Things I've Bought that I Love, Vol. 2

Feb. 9, 2011
A little roundup of recent material acquisitions that have made me happy. For previous entries, click here.

Shopsin's General Store 5-year diary

To be fair, I didn't buy this-- it was a going-away gift I received from my former office-mates last year. It's a 5-year diary that lets you view past entries as you write new ones (so five years' worth of February 9ths are all on the same page.) There's also a space to log the places you've traveled and the books you've read.

I started filling it out with my simple daily activities on January 1st, and I really look forward to keeping it up. It's a great gift, especially for someone embarking on a new phase of life.

Everyday Shea Moisturizing Body Lotion

Paraben-free, all natural, free trade, independently owned, pleasantly scented, and cheap enough ($14 for a huge 32 ounce bottle) that I can use it all over, every day. Plus they give 10% of revenue to charity. Basically the holy grail of body lotion.

Clinique Almost Lipstick in Black Honey

Did reading those words just give you flashbacks to the mid- to late-nineties? I know, I know. But trust me, I just bought a tube of this, and unlike other relics from that era (wide leg jeans, Tommy Girl perfume, Mike's Hard Lemonade, the Dixie Chicks) I actually liked this more the second time around. It's like the makeup version of the movie Clueless-- definitely worth a revisit.

Mary Green Sleepwear

I know it's a white whine, but even if you're willing to spend some cash, it's hard to find actually nice things. I've been bummed to venture into fancy lingerie boutiques and find that European luxury brands have taken to using synthetic fabrics and outsourced manufacturing (i.e. this $100 La Perla bra, made in China out of polyester.)

Thank goodness for Mary Green! Mary Green is a San Francisco-based designer I discovered a few years ago when searching for a nice slip to wear under skirts, and I've been a huge fan ever since. She has a refreshingly basic website (no flash! no music!) and her prices are very reasonable for 100% silk. I don't love all her designs, but she has a huge selection and some really beautiful basics. She makes men's stuff too.

I recently bought a bunch of Mary Green things during a big after-Christmas sale. The silk romper and kimono are my new favorites for lounging around the apartment, and I'm feeling very Liz Taylor in Butterfield 8.

Her products are made in China, but at least she passes on the money she saves in manufacturing to her customers with low prices. It's also not a sweatshop situation: Mary Green was recognized by Congress in 2008 for "ethical and sustainable entrepreneurship" and a "commitment to creating better lives for people living in the shadow of poverty and deprivation throughout the third world."

Custom Probiotics CP-1

If you don't care about probiotics, you can kindly skip to the next item. But if you do (and if you've ever taken antibiotics, you should) you ought to know about Custom Probiotics. I've been taking acidophilus since I was a kid, and the CP-1 formula is the highest potency I've found anywhere (50 billion micro-organisms per capsule, ten times more than Jarro-Dophilus' 5 billion.)

Nexus S Android phone from Google

I'm pretty sure I was one of the last people in San Francisco without a smart phone (prior to getting the Nexus S in December, I was still using the Nokia that came free with my calling plan in 2006) but it was worth the wait. I've been really happy with the device and really have no complaints about it.

I didn't technically buy this either (it was a gift) but I am paying for my calling plan, so it halfway counts? Anyway, it's a product I've acquired that I love.
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Things I Used to Buy That I Don't Love Anymore, Part 2

Nov. 19, 2010
RIP, my unconditional love for 7 for All Mankind jeans. We had a good run.

Poking around some shops yesterday, I looked into buying another pair of Seven jeans. Sevens are definitely pricey (around $165 a pair full-price) but in the past I've always found them to be worth it. The denim is really high quality- thick, soft, really luxurious feeling- the colors are rich, the fit is flattering, and they hold up for years and years.

All the Seven jeans I've owned were made in California. I was under the impression that the primary reason Sevens are so expensive is because they're made here in the US. As you may know, I'm happy to pay a premium for things that are made here.

But the Sevens I saw for sale yesterday felt very different from ones I've seen before-- the material was flimsy and rough, and something about the fit was off. They just seemed cheap. Then I looked at the tag, and cursed out loud.

The Seven jeans at the store (apologies for blurry camera phone photo)

I was really surprised to find that Seven has started making (or "assembling", whatever that means) at least some of their jeans in Mexico. 7 for all Mankind has been in business since 2000; why would they start offshoring to boost profits now?

Well, a quick web search confirmed that Seven has gone the way of Nature's Gate: In mid-2007 the company was acquired by VF Corp., a publicly-traded apparel conglomerate, and cost-cutting changes ensued (stock market shareholders can be a pretty demanding bunch.) Of course, Seven hasn't passed down any cost savings to the customer-- the price tag on this pair still read $165. VF doesn't break out profits brand-by-brand in their earnings reports, but I have to imagine that they really started making a killing, margins-wise, when they shifted Seven's production south of the border. I mean, most Levi's are made in Mexico, and those retail for $50 or less.

Apparently there are still some Seven brand jeans made in California, but they're sold mostly on Seven's website and in the brand's own boutiques-- which makes sense since they don't have to pay any retailer fees there. I guess it's good that some pairs are still being made here, but it's a bummer that I'll have to be a stickler about checking tags going forward.

So the search for ethically-manufactured jeans that I enjoy wearing resumes (sorry, American Apparel, you fit the former requirement but definitely not the latter.) If anyone out there is interested in starting a company and sticking to their original principles, I swear I'll be a loyal customer!
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Things I Used to Buy That I Don't Love Anymore

Aug. 31, 2009
I recently read a few scary articles about all the bad stuff in normal sunscreens and shampoos.  Please note: I've linked to the articles there for reference, but if I were you, I wouldn't read them.  Ignorance is more blissful (and a lot less expensive) than obsessing over ingredient lists and buying only all-natural personal care products.

Anyway, I didn't think it'd be too hard to find all-natural hair products I liked. For years, I almost exclusively used conditioner from an all-natural brand, Nature's Gate, not for fear of chemicals but because I just loved the smell and how shiny it made my hair.  I'd kind of forgot about Nature's Gate and hadn't used it in the past couple of years, but I figured it'd be easy to buy a couple of bottles at my trusty neighborhood health food store and get back on the wagon.

Well, they had Nature's Gate products, but they definitely weren't the same.  First of all, the brand has a new slick look, which was disappointing, since I loved the old hippie bottles. 

But the really awful part was how much they've changed the formula. This is the ingredient list from the old Nature's Gate conditioner:

Purified Water, Extracts of Chamomile, Nettle, Ho-lien-hua, Nelumbo Nucifera, Comfrey Root, Cherry Bark, Schleichera Trijuga, Kusambi Bark, Burdock, and Yucca, Vegetable Emulsifying Wax, Coconut Oil, Methylparaben, Myrrh Oil, Lavender Oil.

This is what goes into the stuff that's now sold under the Nature's Gate label:

Water, Cetearyl Alcohol, Quaternium-87, Polysorbate 60, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Urtica Dioica (Nettle) Extract, Prunus Serotina (Wild Cherry) Bark Extract, Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Flower Extract, Arctium Lappa (Burdock) Root Extract, Yucca Schidigera Root Extract, Lilium Candidum (White Lily) Bulb Extract, Nelumbo Nucifera (Sacred Lotus) Flower Extract, Quercus Alba (Oak) Bark Extract, Butylene Glycol, Glyceryl Undecylenate, Phenoxyethanol, Fragrance, Caramel.

What's up with that?  Well, a little digging seems to shows that the formula changes got under way in August 2006, about a year and a half after Levlad, the company that's always made Nature's Gate, was acquired by a private equity firm. Surprise, surprise.

Don't get me wrong: I know M&A can often be a great thing for brands, but what the acquirer did here puzzles me. Why would they buy Levlad only to make so
many unpronounceable additions to its flagship product right now, as more and more people are scrutinizing ingredient lists?  The new formula may be cheaper to make, but I'd personally be happy to pay double what I used to pay for Nature's Gate just to have the old formula back-- and I'm sure I'm not the only disappointed former fan.

Oh well, it's back to the haircare drawing board for me.  Any suggestions for *truly* all-natural shampoos and conditioners are very welcome!

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On fast fashion and good buys

Aug. 24, 2008
My Aunt Linda likes to tell a cute story of the time that she babysat my sister and me and brought us with her to a department store. We were each between 3 and 5 years old, obviously too young to really evaluate prices-- but we spent the whole trip toddling around the racks, looking at price tag after price tag disapprovingly, clicking our tongues and saying: "Too much. Too much." We were parroting the behavior we'd witnessed in our mom-- a very savvy shopper, never fazed by marketing and never accepting less than a "good buy."

Cut to the present day: I've just become a wage-earning adult in the media-saturated, post-Sex and the City world, where womanhood and femininity are ostensibly defined by buying $150 designer jeans, "investing" in a $12,000 Hermes handbag, and wearing ridiculously overpriced Victoria's Secret "lingerie." Thanks to my mom, for the most part, I'm just not buying it.

And I'm not alone: Last week, England's House of Lords published a report criticizing the environmental and societal effects of the present "culture of 'fast fashion" in which consumers "dispose of clothes which have only been worn a few times in favour of new, cheap garments which themselves will also go out of fashion and be discarded within a matter of months."

It's terrific that the Lords are confronting this issue-- but I'd disagree with the interpretation that patronizing stores like H&M and Forever 21 should as a rule be eschewed in favor of buying from more "quality" fashion houses. The reality is that today, fast fashion happens equally at the highest and lowest ends of the market.

The majority of stuff sold in mainstream stores is fleetingly trendy rubbish, at all price ranges. Frankly, if I'm going to buy a cheaply-made imported garment, I'd rather spend $20 at H&M instead of $400 at Barney's.  I know the workers are treated poorly and paid very low wages, so I'd prefer to line the pockets of the executives overseeing it all as little as possible, you know?

But that is only a lesser-of-two-evils approach. More and more, I'm trying to get away from buying new clothes at all, just because it's such a flawed system and the products are such crap. I like the concept of always shopping, but rarely buying-- continuously being on the lookout for nice pieces so that I don't have to buy fast fashion out of desperation.  This idea seems very French to me-- in the aforementioned Elegance book, Madame Dariaux cautions the reader to "never be seduced by anything that isn't first-rate."

It's not easy, but writer Sadie Stein is now "three weeks clean" from fast fashion, and I like her logic: "The small after-work of pleasure of a cheap top... is something we've become accustomed to very quickly -—such a thing would have been unheard-of a few generations ago -—and I'm guessing that, together, we can weather the withdrawal."  Anyone else in?
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