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OBJECTS OF OUR DESIRE : What Southern Californians Are Buying to Impress Their Friends and : Humble Their Enemies

December 27, 1987|ROCHELLE REED | Rochelle Reed is a Southern California writer.

Rolex watches. BMWs. Cuisinarts. Ralph Lauren.

If you think that any of this dream gear still connotes the magical quality known as status, pack up your Vuitton luggage and head for the Midwest.

Here in Southern California, status symbols change with the season, and there's nothing less status-y than last year's stuff. Today, flash a Rolex at your wrist--even the stainless-steel model--and your peers won't be impressed. Likewise for Jeeps, Guess? jeans, Filofaxes and cappuccino makers. If you haven't charged them on your platinum American Express card yet, don't bother.

On the other hand, if you're as yet the first person you know to serve cafe au lait , then a cappuccino machine may still be a valid status symbol in your group. Status symbols depend almost entirely on whom you want to impress. A businessman's Jaguar is a college student's Suzuki jeep; a teen-ager's stone-washed jeans become a Christian Lacroix gown to a society maven. Just remember that status symbols wear out quickly--you only impress those who haven't acquired them yet.

In recent years, the baby-boom generation has largely given up its hedonistic, materialistic singles life to marry and begin families. Consequently, status symbols now are less personally oriented, meaning fewer expensive watches, fancy handbags and designer clothes. The focus today is on home and family, and status symbols have become "cocooning" items such as kitchen equipment, digital VCRs, lighting fixtures, even building materials. The new yuppie sense of responsibility has also led to an emphasis on quality products--the safest car, the best stove, the wisest life insurance--with intrinsic value rather than showoff appeal.

What do status symbols really mean here in trendy Southern California? In short, they're to humble our enemies and awe our friends. There's even such a thing as reverse status--driving a beat-up Volkswagen bug to the Academy Awards, or sporting a drugstore plastic wallet when all your friends have invested a week's salary on a leather import. But without a doubt, the most impressive thing you can do is think up the next status symbol. Depending on who you are, where you live and how much money you make, here's a list to test your status quotient. After all, there's nothing more status-y than being able to say, "I had it first."

ARCHITECT-DESIGNED HOMES

For the designer-label generation, what next but designer homes? Frank Lloyd Wright houses--there are eight in Southern California--are the ultimate in status. Other big architectural names of the past: Robert Schindler, Richard Neutra, Cliff May, Gregory Ain. Local contemporary architects rank equally high, especially Frank Gehry, Brian Murphy, Fred Fisher and the Morphosis firm. $225,000 and up.

LUXURY STATION WAGONS

Sure, there are Range Rovers, Jaguars, Porsches and Suzuki Samurais, but these days the well-heeled, mid-30s professional couple is most proud of the family station wagon, a luxury Volvo in gold or silver with real leather upholstery and a de rigueur baby seat. Need we mention that "Child on Board" tags are definitely out? $18,000 and up .

CASH, NOT CREDIT CARDS

Forget gold, platinum or preferred. Much more impressive is real cash. Stop conversations in restaurants by whipping out actual money, then startle fellow diners and staff by not tearing the receipt tag off the check. Once upon a time, cash meant you were drawing unemployment, but now the state sends out checks. New bills are vital; rumpled money could falsely indicate that you're dealing contraband (uncool). And use $50s and $100s; anyone can get $20s at automatic teller machines.

GRANITE COUNTERTOPS

Just because you personally picked out your handpainted kitchen tiles in Mexico, Italy or France, carried them back in your luggage and then painstakingly set them yourself is no reason not to immediately pick up a crowbar and rip them out. Without exception, the most prestigious counter material in today's smaller kitchen is rock-hard, slate-gray granite with bullnose edges. For additional status points, use granite as the backsplash as well. $100 a square foot and up.

CASIO WATCHES

Cheap, durable, affordable to everyone. Think of the Casio watch as the highest form of an anti-status status symbol, one that announces to your peers, "You bet I could afford a Rolex but deep down I think they're tacky." When the Casio needs a new battery, throw it away and buy another. $20 and up.

PERSONAL TAB AT RESTAURANTS

You're so rich and famous that you just sign the check and your accountant pays the bill at the end of the month. This practice is so easy and fun that you find yourself treating perfect strangers to lots of pricey meals. Then when your fortunes take, shall we say, a downswing, waiters snarl loudly, "Sorry . . . you're no longer allowed to sign. I'll need a credit card for this amount." $1,000 per month and up.

HARLEY-DAVIDSON MOTORCYCLES

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