This summer Ian Brown explores how Canadians are reclaiming their lives from quarantine, whether it’s the thrill of a haircut, the risk of a hug or a chance – finally! – to jump in a pool again.
I desperately needed a new pair of sneakers. After two years of solid wear and five months of pandemic lockdown, my old ones – size 13 – resembled abandoned battleships. But with Toronto poised to follow the rest of Ontario into Stage 3 of reopening this weekend, it was at least theoretically safe, if precautions and distances were observed, to go shopping. I grabbed my mask and vial of hand sanitizer and headed for Browns Shoes (no relation; I am descended from a long line of Suffolk swineherds).
Do not misunderstand me. I was not looking for anything iconic or statement-making in the way of a sneaker. I wasn’t in the market for a pair of gamer Nike Air Max 97s, a shoe inspired by a Nintendo console. I wasn’t looking for a pair of Yeezy’s Foam Runners. (Yeezy, and not Weezy, as I mistakenly referred to him for an entire day, is Kanye West’s Biblical name.) No. I wanted, I needed, and I make no apology for this, a pair of all-purpose sneakers – specifically a pair of Sperry CVOs (for Circular Vamp Oxfords), the kind Mr. Rogers wore, in grey or blue.
The stores I visited had strict protocols – hand sanitizer before touching any product, social distancing, disposable gloves, touchless payment – that made shopping feel like a new and complicated bathroom procedure. Still, I persevered. It was only as I passed Holt Renfrew For Men and spotted an outfit on a mannequin in its window that I began to grasp my quest. The outfit was a Dries cabana set – a short-sleeved shirt and matching shorts, a look favoured by beachside waiters and four-year-olds – coupled with a pair of Prada chunk-soled sneakers in desert camo grey. The shoes alone were $545.
I had the sudden sense that I was standing in front of a museum vitrine, gazing at artifacts from an ancient, pre-COVID time – objects worshipped long ago, when heedless credit-card shopping was a ritual of the species. Overshopping (and our subsequent indebtedness) made the economy extra-susceptible to the costly ravages of the pandemic. Was post-COVID-19 shopping also irresponsible?
On the other hand, maybe shopping is essential to save what’s left of the financial system.
So I called David Rosenberg. Mr. Rosenberg is the head of Rosenberg Research and writes Breakfast with Dave, one of the global financial community’s most sought-after investment-advice newsletters. A former chief economist and strategist for Merrill Lynch and Gluskin Sheff & Associates, Mr. Rosenberg rises at 4:30 a.m. every day, inhales half a dozen newspapers and many more websites, and promptly extrudes five to 15 pages of always sparkling, often alarming but mostly convincing economic analysis. Ernest Hemingway once described the Racing Form as “the purest form of fiction,” and investment advice can be a lot like the Racing Form. But capitalists pay a fortune for the wisdom of Mr. Rosenberg, who, according to economic historian Niall Ferguson, has “an uncanny sixth sense” about the market. If anyone knew if shopping would be helpful in recovering from COVID-19, he would.
“I think I’m helping the economy recover from COVID by buying a pair of sneakers,” I said to Mr. Rosenberg over the telephone. “Is that true?”
“How about if I throw in a pair of pants as well?”
“No. If you’re going to help the economy, instead of walking, you would be driving. The fact is, a good part of that automobile that you would buy to drive instead of walk is made in Canada. Whereas those shoes most likely were manufactured in Southeast Asia, so they’re an import. I’d say the answer is nil economic impact. Maybe you’ll be throwing a little bone to the retailer. But there’s no positive multiplier impact from that sort of activity.”
Naturally, I felt defensive. “Well,” I stammered, “does anybody – even guys like you, people who normally know what they’re talking about – know what’s going to happen in this unprecedented pandemic?”
The author of Breakfast with Dave was unfazed. He speaks quickly, like a man who has more ideas than he will ever have time to express.
“Well, you know, we’re really peeling an onion here. Because we had a health crisis that morphed into an economic crisis that then morphed into a financial crisis that caused the central banks to engage in activities that would have made even [former U.S. Federal Reserve head] Ben Bernanke blush back in the 2008 financial crisis. The problem is that we went into this pandemic completely unprepared.” Individuals and corporations alike, both here and in the U.S., were over their heads in debt as the pandemic descended. “According to Donald Trump, this was the best economy of all time. A 50-year-low unemployment rate! And yet, over 50 per cent of Americans did not have enough liquidity, cash or savings to get through three months of a crisis. That says a lot right there about what we do know – which is that the era of conspicuous consumption is well behind us. And the era of consumer frugality is ahead of us. So when you go buy those shoes and those pants. I’m going to suggest that you visit a consignment store first.”
The windows of the shoe store where I bought my last pair of Topsiders, like several neighbours on its fancy stretch of Bloor Street, were papered over. I eventually found a pair of Topsiders online through a store on Queen Street. The store took my money but e-mailed a day later to say it didn’t have size 13. The pandemic has destroyed the predictable future, which in turn has undermined a reliable present.
“What about the stock market?” I said to Mr. Rosenberg. “Isn’t it a bull market?”
“There’s no bull market,” he replied, with nary a hair of hesitation. “This is a classic bear market rally. It’s a castle built on sand. This is like the after the October, 1929, crash, when we had a 50-per-cent countertrend rally that lasted five months. And I’m sure it sucked in a lot of enthusiasts at the time.”
I headed to Gotstyle, downtown, to buy a pair of pants from Melissa Austria. Ms. Austria founded Gotstyle 15 years ago, and is now its co-owner; she has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most innovative men’s clothing retailers in North America.
There were only three customers in the store, two of them women. Hand sanitizer guarded the entrance. You could try garments on, but afterwards they were steamed and kept off the floor for the rest of the day. Masks were required.
Ms. Austria was wearing a navy blue one covered with tiny white pineapples, the timeless symbol of welcome. She had watched her store’s sales inch back from nonexistence in April – ”it’s getting progressively better,” she said – thanks to her many innovations. These include a website that lets browsers see what’s selling in real time (terrycloth polo shirts, linen shorts); pre-booked in-store after-hours shopping appointments (to reduce congestion); and, her most radical idea, online in-store consultations.
“There’re a lot of people who are tired of wearing their sweatpants,” Ms. Austria said. “Suits are dead. But even on a Zoom call, wear your joggers, but wear something smart on top. We’re starting to get that more.”
Ms. Austria is even willing to analyze a client’s closet, via Zoom, and explain which of their old clothes will go with their new purchases. “That’s a long call,” she admitted. But that’s her answer to the dilemma of attracting customers during a resurging pandemic: customized personal service, but online, in real time. “It’s something we tried to launch eight years ago,” Ms. Austria said. “But we were way too early. People didn’t want to do video shopping: They didn’t want anyone to see their homes. But now, since COVID, everyone’s used to it.”
I didn’t even need to come in to the store. As it will for any customer, Gotstyle would prepare an array of possible pants, based on my conversation with Ms. Austria (which could have taken place by Zoom), and deliver them the same day. Très moderne! “You can then try them on in the comfort of your home.” I could return what I didn’t like the next day. Just like a weekly community farm vegetable box, minus the turnip you never want to pay for.
“I have to ask you a few questions before I can make up your box of clothes,” Ms. Austria said, eyeing me shrewdly. “Are you a 38?”
Again: ow. “Well, I was a 36, before lockdown.”
“Well, in some of my Italian pants a size 38 is actually a 36,” she said, smoothly moving on. “Are you comfortable with the new jogger pants? And the new elasticized waists? We call them buffet pants.” A spasm of alarm passed through my body. I am an elastophobe. To me the elasticized waist is a harbinger of the end of civilization: If your pants expand, why stop eating at all? “And are you open to four-way-stretch material?”
Post-COVID-19 shopping was clearly a new universe. “People are buying less, but buying better,” Ms. Austria said as I headed home to await the arrival of the trousers she was about to choose for me. “They’re buying clothes that last three seasons, not just one. That’s why I’m not totally alarmed,” she said. “People are still going to need to get dressed.”
“Has anything happened in the pandemic,” I finally said to David Rosenberg, “that makes you think we might be headed in a better direction?”
Mr. Rosenberg’s competitors sometimes accuse him of being a perma-bear, a relentless pessimist. To my surprise I thought I detected a note of cautious optimism.
“During the last four or five months,” he said, “people were buying bread makers, recipe books, kitchen appliances, home improvement. So I think there’s been a greater degree of cocooning, a greater degree of appreciation for what we need, as opposed to what we want. We’ve become more self-sufficient. Just as we came out of the Great Depression and World War Two with everybody building victory gardens, we’re going to come out of this with a greater appreciation for a whole bunch of things. It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be a happier society. Just a society that’s going to learn to live within its means.”
It still sounded painful. That evening, Melissa Austria’s postpandemic bag of pant goodies arrived (four pairs, with two drapey shirts thrown in for extra measure). I liked them all, but I have to admit the White Sand belted relaxed stretch pants from Italy, for $225, are especially comfortable. With their adjustable elasticized waistband, they’ll come in handy, whichever way things go.
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