Conspicuous consumption, high-tech style

Conspicuous consumption, high-tech style: By Janelle Brown. Be the first on your block to dress your computer gadgets in gold, lizard-skin and leather.

Published June 24, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Rule No. 1 of business, dear shoppers, is "dress to impress" -- and accessories are no exception. Today, of course, our computers are our accessories, since no true businessman or woman should be without a laptop, Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), cell phone and top-of-the-line processor. Unfortunately, a PalmPilot can appear a bit, well, plebeian. Especially if everyone else at the table is carrying the same one.

Never fear. For the discerning executive, there are scores of luxury accoutrements designed to mask that mundane plastic with supple coverings like leather and wood. Hate your mouse? Get a gold-plated one. Think your computer is ugly? Cover it with boar skin. If you're willing to spend enough, you can plaster over the digital world's dull packaging with all the trappings of an elite lifestyle.

Computers, after all, are rather generic-looking machines. Despite the ministrations of squadrons of industrial designers, the majority of those beige and gray boxes are still on the ugly side of functional. And though employees in more creative office environments will often decorate their computers with stickers, spray paint and photos, there's a big difference between kitschy personalization and conspicuous consumption.

Take, for example, the alligator-skin PalmPilot case, from leather experts Dooney & Bourke. According to a Bloomingdale's Personal Shopper, these cases are flying off the shelves at $225 a pop ("Perfect for dad," she says), along with the cheaper lizard-skin version. While thousands of PDA owners might have a leather or fabric protective case, alligator skin has that certain je ne sais quoi that can only be achieved by a massive outlay of green.

"There's no doubt that our customers are executives looking for a way to stand out in the crowd. If you're in an office meeting these days, a PalmPilot is blasi, but a PalmPilot with a $225 case is not so commonplace," explains Ian Ray, director of new product development at Dooney & Bourke, which is currently developing a similar line of luxe cases for cell phones, laptops and pagers as well.

The purchase of one luxury computer accessory, though, must necessitate the purchase of another. So, to go with your reptilian PalmPilot, the luxury pen manufacturer Cross has stepped in with the swanky DigitalWriter. Cross offers 17 different styluses for executives who want to project a "refined and distinctive" image -- or perhaps one of "solid character and pragmatic values" or of "bright color and attitude" -- when whipping out their PDA. The 10-karat gold stylus goes for a mere $42, while the lapis lazuli version sells for a whopping $250. All designs use materials that mimic the sensation of pen on paper, and the Duo version even doubles as a pen.

"The PalmPilot stylus is small, it's hard to hold and it gives you a scratchy, slippery feel. The DigitalWriter looks better, it feels better, it writes better," gushes Brad Nagy, product manager at Cross. "When people are in meetings, they want to take out something with more style and substance than that little plastic stick."

But what's the point of lapis and lizard skin if it's accompanied by a generic nylon laptop case? Fortunately, carrying cases are also going upscale, as ritzy leather-goods stores catch on to the digital lifestyle: Coach and Kenneth Cole both produce buttery computer totes (bonus: You can coordinate your computer case to match your wallet, shoes, address book, purse). And the made-to-order computer case from leather-goods manufacturer Glaser Designs is not only promisingly titled the "Deal Bag," but it looks more like an attachi than a predictable square laptop bag. It had better, for $750.

Since removing a standard laptop from a $750 bag can ruin the overall effect, Michael Madson has stepped in with his BookWares personal laptop covers. For prices ranging from $30 to $200, he'll install one of a number of materials -- redwood, walnut, corellian burl, leather, boar skin, brushed aluminum, copper, even a solar panel -- on your otherwise undecorated PowerBook 1400.

Madson, who says he's taken more than 2,000 orders so far -- for large numbers of Japanese and Italian customers, plus former Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki -- says he aims less for luxury than for "wabi-sabi" (a Japanese term for the aesthetic beauty of random expression in nature): "The things we live with must be tactile -- we have certain requirements for feelings and touch," he explains. "When we're around high-tech devices, we like them to have some naturalness to them, some warmth in feeling -- like hugs. And plastic isn't natural."

"I've always hated the casings of computers. They're too static and uninteresting," says Chris Barrett, an architectural photographer who's on his third BookWares cover so far. His latest gray-leather PowerBook is "still a boxy laptop, but it's a boxy laptop with a cool-looking cover."

Even the most plastic device of them all -- the desktop computer -- is getting accessorized. Boutiques are paying special attention to the lowly mouse -- which, when sitting forlornly atop a free promotional mouse pad, lacks oomph. There's Leather Mouse ("rich ... elegant ... sexy"), a padded leather-covered mouse, available for $39.95 ($24.95, if you prefer vinyl). Buy a matching mouse pad to go with it, or purchase a $29.95 leather pad from the highbrow tchotchke purveyors at Levenger.

And if leather isn't luxurious enough, the pleasant people at Crown Plating are happy to coat your mouse in 24-karat gold, a novelty item they assert will catch the eye of any discerning executive. One interior decorator bought a dozen for her executive clients, and according to assistant manager Jeana Watts, there's no need to stop there: "For the guy who's got lots of money and wants to have it all," she says, "we could gold plate everything on his desk."

One catch with these upscale fantasies, of course, is that pesky problem of obsolescence. Your PowerBook may well be outdated within a year, along with its redwood cover, and you could regret that expensive gold plating on your monitor when you decide to upgrade. The confluence of classic and high tech, unfortunately, can last only as long as the technology inside.

Then again, no one ever promised that fashion is forever, either.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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