ROYAL FLUSH

The Europeans and the Japanese are already all over it. Could toilet paper actually be the next frontier in affordable luxury?

Luxury toilet paper. At first it sounds like an insultingly obvious joke. Who would want such a thing? But then visions of those notorious $900 Gucci dog bowls flit through your mind, and you’re haunted by the possibility that your cynicism isn’t polished enough to second- guess the world’s hunger for tiny, absurd self-indulgences. You’d be right. Consider Renova Negro: This all-black toilet paper from Spain is brand new, real, and mercilessly chic. Very Pedro Almodóvar. And, as it turns out, 10 times more costly than the average Euro-wipe. Renova Negro is the brainchild of an established, successful company already famous for an ad campaign in which barely clad models dry-hump near a commode while rolls of toilet paper look on, unmoved, as though they’ve seen it all. In Japan, meanwhile, luxury toilet paper is de rigueur. Japanese rolls are routinely scented, extra-thick, aloe-moistened, strictly “virgin” (unrecycled), patterned, or — the latest trick — infused with pineapple enzymes to counteract odor. And in Germany the American brand Charmin Ultra is known as Charmin Deluxe; it comes in urbane black-and-charcoal-gray packaging“designed with the consumer in mind,” according to Procter and Gamble’s European division, “with a Gucci look and feel.”

Suddenly the question becomes not who would want luxury toilet paper but why don’t we already have it here? We’re Americans, damn it! No one tells us we’re not good enough to be manipulated by upscale design or writhing nude models! But even our most premium brand is marketed not with quasi-Gucci symbols but with a pudgy cartoon bear whose sole purpose is to ensure that we don’t freak out at the very thought of bathroom-related activities. “The bear is not intimidating,” says Celeste Kuta, a spokeswoman for American Charmin.“His facial expressions, and just the way he walks, convey his pleasure with the toilet paper. He lets us communicate the product’s benefits without having to talk about them.”

Is squeamishness alone depriving us of lavish toilet paper? We’re certainly not too cheap to fall for the scam. The U.S. luxury market is bloating by 15 percent a year, thanks partly to the rage for “trading up” from routine products to affordable luxuries (esoterically sumptuous jeans, those $48 key chains from Coach). According to a 2002 survey by American Demographics, 61 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds want a “lifestyle of luxury” and care less about quality than the ineffable “feeling” of entry-level lavishness.

“It’s certainly odd,” says James B. Twitchell, author of Living It Up: America’s Love Affair with Luxury. “Typically, the more common the product, the more susceptible it is to luxury commodification.” Take water, or toothbrushes. According to Kenn Fischburg, president of Toilet Paper World, one of the nation’s largest wholesale distributors, “A lot of people in the industry are asking, ‘Why can’t we follow the Starbucks model?’” People pay an extra $400 a year for “better” coffee, he notes, yet only $7 more for the best Charmin versus a poor-grade off- brand. (At home Fischburg alternates between two-ply Charmin Ultra and “less bulky” regular Charmin: “It’s not dissimilar from enjoying different kinds of wine, a chardonnay versus a cabernet.”) The stumbling block, he says, is that the product still lacks the prestige to justify the markup. “Americans aren’t ready to say, ‘I want to tell you about my wonderful experience in the toilet.’” Fischburg believes, however, that toilet paper is poised for an image-advertising makeover.

 

Michael Souter, a luxury branding and packaging consultant who has worked with Cartier and Estée Lauder and who heads up his own agency, Territory, embraces the conceptual potential of elite toilet paper:“I’d do it with Helmut Lang or Comme des Garçons. They’re both stark, intellectual brands with a certain provocative wit. With Comme des Garçons I’d go for a seasonal gift item: all-white wrapping with deadpan graphics listing the ingredients. Or Paul Smith would have the guts to do it. Take a good solid color, emboss their signature irregular stripe pattern on the tissue, add a subtle proprietary scent, maybe package it together with a turn-of-the-century-style ‘newspaper’ to read on the toilet. This would be about the store experience of buying that toilet paper. Or maybe you subtly display it in your bathroom on an open stainless steel shelf.” Souter pauses. “People would be appalled, but they were appalled by Evian, too.”

A connection between high fashion and toilet paper isn’t as strange as you might think. In trendsetting Canada a premium three-ply brand recently (and ingeniously) rechristened “Cashmere” staged a fashion show this past July for which designers crafted garments from white Cashmere. In its advertising the brand uses talking women, not silent bears, and gives away $10,000 diamond rings and $20,000 custom bathroom makeovers to link the name Cashmere to luxury. This toilet paper is currently the nation’s number one brand.

Will Americans be getting their hands on posh wipe anytime soon? Well, not from one allegedly gutsy company, at any rate.“Paul Smith is not interested in doing anything like this now or in the future,” said a spokesperson, softening the blow with a cheery, “Good luck!”