a creation space’ to the manager, to which she replies, ‘Sustainable’ ‘Emotional pieces’ and ‘Our girl is really growing up with this collection, she’s just becoming so much more sophisticated (not old) and we want to really be responsive to that,’ and then we leave.

In the Uber Aimee texts our manager excitedly about all the free money.

I wanted to be a buyer because it sounded powerful: it indicated both ownership and curation. In reality most of my time is spent retyping product descriptions (‘yellow perfecto in stretch sugared lambskin with tonal top-stitching’) and lending a vague opinion about chic dick colours, carefully avoiding any strong statements. Instead of power what I have is ‘accountability.’ Accountability for the personal taste of strangers. Aimee would say it is the reverse: we only buy what the customer wants, so they are the accountable ones. I suppose we are co-conspirators. Aimee looks up from her phone, seemingly stunned.

‘Do you remember the tiny woman who was stealing everything off our rack at Wang?

With the short hair and the velvet pants? French?’

‘Yes.’

‘She died! She collapsed and died after a showroom appointment! In the bathroom!’

‘No she didn’t…’

I know this will weigh heavily on Aimee, who is a kind soul despite it all. The rumour lingers briefly for me, and I return to my thoughts. I’m thinking about the sleep I will have in a few hours. The other assistant researched that you can get a full REM cycle in ninety minutes and then handed me a large Dexedrine for when I wake up. According to him it’s what they do in the military, although that seems far-fetched.

‘We need to bid higher on Acne Studios on Google AdWords. When I searched it this morning we were the second option after Net-a-Porter.’ I blurt out, having suddenly remembered.

‘So e-mail Paul – he can place a larger bid when he gets into the office.’ Paul’s official title is ‘SEO (‘Search Engine Optimization’) Scrum-master.’ It’s a rugby analogy, meaning he is the organizer of our on-going battle for online presence. I send him a curt e-mail, resentful that I had to call it out.

As we approach the snake-encrusted door to our next appointment at Gucci, Aimee pulls me aside. A gaggle of other buyers who are changing from sneakers to heels with their hands on the brick wall are watching us.

‘I want to talk to you about the last Gucci appointment we had. I was really surprised that you undermined my selection to Sara when she asked you.’ I am caught off-guard by the public shaming and start babbling apologies. Aimee stares at her phone and says we’re late, we have to go in. I am still blushing when the girl from the front desk greets us and sits us at our table in the enormous velvet-upholstered red room. Even the walls and carpet are red velvet: it’s like being inside of an organ. I remember that we will likely be here for nine hours and feel nauseous. There are no windows, just dozens of racks of sparkly and lacey clothing lining the walls in schizophrenic colour stories. Aimee is trying to hand a cough-drop to a passing teenage fit model wearing a green lace full-length gown with an ivory bodice. The fit model, likely an Eastern European, refuses politely. Aimee says we have to make sure that we don’t see any clothes on that girl, since everything will look good on her, and it will throw us off.

While we wait for a salesperson, I pull out the iPad and we go over the analysis on a PDF sent by the merchandisers. What colours and silhouettes do we need?  She counts how many colours and fabrics we need to buy in the Dionysus bag, and notes with relief that price-point is not a determining factor in the bags department. However, we need to stop selecting so many colours of the Kangaroo-lined Princetown loafer. That silhouette is slowing down across the board.

Besides this glorified shopping list, we prepare by asking ourselves what the brand is going to accuse us of. Aimee asks me to pull up the report on off-brand styling to see if we are guilty with Gucci. (It is my favourite report as it compiles our worst online looks into a kind of photo blooper reel, with commentary from our manager to the stylists such as ‘STOP STYLING DRIES TROUSERS WITH LOUBOUTIN HEELS,’ ‘VETEMENTS SWEATSHIRTS ARE NOT DRESSES,’ ‘WHERE ARE HER PANTS?!’)

‘Wait no, I saw that this morning – show me the relevancy figures so I have them fresh in my mind.’ She gasps at the figure: only twelve percent above average likes on our Instagram for this season. Gucci has dropped several points within the brand relevancy matrix since I checked yesterday.

‘Ugh. Does that mean it’s going to become another markdown brand soon?’ Aimee asks herself. ‘I can’t deal with another one.’ We don’t control the Instagram. We recently hired an underground magazine from Copenhagen to run the social media content and make it look like we know things about music and culture. I heard they don’t print the magazine anymore, and instead work as a content factory for several brands. I liked the last presentation the editor gave when he said that our focus was now going to be on the daily life of the ‘Cool Everyman,’ giving up the polished ‘unnatural’ editorials of the past. We will, of course, continue to style the models in luxury clothing, only now they will be doing what is ‘natural’ to them: skate-boarding and participating in art installations in Miami.

I am hit with a wave of exhaustion as I stare at the massive wall of meticulously organized Dionysus bags. In the corner of my eye I can see our salesperson, Amanda, coming towards us with aggressive friendliness. My heart is palpitating off-rhythm again. How do we pull off these racks and shelves the two hundred styles that will appeal to the maximum number of affluent people for the maximum number of reasons?

How deep can we go into this collective space for dreams?   

Later, back at the hotel after an awkward and rushed dinner with a supplier, I take out the bottle of German energy drink I have stashed in the mini-bar. Everything still has a green fog over it, which is what happens when your eyes adjust to bright red for ten hours. After weighing entering orders against my ninety minutes of sleep, I decide to delay gratification and return to my laptop. Aimee is texting me from her room asking what orders are ready for her to review, and telling me that I should prioritize Versace. The order entry begins.

‘Large Black Prometheus Backpack in Varnished Goatskin.’ Style code. Colour code.

‘Medusa Head Necklace in Plated Stainless Steel.’ Style code. Colour code. ‘Medusa ring.’ ‘Medusa Bracelet.’ What is it with Italian brands and Greek mythology? My head crashes into my keyboard while typing up the list of Versace Medusa jewellery. I get up and pour the viscous yellow liquid into a plastic cup to continue my night of describing. Tomorrow, the order will get quantified. The next day it will get approved by the merchandisers. The day after it will get approved by the editors, who may suggest to add a runway piece. Then it will get sent to the brand who will ensure that we represented them well. Finally, the product will get made somewhere very far from where we go on market, and our customer will like it on Instagram having seen it on the Cool Everyman, and will buy it on sale at the end of the season.

As I get the kick from the Club-Mate, I remember reading about a parasite that moves through a remarkable number of hosts: a worm, a blade of grass, a bird, a cat, and its final host is a human person, transmitted while they pet their cat. The writer was impressed by the parasite’s amazing purposeful journey, in spite of having no consciousness. I’m still thinking about the parasite when Aimee texts me again to ask if the order is ready yet.

Lily Smith is the pen name of an assistant buyer based in New York. She has worked in the lower echelons of mass luxury retail for seven years.