I've never been big into name brands. Sure, I own a bunch of stuff by Fred Perry, Ben Sherman and Doc Marten, but that's only because – in my perpetual state of arrested development – I'm still inclined to dress like the members of my favorite bands. Beyond that, though, I don't care much for labels, and I know virtually nothing about fashion (just ask any of my coworkers). Without looking at the label, I usually can't tell whether an item came from J. Crew or Kenneth Cole. I don't know my Prada from my Jack (or Kate) Spade, and I don't really care. If something looks good and fits, fine - but don't ask me to get excited about who happens to be selling it.
There is one exception to my rule, though. And it all started with a baseball cap.
Back in the ’90s I was working for a weekly newsmagazine, and one afternoon our Hong Kong bureau chief popped in with armfuls of gifts for the staff. My present was a smart black baseball cap emblazoned with the bright red flag of the People's Republic of China. It was really well made and fit better than any baseball cap I'd ever owned. Two decades later, I'm still wearing it. It may make me a poser (since I am entirely unable to quote Mao Tse-tung), but I love it. The cap came from a then-newfangled clothing line called Shanghai Tang.
From that day on, I was smitten. For a wedding present in 2001, someone gave my wife Peggy and me a handsome set of high-end chopsticks from Shanghai Tang. On a trip to London in 2002, we stopped into their shop on Sloane Street and I picked up a lovely pair of cufflinks (in a nifty, star-shaped silver box like the one above). It was also there that Peggy discovered their signature ginger-flower room spray (an aromatic blend of indescribable niceness).
Several years back I bought one of their sleek black wallets, which I still cherish. More recently, Peggy sprang for a lovely new Shanghai Tang watch for me, which I assuredly did nothing to earn. It seems I've become a bit of a Tang fanboy. This is highly incongruous given the chronically shoddy state of my bank account.
There are worse things to be a fan of, I suppose, but I've always felt slightly self-conscious about it. I guess that's why they call it a "guilty pleasure." I remember reading that Andrew Eldritch of the preeminent British goth band Sisters of Mercy shares my affinity for Shanghai Tang's togs. In a futile effort to shrug off his band's doomy image, Andrew started wearing blindingly colorful Shanghai Tang tops to upset the hordes of uniformly black-clad fans in his audience.
But Andrew Eldritch can probably afford to outfit his dungeon with all things Tang. These days I can barely afford a jar of Tang, the breakfast drink.
Even so, after Peggy bought me that watch, we ended up on Shanghai Tang’s mailing list. Not only did we get a lovely handwritten Christmas card from the shop assistant who helped Peggy pick the watch out; we were invited to a "private party" at their New York outlet to celebrate the Chinese New Year. After mulling it for a moment, we thought we might as well check it out. At least it sounded like something different (and free).
Unfortunately for me (and anyone who invites me anywhere), I tend to get to places really early. Accordingly, on the night of the party, I sheepishly arrived at Shanghai Tang's swanky Madison Avenue outlet at the exact starting time. (I was coming straight from my office in midtown, whereas Peg was making the trek from downtown.) Unsurprisingly, I was the first to arrive. As I walked in the door, I immediately felt a wave of self-consciousness. What was I doing here?
Biting my lip, I was greeted by a svelte, clipboard-wielding temptress in a form-fitting black dress who checked my name off her list and carried my clunky winter coat away as if she were disposing of a wet bag of garbage. The fact that I was wearing my aforementioned Shanghai Tang baseball cap and my new Shanghai Tang watch made me feel like a Trekkie.
The other partygoers were sharply dressed fashionistas who looked at me as if I'd wandered off the street looking for an action-figure convention. I made my way to the bar, hoping a dragon might leap out at any second and swallow me whole.
After procuring a needlessly frilly ginger-tinged vodka drink, I perused the merchandise, hoping for my wife’s swift arrival. The place was filling up, and the clientele just kept getting more oppressively fabulous. I helped myself to a complimentary pork dumpling and a clutch of surprisingly tasty fortune cookies, pretending not to feel like a ridiculous goofball.
After an awkward eternity, Peggy finally arrived and I got my sea legs back. By this point the place was so crowded that browsing was pretty much out of the question. Which was just as well, really; even though there was a 15 percent discount in honor of the holiday, the merchandise on display was still intimidatingly expensive.
Somone started banging loudly on a drum, and out popped a couple of overenthusiastic Chinese dragons (where were they when I needed them earlier?). A disarming dance ensued. I kept expecting something expensive to get knocked over.
Enjoying the scene, Peg actually bought something; a thimble-size bottle of some sumptuous liquid that came with an eyedropper. Evidently you drop tiny amounts of the stuff on a light bulb, whereupon it releases a warm, exotic scent.
It was probably the cheapest item there, but when we got home and tried it, it still provided an atmosphere of rarified elegance, which is no easy feat. And today, even though I’m still conflicted by the indulgent sheen and shamelessly luxurious essence of Shanghai Tang’s products, I remain hopelessly infatuated with them.
I guess you could say they Shangai-ed me.
What brand or beauty product are you obsessed with? Tell us in the comments below and you may be featured in The Look.
TODAY.com senior editor Alex Smith is a native New Yorker who is easily riled by people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with bands they aren't actually fans of.