At a recent bag lunch series sponsored by the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce, international public relations maestro Robbie Vorhaus (most commonly known in these parts as a congenial village neighbor); spoke to the importance of brand identity. Wrestling with the quintessential question — “What do I stand for and represent?” — the audience of local business leaders grappled with the concept of defining their brand.
Vorhaus suggests it starts with your story — the trials and triumphs of arriving, as core beliefs and values are forged along the journey. So I sat for a while and considered the phenomenon of the East End becoming The Hamptons.
As a regional brand and social state of mind, ‘The Hamptons’ came into focus towards the end of my teens in the late 70s. Broadsheets held center stage as their wide-winged coverage reflected idyllic pristine summer afternoons and the ever-vigilant efforts of the village improvement society. To the non-initiated, the zoning battles and tourist boom of the fast approaching disco-driven 80s were as unimaginable as $325 village beach permits. Moms stood, puffing cigarettes, watching their kids, body surfing in the whitewash just below the lifeguard stand as faded VW’s, their rag tops down, peppered the parking lots at Flying Point, Georgica Beach and Indian Wells.
We all seemed to happily co-exist for the sheer authenticity of a Carvel and ticket to the Bridgehampton Drive-In on Thursday nights, in the days of Ridgley’s Steak House, Herb McCarthy’s Bowden Square and James Brown at The Hotel St. James. The moneyed were undetectable then and it’s hard to say who liked it more; they or the farmers they commiserated with at the post office counter buying four-cent stamps.
Here, in Sag Harbor a few artists and writers had managed to nab listing salt boxes on John Street and neighbors remembered having a cup of coffee with John Steinbeck at The Paradise in the days when you ordered your eggs over easy from George. Surfers and hearty fishing families took hold in Montauk and the few celebrities spotted canoodling at The Quiet Clam were simply left alone. You weren’t from The Hamptons then – you were from Amagansett, Water Mill, Springs and North Sea.
In those four or five years, from 1979 to 1984, when disco ruled the airwaves and newly minted stock market money fell into the hands of even more freshly minted MBA grads, voracious in their appetites, flocking into LIRR cars on Track 19 heading to ‘The Hamptons,’ a social brand was born.
The New York Times had begun to take notice of a shift in atmosphere as early as the mid-1960s as the quiet beach scenes of Fairfield Porter’s Southampton gave way to Andy Warhol and Peter Beard’s experimental artist compounds on the Montauk bluffs. Yet, it wasn’t until the Yuppie era’s weekly mass exodus in search of sex and sun, glutting the LIE Friday evenings for a wild Hamptons’ weekend, did we all bear the change.
Sunday afternoon tea dances at The Attic and The Swamp ruled traffic flow for miles along the Montauk Highway. Lobster salad at Loaves and Fishes inched its way to $28 a pound and the local papers were peppered with headlines warning of the dangers of ‘grouper house’ rentals. Along came Hamptons Magazine and its slick, glossy spreads of disco clubs on Dune Road and cheeky reports of celebrity spotting. Dan’s Papers swelled to a voluminous beach read with classifieds and personal ads to match. Real estate prices soared as potato fields were sold off to the developers of uber-elite estates on Further Lane, Parsonage and Ox Pasture Road.
A new story was being written in the 1980s and 1990s and along with it came a cadre of print contenders who, too, came and went in the wake of the sea change. The Hamptons became front page news from Hollywood to Cannes as both a brand and a place, while the newspapers, magazines and news programs that attempted to capture its essence became a part of its social fabric.
By the new millennium, ‘The Hamptons’ was so firmly ensconced in the national psyche as a premium brand that vacillates between luxury and tacky excesses that it is equally represented in the media as the height of achievement and bane of supercilious frivolity.
Happily for those of us keeping watch, we are detecting signs of change yet again as a strain of vitality emerges from the rubble of the real estate bust that marked the end of a wanton Hamptons era. It’s old news now, almost 30 years later, when a $22 hamburger seems reasonable after waiting 40 minutes for a table. Somewhere along the way brand giants Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren co-opted the indelible resilience of the symbolic Hamptons lifestyle and the local farmers markets have brought us back to the land.
As the gears of tourism wind up for Summer 2012, now catering to the grass-fed, organic-air-breathing, feet-never-touched-the-ground, I-don’t-eat-meat-sort vying for a seat at the hamburger joint, I am reminded of the pre-Hamptons charm of a $2 ice cream cone and await this summer’s headlines.
A former news editor, essay writer Christine Bellini is an editorial consultant who spends a good deal of her time pondering the cultural curiosities of The Hamptons from her Sag Harbor tree house.