Monday, May 19, 2014

The great white luxury shop in the sky

It is a grave indictment on the theory of relativity that time on a plane is supposed to go faster than on Earth. Go tell the guy stuck at 30,000 feet, inside the poorly oxygenated economy cabin of a long-haul commercial flight. Subjective, emotional time can slow down to a crawl on those routes, more than reversing the effects of Einstein’s law. And so, once you’re thoroughly nauseated with the choice of televisual entertainment and made so listless as to judge the prose of John Grisham too much of a challenge, you will sometimes find yourself thumbing through the in-flight duty-free shopping magazine. Not to look for things to buy, but for a way to speed up time.

The surface fantasy of the Cathay Pacific in-flight duty-free shopping magazine is that you might be able afford any of the items. You can not. Not the US$ 4,872 Montblanc TimeWalker Chronograph; not the US $115 bottle of Chateau Pontet-Canet red; not the US$ 93 Paul Lafayet Coffret Prestige set of 36 seasonal macarons (Hong Kong delivery only).

You doubt that any of your fellow economy passengers may have an appetite for such ostentatious or casual luxury either, but this is mere speculation: the near-vegetative state of the plane’s human cargo doesn’t yet allow for Ubik-like mind melding.

You develop a theory: the in-flight duty-free shopping magazine is a journey into the psyche of a sexually ambivalent space traveller from the near future. The alien is running through a catalogue of clothing and accessories, to be selected so that he/she may pass as human. As a female, it is required of her that she look demure and young. As a male, it is required of him that he look affluent and assertive. He chooses a Hugo Boss business suit with accessories – belt, tie, wallet. She chooses a La Perla negligee, BVLGARI Omnia Indian Garnet eau de toilette, La Prairie skin caviar liquid lift.

Yours for US$ 550
Running through a menu of available ethnicities, the alien discards the handful of Asian avatars and selects one of the many mathematically averaged Caucasians with metallic grey skin. Ms Bianca Balti.

Exploring your theory, you realise how many of the products are obviously designed to appeal to space-travellers. Like the Wine Art Eurocave, which for US$ 577 will keep an open bottle of wine in ideal drinking conditions for up to a week through the use of vacuum technology. Or the cybernetic Fitbit bracelet, which ‘tracks almost everything you do – from how many steps you take to how many calories you consume and how well you sleep’. Or the Saniti Spray from Oregon scientific, designed to create around you an atmosphere that is safe to breathe. Or the i.balance bracelet, which increases the alkaline levels of the body (of particular appeal to Venusians). Even the portable ILA alarm, which wedges a door shut and emits a piercing 130Db siren noise if someone tries to get in, will be useful on one of those reconnaissance missions.

A light-emitting capsule resembling a piece of alien weaponry, the Talika Light Duo+ ‘meets all skin-perfecting expectations – anti-aging, anti-dark spot and now anti-redness and imperfections – thanks to its 630 (red) wavelength’. Attuned to extravagant but scientific-sounding claims of effectiveness, the alien finds that this makes perfect sense, as does spending 126 US Earth dollars for a cream booster, that is to say a skin-care product designed to make other skin-care products more effective by means of ‘LED phototherapy, micro-vibration technology and ionotherapy’. For US$ 404, the alien purchases La Mer concentrate 30ml, an ‘agent of change for profound transformation infused with a powerful dose of nurturing Miracle BrothTM’. For US$ 126, a melanolyser from Lançome, ‘the No.1 whitening brand in Asia’.

By now, an alternative theory has begun to form: that the in-flight duty-free shopping magazine is a character study, a mirror to the aspirations and desires of the globalised upper middle class. Youth, beauty, success, pleasure and an end to work: all of these are made attainable through highly targeted acts of consumption, under the auspices of the world’s leading brands. Headlined by Giorgio Armani – the tailor who sells watches, eyeglasses, colognes – these in turn are neutral, empty signifiers of elegance beyond culture or history. Even when they appeal to the exotic, their products are designed to reduce the consumer’s image of self to the whitest common denominator.

Things that can be sold and bought anywhere – and what is more anywhere than mid-flight on an intercontinental route? Those maps on your personal screen purporting to show you where you are, they all lie. There is nothing more insignificant, less real, than your ground location at 30,000 feet. You haven’t been to China, you haven’t been to India. It’s an illusion. And you will never be remade on the image of the in-flight duty-free shopping magazine image either. Its model consumer is not of this Earth.


styler said...

ok this is when i admit i have a cathy pacific bear, purchased from said in flight magazine. In my defence the bear is adorable with goggles and also we had realised we had not brought many bears on our trip. which is obviously a normal thing to do, everyone buys bears on holiday right ;)

Giovanni Tiso said...

I prefer to celebrate the fact that you found an affordable item on that catalogue.