Monday, January 02, 2006

Lifestyle: Weekend FT, A Compulsion to Consume

By Julie Earle-Levine
Jun 04, 2005

The promise of spring and crisp, new clothes after a miserable winter is reason enough to shop. There is that must-have pouffy skirt to purchase, silky camisoles to snap up and a new swimsuitfor the beach. Most people would agree, retail therapy feels good. Butwhat happens when you cannot stop shopping?

Close to 8 per cent of the US population are considered "hard core" compulsive buyers, according to the psychologists who treat them. For some, this is expressed as dropping $2,000 on Jimmy Choo shoes and not being able to pay the rent; for others it is having the latest DVDs, cameras, computer and sports equipment.

Then there are those who go to see April Benson, a Manhattan psychologist who specialises in the treatment of compulsive buying disorders, because a well-known celebrity has worn a designer item on television.

"I used to get a lot of women coming in after Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) on Sex and the City would wear something on TV," says Benson, author of I Shop. Therefore I am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self. "Jimmy Choos are a big problem for lots of women. They think they can never get enough of what they don't really need."

"Most shopaholics are trying to counteract feelings of low self-esteem through the emotional lift and momentary euphoria that compulsive buying provides," Benson says, and adds that she believes the problem is growing.

Donald Black, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, who has studied compulsive shopping for 12 years, agrees. "There are reports from England, Germany, France, Brazil and Australia to suggest people are consumed with shopping in a way that impairs their emotional, social and financial lives."

He says the few countries that did not have the problem were generally third world countries. "If you think of Africa, or poor parts of Asia, the same conditions don't exist. People spend their time gathering food not at the mall."

But compulsive shoppers don't need to live near a mall to be seduced by retail. "If an individual has an impulse in this direction, then they can get anything they want via the internet, the phone, catalogues and have it delivered express," says Black.

Most of Benson's clients are women and though men have the same lack of control, society refers to them as "collectors" and fewer seek help, she says. Certainly, more is known about compulsive female shoppers, from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Imelda Marcos, whose passion for shoes was well documented. Michele Duvalier, the wife of the former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, bought designer clothes, jewellery, furs and works of art in the middle of that country's economic crisis. Black gives further examples: "Princess Diana was widely reported to be a compulsive shopper, among othedisorders. Even Randolph Hearst almost bankrupted himself in the 1930s because he was a so-called collector."

But what determines if shopping has gone beyond a routine activity? If you shop excessively year round, or every day, or buy multiples of the same product and hide what you buy, then you may have a real problem. It is not about overindulging at Christmas or for birthdays, Black says.

"Women can hide it for a while. Most spouses aren't curious about attics but many get divorces when they learn they can't get a mortgage because of their partner's problem."
Olivia Mellan, a Washington-based psychotherapist who is credited with creating the field of money psychology, sees many couples and says usually one is the spender.

"Often the man will ask his partner to get help and I have addicts who buy Kate Spade handbags, Hermès scarves and then guys who love Rolex watches."

As Carrie said on Sex and the City: "If I spent $40,000 on shoes and I have no place to live, I will literally be the old woman who lived in her shoes."


"I definitely have a problem." But the racks of Manolos take up a relatively small amount of space in her 7,000sq ft loft in Manhattan. It is the rows of Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton shoes, and aisles of clothes by Gucci, Prada, Chloé and Marc Jacobs that are the biggest space hogs.

Albright, an American-born Iraqi, is a self-described fashion whore. "I always say it is better than being a drug addict," she says, admitting to spending thousands of dollars a week on her "closet", which has expanded to become a rental showroom, stocked with designer handbags, suits, shoes and even bikinis.

However, unlike other addicts, Albright has turned her compulsion into a business, and her showroom boasts one of the most comprehensive fashion inventories in New York, which she rents out to various stylists and editors.

Albright buys the current season's must-haves at sample sales and often stores invite her to visit early in the season. She never shops with friends. "I always have a huge pile," she says. "Dolce & Gabbana let me come in early because I buy a lot and I don't want to be bothered when I am shopping. I have to be completely focused."

Albright officially started her collection in the 1990s, when she was working as a stylist.
She had studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design and designed opera sets at Juilliard School but ended up working with fashion photographer Bruce Weber, as well as the late Vogue editor Kezia Keeble.

Of her collection, her favourite pieces include the Tom Ford-designed Yves Saint Laurent gold sequined backless dress that Nicole Kidman wore to the Golden Globes last year; a new Gucci purple sequined gown; and a pink Christian Dior gown with ruffles that Renée Zellweger has worn.

"Where have all the Chloes gone!?" she asks no one in particular. One of her four in-house editors, who help to style photo shoots for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, rushes over to tell her the Chloes are all out, as is a pink Alberta Ferretti dress she can't find.

"Oh no! I can't think about anything else but that dress. I should have bought more," said Albright. "Maybe I will."

Albright throws open dozens of cupboards to reveal racks of designer handbags, hats and even jewellery. "Isn't this sick?"

She is wearing a simple, black Michael Kors dress with bare legs, and slip-on shoes.
"When I bought this loft I thought I could just walk next door into my showroom and wear something fabulous, but I don't really. I don't think about getting dressed up when I am in working mode."

Albright rarely gives up anything and finds her annual South Hampton yard sale a trial.
Up to 5,000 shoes can be displayed on the lawn, with prices starting at $40, though they are new and originally cost $400 and up.

"I hand-pick everything and I am very passionate about it," she says. "My staff will edit (and remove items so they are for sale and out of the showroom) and then in the middle of the night I will go back and put it back on the rack."

Albright also admits to concealing how much she really buys. "I am like a wife who doesn't want her husband to know they shop. I hide it. Sometimes I just put it on the rack and one of my editors will ask, have you been shopping again?"

Irene Albright, stylist, 62 Cooper Square, 2nd floor, New York +1 212-977 7350

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