Peterman's passing

"The order line is now closed.
The retail stores will remain open until all merchandise is liquidated. Thank you for calling."

–recorded message at J. Peterman catalog order number.

Remember that scene in The Great Gatsby, when Nick goes over to Gatsby’s house – Gatsby, whom he doesn’t know from Adam but has heard plenty of stories about, with the enormous mansion and the lavish parties. So Nick goes over one evening, because he’s been invited, and gets a little tipsy, watching the crowd, and then finds he’s been talking to Gatsby himself without knowing who he is. All at once Nick understands what makes Gatsby great. It’s the smile: "It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey." Gatsby turns out a complete fake, but by then Nick doesn’t care.

That state of uncaring belief has a lot to do with the rise and fall of J. Peterman, who only a year ago opened a 5,000-square-foot boutique at the Somerset Collection. And now the Peterman company, with 13 stores and 600 employees and a $65 million catalog business, has passed into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The question is why, when Americans’ appetite for nonreferential nostalgia has never been greater.

"Clearly," Peterman writes in the "Philosophy" that opens each of his "owner’s manuals," which is what he calls his artful mail-order catalogs, "people want things that make their lives the way they wish they were." Gatsby’s smile, in other words, which is just what Peterman has been selling, ever since 1987, with his phony-authentic pitches for retro-gear.

Take, for example, this blurb for an Italian seersucker jacket ($280): "You know the law of supply and demand, don’t you? ‘Supply ordinary, easy-to-make stuff, and that’s what they’ll demand.’ Let’s skip a thousand examples (TV programming, today’s bland apples, etc.) and get right to seersucker. Certain Forces want you to think seersucker is always white with a blue stripe, even though it once came in innumerable colors and textures. I found a mill in Italy that still makes wonderful examples (just as you can find, here and there, ancient gnarled trees bearing Cox’s Orange Pippins and fragrant Lady Apples)."

Back to Gatsby and Somerset. Two Ally McBeals idle into the store, past the big "Sale" signs. The clerk – a disaffected kid in Titanic-look costume – leans on a retro display case. One of the women tries on a hat – a belle epoque black velvet number, marked down from $198 to $149.99: "I’d wear it over to my sister’s house – once – and she’d kill me." The woman preens tentatively in front of the mirror. "Do I look good in it?" she asks her friend. And that’s where the ship sinks, commercially speaking.

It sinks because there’s no Peterman to answer her question. Maybe it’s impossible to incarnate architecturally the self-ironic captioning of Peterman’s catalog, which really is an "owner’s manual" – one having little to do with actual products, but having a lot to do with the commercial unconscious of the potential buyer, who’s probably burned out on the present, tired of the Y2K future, but still looking forward to the past for that rarest of commodities – authenticity – knowing all the while that authenticity is just another special effect, like the founder himself. (Don Staley, an advertising executive, writes all of "Peterman’s" lines.)

"Can’t repeat the past?" Gatsby asks Nick, rhetorically. "Why of course you can." That was the source of Gatsby’s erotic kick. Now, we’ve so completely gotten over the past – the real past – that even nostalgia can’t be taken seriously anymore. Which is where "Peterman" came in. Sure the retro-products are fakes, but they’re real fakes, vouched for by the self-authenticating fiction of J. Peterman himself, who provides "owners" with the same rights to double-consciousness that he enjoys. We’re ironic, high-end consumers who’ve seen through the sham that high-end consuming consists of.

What went wrong is that Peterman decided to get real. The more the actual John Peterman – a former minor-league baseball player and cheese salesman – impressed himself on the world, in interviews and personal appearances and "Seinfeld" satires, the less room there was left for "J. Peterman." Until you get the sad state of affairs at Somerset today, where the real – which is to say the fake – Peterman is nowhere to be found. The arty, deconstructed hipness of the catalog is unavailable here, unless you count the kid clerk leaning against the display counter as some sort of stand-in. Could he tell me about seersucker jackets and fragrant Lady Apples? I doubt it. And besides, I’d feel like a fool even asking him.

The young woman – the one trying on the hat – tilts her head wistfully, looks back at herself in the mirror, waiting for a confirmation that won’t arrive. She puts the hat back on the display shelf. No sale.

So long, Peterman. R.I.P.

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