While visiting San Francisco in February, I stopped by the flagship Levi's store in Union Square, just to browse the racks and see what the latest denim trends might be, even though I primarily wear cheap $20 knockoffs from the Newport News catalog. It was there that I fell in love. Not with the salesclerk, although he was cute and charming enough (if a bit pushy about the store's sale du jour), but with the Coolest. Jeans. Ever.
Granted, this is a highly unscientific, purely subjective assessment -- there's no accounting for personal taste, and this is as true of fashion as it is for one's choice of Significant Other. But I'm sure you'll agree they were Special. The jeans were imported, limited edition, and featured a unique distressed-patchwork design. They were boot-cut, and low-rise, but not to the ridiculous point where one feels compelled to constantly hike them back up over one's hip bones because they feel like they're about to fall off completely. (Jen-Luc Piquant points out that according to the latest fashion rags, "Hip bones are the new cleavage.") They were also stone-washed to the point of baby-softness; cashmere doesn't feel that soft.
I tried them on; they fit like a glove. Clearly, I had found my soul mate. I stood there, basking in the first throes of infatuation, letting my mind dwell on our imagined future together, savoring that magical moment of promise -- before disillusionment sets in, the relationship goes to hell and you start wondering what you ever saw in them in the first place. But all my hopes were dashed when I glanced at the price tag: $400!
I'll type it again, in case you missed it: $400! Needless to say, I didn't buy them. Those Levi's were clearly out of my league.
Not everyone I've told about the jeans -- and they have been legion, since the pangs of a love unfulfilled fade slowly -- seems surprised by the price. Several people felt I should have bought them anyway, pointing out that spending $400 on something you'll wear constantly is, in the long run, a wiser investment than spending $50 on something you'll wear once and discard. My friend Inka had a much more stringent criteria: "Did they make your ass look great?" "They made my ass look fantastic," I admitted. And she shot back, "Well, isn't that worth $400?"
Inka has a point. And it turns out that this is not an unreasonable price for designer jeans. Browsing through a Neiman Marcus catalog, I saw a pair of jeans with hand-stitched butterfly appliques -- imported! from Italy! -- with a $1,100 price tag. People, this is getting out of hand: even gas prices aren't that artificially inflated. What, was there a stone-washed denim shortage somewhere in the world that we didn't hear about?
Paris Hilton wouldn't even bat an eye at that asking price; she probably pays as much for a handbag or new pair of shoes. But I'm no heiress, and I have a cat to support, plus I need to keep Jen-Luc Piquant in virtual black berets. For that kind of money, I expect the jeans to do something other than just make my derriere look awesome. It goes without saying that they should be self-cleaning, stain-resistant, and wrinkle-free. Perhaps they could also make me invisible to electronic security systems (if not to the naked eye) with the application of a plasmon coating. Maybe they could defy gravity. Or reverse entropy. Or enable me to emulate a subatomic particle and inhabit two superpositioned states -- casual, semi-formal -- at the same time... at least until someone looks at me. (For a very funny Onion article about "quantum slacks," a.k.a., "Schroedinger's Pants," go here.) After all, if the price defies the fundamental laws of physics, so should the product. Is that too much to ask?
Apparently so, but that doesn't mean I can't get some pretty cutting-edge technology along with my haute couture. According to a recent article in Wired, multi-functional clothing is the wave of the future. The article claims that one day all those fancy designer gowns one sees on the red carpet at the Oscars will be equipped with remote controls, GPS capability and rf tags. The revolution has already begun in the elite sporting industry. Just look at all those Olympic snowboarders --Shawn White, Hannah Teter -- with MP3 players built right into their helmets, so they can listen to righteous tunes before, during and immediately after their jaw-dropping gold-medal runs. The trend is spreading beyond high-end sportswear. Levi's just introduced jeans with built-in iPod docks, retractable headphones, and a portable joystick in the watch pocket to operate the digital music player. (Tacky joystick puns aside, Jen-Luc Piquant believes this will have a marked effect on flirtatious pick-up lines, to wit: "Is that an iPod in your Levi's or are you just glad to see me?")
The fitness industry seems to be driving a lot of the product development. Worried about excess sweat this summer? The Japanese company Kuuchoufuku offers jackets with built-in fans. Not sure if you've exercised long enough to burn off that blueberry muffin you ate for breakfast? A company called BodyMedia offers a wearable wireless device to track total calories burned during exercise based on body mass changes, and there are several other Bluetooth-enabled product lines in development, including clothing with wires and sensors woven right into the fabric. Scientists at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota have even placed motion sensors in specially designed underwear to monitor the calories burned during daily activities -- sensors similar to those used by the military to monitor the motions of jet fighter planes. Perhaps I'm a wee bit old-fashioned, but I'd like scientists to keep their stinkin' sensors out of my undergarments, especially since I can find activity calorie counters online. (Just for the record, I'd also like to avoid having sensors implanted directly onto my brain -- they're already doing this to macaque monkeys -- even if it did enable me to make like Carrie and move the cursor on my computer screen using my thoughts.)
I fear the day is not far off when our clothing will be smarter than we are, thanks to all the advances in "smart materials," which can sense and respond to changes in the environment -- everything from temperature and mechanical force (impact) to electric and magnetic fields. For instance, Adidas has introduced a running shoe with embedded microchips that sense changes in the ground underfoot and adjust the level of shock absorption in the shoe heel. And at MIT's Media Lab, students are experimenting with a new material that changes shape in response to changing temperatures. So you can heat up a long-sleeved shirt so that it becomes short-sleeved in seconds; and it will eventually revert back to its original shape.
Great Britain's d3o Labs collaborated with skiwear company Spyder to manufacture the "smart armor" used in the recent Winter Olympics to protect US and Canadian skiers from injury. Scientists at the University of Delaware have figured out how to treat the fabric used in Kevlar vests with what they call a "shear-thickening fluid" -- a mixture of silica particles suspended in polyethylene glycol -- making it strong enough to stop a bullet, yet flexible enough to wear comfortably. The fabric in both cases responds to changes in mechanical force: if, say, a bullet strikes, the fabric will become rigid instantly, reverting to its more flexible state once the force from the bullet dissipates. Science once again emulates science fiction. According to the Website Technovelgy.com, the 1971 sci-fi novel The Flying Sorcerers (by David Gerrold and Larry Niven) prefigured the notion of smart armor with its description of an "impact suit" that normally "flows like cloth but under a sharp blow it becomes a single rigid unit."
Any of these futuristic features would make a pair of designer jeans actually worth a $1,100 price tag, hand-stitched butterfly appliques be damned. Until then, I'm hanging onto my hard-earned cash. That's not to say that I don't still dream about that perfect pair of patchwork Levi's. But I accept the harsh reality: some relationships just aren't meant to be.