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Big Spender: Avis Cardella Comes Clean

Avis Cardella recounts her shopping addiction in the new memoir "Spent."

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Avis Cardella

Photo By Timothy Gurney

Avis Cardella's new memoir “Spent.”

Photo By Courtesy Photo

The clinical term for shopping addiction comes from the Greek word onios (“for sale”) and mania (“insanity”): oniomania, best known by its layman twin, compulsive shopping disorder. It’s a term reportedly being bandied about for inclusion in the next DSM reference manual for mental health professionals, an addendum Avis Cardella has high hopes for.

“I used shopping to avoid myself. I used shopping to define myself,” Cardella writes in her new memoir “Spent,” due out May 14. And she’s not talking about nipping into J. Crew for a $29.99 tissue T a couple times a week.

During the years she spent as a journalist and editor in New York — the late go-go Eighties through the Carrie Bradshaw Nineties — Cardella was an Olympic shopper: from her Midtown studio, she buzzed between major department stores and upscale boutiques, snapping up 20 pairs of Cosabella thongs in all different colors in one breathless swoop, only to toss the Barneys bag into the back of her closet when she returned home.

The toxic mash-up of debt, a failed marriage and a stretched publishing freelancer’s salary made for an awakening: Cardella had lost herself — not to mention her credit rating — to fashion.

“It was very difficult to look at shopping as something that could be problematic, yet I knew I was uncomfortable with my relationship to shopping,” Cardella says via phone from her home in Paris.

This new city was one of the first steps to her recovery: removing herself from the temptations of Manhattan and its glittering stores; for the record, she lives, with her second husband, in a residential neighborhood, a healthy number of metro stops from the Champs-Elysées.

“For a long time, as I wrote in the book also, I didn’t feel I could even speak to anyone about it,” she says. “Because it was so hard, when you looked around you, to accept that you might have a problem.”

Cardella, who for much of her career worked as the New York editor of California Apparel News, is quick to point out that plenty of people can work in the fashion industry — even during a recession — and not end up owing Bergdorf’s half their salary every month (another step toward recovery: She now writes mostly about photography, rather than clothes and retail).

Real shopping addiction, the magnetic pull of buying stuff one neither needs nor can afford, stems from filling voids, Cardella writes. And in her case, the early death of her glamorous mother, and the subsequent alienation she felt from her brothers and father, fueled her shopping jaunts; the fact that she had chosen a career in fashion only aided and abetted Cardella’s struggle.

“Yeah, there was that problem of being in that world and wanting to keep up appearances,” she says, “but I think the issue that kept coming up is that I needed to deal with the hard psychological things; my grief, mainly. And to confront my feelings about myself in regards to that instead of hiding behind this perfect image that I was trying to portray.”

Cardella, now in her late 40s, has an elegant, serious voice in “Spent”; a bauble-decked shopaholic straight out of a frothy chick lit novel, she’s not. Clothes, like the black silk Comme des Garçons gown Cardella wore to a Met party after Linda Evangelista was shot in it on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, are described earnestly, and she casts the fashion industry — “I still love it,” she asserts over the phone — in an occasionally deeply unflattering light (quoting British writer Julie Burchill in the book: “I have met some boring people in my life…but none as boring as the fashion writer in her 30s.”).

But “Spent” is less an indictment of an industry as a whole and more an examination of Cardella’s own vulnerability to its particular pitfalls: insecurities placated by dressing well and buying luxe, as well as an exhausting run with a fast crowd (Cardella writes that she hit Studio 54 in her late teens, noting that Andy Warhol was a notorious hoarder of unopened purchases).

As for the publications that were her bread and butter, “I’ve always loved fashion magazines, and I just think there’s something wonderful about the way they present possibilities of oneself,” explains Cardella, who never sought therapy because she had spent all her cash on clothes.

She says she doesn’t blame fashion for her addiction, however: “It’s just a matter of keeping that in a realistic perspective and not allowing oneself to get carried away with thinking that that’s a reality.”


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