Earlier this week, after months of postering cities across the Western world and splashing its ads in magazines, perhaps the most anticipated monosyllabically named Web site of all time launched its sportswear site.
Boo isn't exactly a store -- it's more like the Web's first immersive retail environment, a kind of playpen where the credit-card wielding teenagers and childlike adults who seem to be Boo.com's target customers can navigate through a carnival of brand names.
The model is not other Web stores. If anything it's REI, the Seattle sports emporium that famously has an indoor climbing wall, or Disney's chain of whirly-gig happy Discovery Channel stores. This kind of commerce isn't about spending money, it's about having fun. No, scratch that. Boo.com is not just about entertainment. It's about hip, branded entertainment.
I knew before I logged on to Boo.com that actually buying something could be an ordeal. But that was OK with me. I didn't come to buy, I came to shop. My mission: to have hip branded fun. Unfortunately, I think I failed.
The first thing you notice when you log on to Boo.com is Boospeak. OK, that's not really true. The first thing you notice is that the site takes over your computer, launching a proliferation of windows large and small. But the second thing you notice is Boospeak. "Where do you Boo?" the site asks you right off the bat. Please, isn't that a little personal?
There's your "boobag" (the shopping cart) and Boom magazine. And there's Miss Boo, Boo.com's online guide, a kind of cartoon sexy answer to Microsoft's paper clip. Miss Boo actually has her own language of questionable double-entendres, a secret vocabulary of the world of Boo: "Feeling anti-social? I'll shut up. Just push my button and I'll zip my lips."
I took a pass on flirting with Miss Boo, and went straight for the heart of the consumer experience. A navigation bar lets you choose between types of clothing, activities you plan to do while wearing them (sailing, skating, hiking and the enigmatic "urban" are choices listed on the menu; grocery shopping is not), and the brands that Boo carries. I rolled over "Brand" on the navigation bar, and, perhaps drawn to its syllabic solidarity with "Boo," navigated my way to "Fubu."
Each of the brands has its own complex introductory cartoon. The one for Fubu begins by throwing on screen the words, "In search of enlightenment, the Fubu Guru contemplates the words of the wise."
The Fubu Guru is Fubu's mascot -- a cartoon of a young man dressed, it seems, to go out and "urban." Helpfully, the words of the wise are all connected to items of clothing. In Booworld, or maybe Fubuworld, the wise speak in faux Confucian slogans. Each slogan represents an item of clothing. Or maybe each item of clothing represents one slogan. The words "Whoever carries the mantle of light will be the focus for the true path," are accompanied by a picture of a polo shirt. Or the Fubu Guru's boxers -- it's sometimes hard to tell exactly which slogan belongs to which piece of apparel.
The funny thing is that all this kind of works -- once. If you feel inclined to watch it a second time hoping to note down the bits of wisdom and analyze their sense, don't.
OK, on to Boom magazine. I was hoping that with a name like that Boom would have some sound to go with the pretty pictures, but it doesn't. Boom might be the latest stage in the evolution of the online magazine. It is composed of four succinct features about "global culture, style and sport." By succinct I mean short -- probably no more than 200 words each. Maybe that's just as well. Here's the beginning of one of Boom's feature stories:
"Felix Santiago is the swiftest and nimblest in-line skater in Manhattan. Urban restlessness incarnate, he skates with the grace of a ballet dancer, the power of a downhill racer, and the speed of a taxi. In fact he has raced taxis ... and won."
Heck, you have to put this into perspective. In the right time of day and in the right place -- 4 p.m. on lower Broadway, say -- I've raced taxis ... and won.
Still not having succeeded fully in my mission of having fun, I finally decided to try a little shopping. Sticking with Fubu, I found a rather nice terry cloth shirt with a "classic" horizontal stripe pattern. So I took that into the fitting room.
Yes, the "fitting room." There are other Web sites that let you pick out items of clothing, zoom in on them, rotate them, and change the colors. Letting you try them on online, however, is clearly an innovation.
Silly me. I pressed the "try on" button and the dressing room window popped up, with a big gray cutout silhouette in the center and my chosen shirt at the upper left. Problem is, the silhouette doesn't resemble me at all. If I had a silhouette like that, I'd probably be a Fubu model myself. So I dragged the shirt over to the cutout and voila, it fit. Big surprise there -- have you ever seen clothes that don't fit on a mannikin?
That was enough for me. I felt like falling into one of those overstuffed armchairs that department stores reserve for men not quite up to the task of traipsing around every rack with their spouse. But the cartoon world of Boo cares little for creature comforts. It's either be hip or be out-hipped.