Machine-washable Zen

Dressing well for the occasion of spiritual enlightenment.

Published March 19, 2001 8:12PM (EST)

The first collection from ZoZa, a new clothing line from Banana Republic and Republic of Tea founders Patricia and Mel Ziegler, includes a sleek black evening gown. It is simple and striking, with a high mock-turtleneck collar and cap sleeves, a cutaway oval back and a fishtail hem that sweeps the floor. It is made from a stretchy swimwear fabric and lies flat against the stomach thanks to a stealthy built-in bodysuit.

The quirkier aspects of this gown, above and beyond its resemblance to a formal bathing suit, are these: It is machine washable and designed to be stuffed into a tiny bag (hence the name of the item: "Evening Dress in a Bag"). This might be considered cruel and unusual punishment of formalwear by most standards, but Trish Donnally, the editorial director for ZoZa, explains that the item is designed to be kept in the glove compartment of one's SUV for the many impromptu moments when one finds that one suddenly needs to attend a black-tie event. And when the party is over, one can just toss the dress in one's washing machine (regular cycle).

And, more importantly, say ZoZa's founders, this dress is not just a dress but a symbol of an entire lifestyle. The life in question is specifically the go-go whirl of modern upscale Americans; the style is Zen. The idea is that the latter can tidy and simplify the former. It may seem a bit of a stretch to align the upper-class panoply of materialism and merlot with a discipline symbolized by monks in cotton robes, but the more contemporary society is tied to its collective cellphone, the more the privileged elite is turning to the notion of a purchased simplicity. Yoga, feng shui, Real Simple magazine, Sundãri skin care and ZoZa clothing: It's all part of the pricey package of a ready-made inner peace, with a built-in pocket for your PDA.

"This is the future of fashion," asserts Donnally. "It's about being very direct. There isn't time for a lot of superfluous detail. The clothing is designed to take you through the days of the 21st century -- How do you cut through everything and make it streamlined? No matter what we say, people live a 24/7 lifestyle and if we can eliminate the need for anything ..."

Elimination through acquisition -- sounds like Zen for Dummies (with plenty of disposable income).

ZoZa was born in Marin County, a northern suburb of San Francisco and ground zero for affluent ex-hippie post-urbanite New Agers. The company launched last fall with a Web site and one storefront (the first of many to come, I'm promised) in the wealthy town of Mill Valley. It is a polished concrete showroom, hushed and minimalist with a Japanese rock garden out front and a collection of iMacs scattered throughout the room pushing the e-commerce site. ZoZa was created, says Donnally, as a response to the "overscheduled lives" of the busy Zieglers -- who, besides making a fortune by selling off two successful companies in the last two decades, also have two kids and an assortment of homes. Somehow they manage to paint and mountain bike on a daily basis.

More than anything else, then, the ZoZa line appears to function as a uniform for the covetable Ziegler lifestyle. The clothes use "high-tech" sports fabrics -- fleeces feature heavily -- and tend toward "classic" styling in "soothing" ice-cream colors (raspberry, coral and amethyst). The look is kind of Patagonia meets J. Crew -- gearlike but elegant, multipurpose and highly functional. And nearly every item seems to have secret pockets for keys or cellphones or high-tech gadgetry that has yet to be invented.

Only a privileged few need yoga-friendly fleece clothing with cellphone pockets, of course; and it's no surprise that ZoZa's main constituency is, in fact, made up of busy working mothers and Marin suburbanites and dot-com millionaires who don't have time to shop. The company aims to please the Zieglers and Ziegler wannabes by selling clothes that fit a dream: ZoZa living means waking up in the morning and putting on, say, a "Sport of Living Unitard" or "ErgoKnit Bodysuit" before heading off to yoga. After yoga, throw on the "24/7 Jacket" over workout clothes and proceed to an important meeting; that evening, go from work to a cocktail party, taking off the jacket and adding the "Apres Everything" skirt. ZoZa men wear the same fleece blazer as part of their suit and as a bicycle jersey. (Donnally assures me that co-workers won't be appalled by the stench of multitasking workout/workplace clothing, since ZoZa's high-tech fabrics wick away sweat.)

"Time is so precious now that it's more of a burden than a joy to change five times a day," says Donnally. "It's not so important to have a lot of clothes as to have a few perfect pieces."

On their own, the clothes are nicely designed and incredibly comfy; simply trying them on is kind of like drinking the Kool-Aid, a quick intoxicating glimpse into a minimalist world in which you don't have to decide what to wear in the morning. Even if they are really just a kind of utilitarian spacesuit for a potentially dying breed of busy dot-com CEOs who bike to work at tanking start-ups, those fleece pants at least fit well and are inoffensively stylish. But packaged with the fleece is a Cliffs Notes version of Zen philosophy, which is where things get troublesome.

This is a company that uses an I Ching symbol as its logo, fills its catalog with Zen "mindcracker" puzzles (e.g., "the solution is here, the problem is there") and boasts a Zen priest on its masthead as an advisor and spiritual guide. The 36 employees take off their shoes in the office and wear embroidered slippers instead; the entire company does yoga together twice a week. The Zieglers are not just company founders, but "visionaries."

The company may be trying to turn a profit by hawking $100 sheaths, but it's selling them as a form of enlightenment. ("Would you like some clarity with those capris?") The clothes are all inscribed with the reminder "Be Present, not Tense" -- a pithy pun referring to the Zen practice of trying to live in the now. The print catalog boasts Zen sayings like "happiness needs no cause" (juxtaposed over a coral-colored Apres Anything Turtlehood) and a sermon from Zen priest Norman Fischer. And the e-commerce site is chock-full of happy Eastern aphorisms from Mel Ziegler: "I'm wealthy. You're wealthy. We're all wealthy. I'm not talking about having a private jet, a house in Aspen, a box seat at the Opera. That's peanuts. I'm talking about having the sky, all of it; the earth, every inch; and every ounce of everything in between."

In other words, you can ditch your guilt about the shallowness of an affluent and busy life, because your shirt is a spiritual Band-Aid that will guide you toward self-fulfillment by making it easier to transition from yoga to the staff meeting. The people who buy into the clothing, of course, are thrilled to be participating in such an easy exercise in self-deception. Despite the exhortations of ZoZa's Zen priest to slow down and "take a breath," it seems more likely that the Evening Dress in a Bag is helping ZoZa's customers streamline their lives so that they can become more busy -- they'll skip the dry cleaners so that they can fit in an extra meeting with the contractor, rather than use that extra half-hour to meditate.

The idea of instant awareness (without the pesky necessity of time-consuming Zen study) is an appealing fantasy, even if it won't really materialize simply because you pare down your closet (and then add a bunch of new ZoZa clothes). Many Americans are seeking spirituality to fill a certain void in their life, and it's a lot more socially acceptable to read the preachings of a Zen priest in a catalog than to run off to study under a guru. It is hardly surprising, though mildly depressing, that so many companies have grabbed onto a Zen veneer as a way of polishing the appeal of their fashion and lifestyle products.

For example, there's model Christy Turlington's line of yoga clothing called Nuala, created for Puma, which she describes in eerily similar language to that of ZoZa's founders: "When I was in school, I was constantly moving from business meetings to classes to the yoga center and back, and didn't have time to change my clothes three or four times a day. This collection allows me to move freely and confidently throughout my life. I call it 'Meditation in Motion.'" And: "Yoga is the science of the mind. It keeps me present. Whatever each moment brings I welcome it."

If yoga's not your thing (shocking as that notion might be), you can still use Turlington's Sundãri skin care line, which promises that its products, based on ayurvedic science, "will help women discover truly healthy skin and encourage them to find their own sense of well being." No small task for a moisturizer.

Or you can buy coffee-table books like "Living With Zen," which will tell you exactly how to design your house and garden using Zen principles, getting rid of those chintz curtains and instead installing a rock garden and decorating a pristine wood table with only an antique Buddha you bought on your foreign travels. And don't forget the sushi. (Writes Ou Baholydhin, the author of "Living With Zen," "A home is not about an image at all, it is about a you that does not require an image." If this were true, why would you need a coffee-table book with pictures showing you how to do it?) What's next? Zen automobiles, which conveniently run on the "mu" principle of nothingness; or enlightenment-brightening toothpaste with quick-hit Zen puzzlers to ponder on the tube?

And then there is the farmer's almanac of the Zen lifestyle movement: Real Simple magazine ("Life/Home/Body/Soul"), which launched last year as a kind of minimalist Martha Stewart Living. Although the magazine does not describe itself as Zen, its manifesto parrots the same pared-down Zen principles as ZoZa and Nuala -- "It's about quality, not quantity. About getting rid of what you can and keeping what you love."

Real Simple is a magazine that describes the latest sheer coral lipstick colors as "steps to enlightenment" and dedicates 10-page spreads to soft-focus pictures of environmentally friendly cleaning products; the magazine's monthly "thoughts" page includes bite-size insights like "We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope." And while you're at it, why don't you buy some essential Mikimoto pearls? No need to feel any buyer's remorse -- it's a purchase toward your spirituality, remember?

Of course, there is nothing wrong with trying to achieve a lifestyle of simplicity -- or with paring down the objects you own and actions in your life until you have a minimal number of beautiful things that you can truly appreciate. Nor, for that matter, is there anything inherently wrong with living a lifestyle that is a pastiche of both East and West and ultimately fails to achieve the highest goals of either. In the age of Prozac and spam, Internet entrepreneurialism and stress headaches, if buying melton fleece pants makes you feel more in touch with the beauty of the world around you, more attuned to the inner workings of your mind, then by all means whip out that credit card.

But you can't really purchase simplicity (not to mention the sky). Nor, for that matter, can you really buy Zen clothing, since that would imply that there is such a thing as clothing that is not Zen, and one of the guiding principles of Zen is that everything is Zen. The Zen lifestyle that's being packaged -- the yoga clothes and rock gardens and simple arum lily vases -- is Zen Lite, essentially just packaged New Age shtick, a romanticizing of the cultural aesthetics of Japanese monks without requiring the sacrifice.

In fact, one of the deepest paradoxes of the new fashion-as-Zen movement is that it is marketed to and practiced by the affluent: people who need a cellphone pocket in a jacket that they'll wear when they ride their $1,000 mountain bike to work from their million-dollar home. In this scenario, only the privileged have time to indulge in self-actualization.

That's not to say that wealth is antithetical to Zen, and it can't hurt to encourage a bit of enlightenment while you're hawking khakis. It's not as if the "visionaries" behind these lines aren't also practicing what they preach. Turlington and the Zieglers do believe in and strive toward their own deep spirituality. It may be difficult to reconcile the image of a monk in organic cotton sitting perfectly still for days on end to contemplate the oneness of the world with that of a high-tech entrepreneur sending wireless e-mails via a Blackberry en route to private yoga training. But the main tenet of Zen is that everything is Zen, so the Zen lifestyle purveyors aren't exactly wrong; the conundrum, of course, is in the consumption.

The fact is that "Zen lifestyle" is an oxymoron, since Zen is not a lifestyle but a state of enlightenment, an intangible awareness of one's place amid one's surroundings (whether those surroundings include Prada or fleece, chintz or granite, sushi or beef Wellington).

The creators of these lines probably do realize the inherent paradoxes of what they are doing. "Is this [guide] to trivialize Zen, to shrink it down to a repertoire of fashionable style rules?" asks Baholydhin, author of "Living With Zen," before answering himself: "Not at all." Baholydhin sees his book -- as most of the Zen product pushers see their products -- as a guideline to help you "rid yourself of clutter" and "achieve purity" through a "rejection of acquisitiveness."

Just don't reject acquisitiveness until after you've paid $40 for the coffee-table book and $298 for a ZoZa riding jacket. The bill will skirt your consciousness and go directly to your personal assistant.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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