You're at the kitchen table frantically flipping through mail order catalogs to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. It's a monotonous task as Lands End, Lillian Vernon, and Crate and Barrel blur into a single, slick visual pitch for the usual necessities.
Then you open the J. Peterman catalog. It's printed on lavish paper stock, and emanates a quiet, khaki, moneyed tone. You glance from illustrations of aviator scarves and tweed hunt coats to the descriptions of the items. You read. And read some more. Suddenly, you're anywhere but here.
You're in Paris, you're in Tunisia, you're at one of Mme. Q's incredible parties. Mme. Q., you see, "knows everyone. (The archbishop, the soprano, the race-car driver, all claim to be old friends.)"
This is the way J. Peterman pitches his pricey Le Chameau boots, Italian hunting vests and Nepal slipper socks. And his pitch has created a marketing phenomenon.
As catalog founder John Peterman says, "People want things that make their lives the way they wish they were." That wisdom applies not only to regular Joes, but also to the likes of J. Peterman customers who already are someone else, people like Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Newman and Oprah Winfrey. Apparently, celebrities, too, want things that make their lives the way they wish they were.
J. Peterman makes self-transformation look easy. He supplies the purple prose and the props. (No matter that the copy is written by company co-founder Don Staley, a veteran New York ad man.) You supply the credit card number -- again and again.
The company, started in 1987 when John Peterman peddled a canvas duster coat in the New Yorker, is heading rapidly toward the $100 million mark in annual sales. Customers are willing to pay well -- not just for the product, but for the story behind it.
With its staccato evocations of vintage pop icons like Gatsby and Picasso, and its references to obsolete geography, J. Peterman has spawned a new genre of fiction -- catalog fantasy literature. In countless vignettes, such as one concerning the enigmatic Mme. Q., the clothing is merely a footnote to the tale.
Unlike J. Crew, which plays to a haughty, high-prep crowd, or Lands End, which effuses mid-Western good-naturedness, J. Peterman affects a soigne attitude less defined by cliques and class than by mystery and self-invention.
It's suggestive -- not literally suggestive like Victoria's Secret or Frederick's of Hollywood, but suggestive in the sense that the customer can fill in the blanks. J. Peterman lets adults play paper dolls with its goods.
No models sully the catalog. The clothes are empty, allowing prospective owners to project themselves into Rive Gauche sweater jackets circa 1955 and Ecuador cardigans with hand-carved wooden buttons. And you don't have to be a Elizabeth Hurley or Ingrid Bergman to wear these clothes.
For sleight of hand is all at J. Peterman: Garments require "confidence, not perfection." And, "if you are thin," a certain pair of wide-legged pants "will tend to make you seem noticeably lanky, feminine, elegant.
"If, on the other hand, you are not thin, not tall, but rather the sort of full-bodied person whom great painters such as Renoir or Rubens would search the capitals of Europe for, they might make you seem too noticeably lanky, elegant; only millimeters away from thinness."
The J. Peterman phenomenon has been fueled by several high priests of pop culture.
It was more than fate that allowed Elaine to bump into a fictional J. Peterman on "Seinfeld" last season. Their encounter during a romantic downpour compounded one another's cult popularity in an art-incorporating- real-life kind of way. Elaine got a job out of it, writing catalog copy. And the sitcom acquired a running J. Peterman gag that has continued through the fall season.
In turn, J. Peterman has acquired a Seinfeld-like sense of humor. Sample this reindeer sweater endorsement: "Remember the Stone Age hunter who recently thawed out of a glacier where he froze to death 5,300 years ago? He forgot to put on his reindeer sweater."
Other readers are less fawning about the catalog. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau allows grudging recognition with references to the J. Pretensions catalog.
But, hey, Mr. Trudeau can afford to sit out the J. Peterman fantasy. He can get on a plane whenever he wants to. For most people, the catalog may be the closest they ever come to a life of secret trysts and time travel from Tangier to Shanghai. A life rich with Casablanca possibilities, unspoken intellectual depths and brandy from antique snifters.
You have only to imagine yourself wielding the monocle, slinking about in silk crepe de Chine trousers "meant to deceive," or lathering with "1903 Concentrated Shave Cream," and suddenly you are eras away from the daily grind.
That the goods are illustrated not with photographs, but with sketches and water colors, only enhances their illusive, malleable allure.
The clothes themselves are hardly sultry. More evergreen than au courant, some, like the winter garden skirt or the "Sunday Times Suit," appear downright dowdy.
It would be useful to discuss these paradoxes with the sage himself, but Mr. Peterman was unavailable for comment. He was out of town, Dawn the secretary said. Trekking in the Himalayas. Or was it fly fishing in New Zealand? Maybe a rendezvous in Marrakesh.
You fill in the blank.