I’M A VIRGIN (BUT THIS IS AN OLD SHIRT)

Reflecting on the slogans and celebrities of L.A. retail chain Kitson

Britney Spears sporting the ‘I’M A VIRGIN (BUT THIS IS AN OLD T-SHIRT)’ slogan in Santa Monica, July, 2004.

IF THE PLACEMENT OF an object within a museum’s archives is enough to make it a relic, the Juicy tracksuit is now ancient history; having been filed alongside the ‘real’ clothes at the V&A, California’s pinkest cover-up turns iconic. As much a part of history-for-her as the Wonderbra or the Pill, its immortality is assured. Less vaunted by far is its earliest, starriest stockist, the L.A. store Kitson, whose reputation is as the primordial soup-bowl of do-nothing fame, and whose seventeen American outlets were shuttered this January.

‘This was a store,’ offers Vogue, ‘where they literally rolled out the red carpet for celebrities who arrived ready to sort through piles of […] bedazzled T-shirts featuring their [own] faces.”1 Theorist Jean Baudrillard, noting hyperreality’s tendency towards creating a ‘real without origins or reality,’2 might as well have been speaking about this environment when he referred to our ever-increasing fascination with the obscene. For capitalism and idiot scandal, it couldn’t be bettered. Kitson was the party-girl incarnation of Nicole Ritchie, gaunt and pre-motherhood; it was Blonde Lindsay Lohan, and Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton’s Assistant, and Britney Spears with acne. Kitson was, most of all, mid-Noughties MTV, beaming out nobodies ‘getting real’ – a relic itself, of a time when TV had only just seized on the idea of faking real-life.

Paris Hilton shops at Kitson’s Beverly Hills store, June, 2007

The New York Times, for its part, describes the closure of Kitson as breathlessly as if it were eulogising the Chelsea Hotel. ‘More than a place to pick up Juicy Couture tracksuits and Ugg boots,’ reporter Sheila Makirar explains, ‘Kitson provided a backdrop for celebrity melodrama: Ms. Spears trying on hats at 2 a.m. Ms. Hilton shopping with girlfriends, oblivious to her dog urinating on a display of studded ballet flats. Kim Kardashian, before she went West, browsing the boutique, fresh-faced in an empire-waist maxidress.’3 Once, ‘Ms. Spears’ also went shopping in Kitson with menstrual blood staining her thigh,4 though this passes unmentioned; perhaps because, as far as mythologies go, it’s violent rather than melodramatic. Kitson, quite often, was both: a stage-setting for weird tableaux, peopled by seemingly-unhinged celebrity socialites. Surfing its mid-Noughties girl-wave, you had to get raw or be drowned.

It’s strange now, in hindsight, to think about all the world’s girls in their Juicy­-brand tracksuits amid the Clenbuterol boom, when ideal bodies were meant to be radically, hungrily skeletal, i.e. un-juicy: wearing garments labeled with zeroes but shaped nothing like them. Ones, instead, were the bodily trend: lines of straight little ones and elevens, as narrow as Adderall rails, were mobbing Kitson in frenzies at weekends. All over L.A.’s sidewalks, there were girls pulling rank in their pastel-pink two-pieces; girls with Swarovski Razrs; girls with loose, pale hair extensions and plastic French tips. The pre-GRC economy hadn’t yet tanked and so class felt superfluous as a pretense. ‘Los Angeles’ turned into ‘elsewhere.’ Then, ‘Los Angeles’ turned into ‘everywhere’ – or, to be accurate, everywhere Westernised on earth became a Los Angeles outpost, and the dogged pursuit of fame that exists in L.A. became something not local, but global, so that all of us found ourselves stepping wide-eyed off the bus in perpetua, dressing for anonymity in expensive leisurewear even with no paparazzi to hide from.

Richie and Hilton leave Kitson in L.A. in April, 2007.

Aspirational brands beget tribes, but Kitson’s following differed from most in the way that it prized a point lower than pinnacle, seeking instead a new power that fed on imperfect girl archetypes. Kitson women were ones who flaunted their alcoholism, their air-headedness and their sexual dysfunction. Within their aesthetic, new-money’s excess sensibility fused with the kitsch preoccupations of mallrat teenhood. T-shirt slogans like ‘I LOVE SHOES AND BAGS AND BOYS’ appeared beside ones that screamed, unselfconsciously, ‘XANAX’ or ‘VICODIN.’5 There were sloppy pronouncements like ‘THIS IS MY LAST CLEAN T-SHIRT.’ There were slogans about celebrities, worn by other, lower-grade celebrities, tracing out mirror-recursions of fame and non-fame and half-fame in their casual paparazzi pictures.

The popular mantra of ‘never-too-rich-or-too-thin’ still persisted, but now we agreed that a girl could be messy as long as she made enough money, or owned enough shoes. Dysfunctional socialites, unsurprisingly, proved to be dynsfunctional consumers; for the first time, the people we wanted to be like were the people we were like, only richer. Bona fide ‘hot messes,’ they drank the same hyper-coloured vodka shots from their girlfriends’ navels; suffered the same anxieties, shared the same addictions and shortcomings, and called men ‘boys’ as a means of nullifying the terror of possibly dying alone. They blacked out. They crashed innumerable cars. They rarely excelled at anything, but the very fact of their aimlessness made them interesting to us because they validated our lazy ennui.

Spears at her house in L.A. in her ‘I AM THE AMERICAN DREAM’ T-shirt, in 2004.

Some of them, of course, eventually grew up and streamlined their public identities so that their flaws were less prominent. As in Susan Sontag’s definition of camp, Kim Kardashian has since become ‘art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is “too much,”’6 and so the kittenish garment sloganeering of Kitson no longer suits her purposes, either as icon or object. Worn in public, statements defy others’ need to project their own values on popular figures, and Kardashian – ever the capitalist – knows this, though she occasionally plays the billboard for her husband, Kanye West. Britney Spears, in wearing ‘I’M A VIRGIN (BUT THIS IS AN OLD SHIRT)’ and, later, ‘I AM THE AMERICAN DREAM,’ wrote her pre-breakdown memoirs in two lines. There is a famous image of Lindsay Lohan shopping in Kitson, wearing a T-shirt that says ‘SKINNY BITCH’ in lettering made from twigs; its tone – confrontational, smugly flawed, and delivered hot on the heels of an anorexia scandal – is pure Kitsonese, regardless of whether she actually bought it there.

Hilton and Lindsay Lohan shop together at Kitson in L.A. in 2004.

For Kitson’s celebrity girl-gang, the ethos of Barbara Kruger’s ‘I SHOP THEREFORE I AM’ merged with the grimiest texts by Jenny Holzer (‘DISASTER DRAWS PEOPLE LIKE FLIES,’ or ‘WHEN YOU BECOME RICH, DEATH SNIFFS THE AIR AND STARTS CIRCLING’) so that, in playing with medium-and-message, they conjured Umberto Eco: ‘where is the mass medium? Is it […] the polo shirt? And at this point who is sending the message? The manufacturer of the polo shirt? Its wearer? […] Because it’s a question of ideology.’7 There, on L.A.’s Robertson Boulevard, wearer and manufacturer had reached – albeit temporarily – an ideological understanding, promoting their own hypothetical slogan, I AM THE IMPERFECT IDEAL. In a Los Angeles Magazine profile of Kitson, back in 2005, the magazine made the decision to lead not with pap-shots or portraits, but with a falsified digital image; one just as rendolent of the American dream as a Richard Prince Girlfriend, but even more cheap, and less deep. The picture was of Lindsay, smiling coquettishly, being arrested for crashing her car by the shop-front. ‘IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE HEAT,’ screamed the headline, ‘GET OUT OF THE KITSON.’

 

Philippa Snow is a London-based freelance writer and features editor of the magazine Modern Matter.


  1. http://www.vogue.com/13390437/kitson-closing-paris-hilton-victoria-beckham-britney-spears/ 

  2. J. Baudrillard, Simulacres et Simulation, Michigan University Press, 1981. 

  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/fashion/kitson-where-kim-kardashian-and-britney-spears-shopped-sees-the-end.html?_r=0 

  4. http://jezebel.com/346256/doth-not-a-mentally-ill-popstar-bleed 

  5. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/29/kitson-lawsuit-xanax-vicodin-adderall_n_3837291.html 

  6. S. Sontag, ‘Notes on “Camp,”’ The Paris Review, 1964. 

  7. U. Eco, Travels in Hyper Reality, Harcourt Publishers Ltd., 1990.