Catalog Fever -- How the mail-order books from Patagonia, Victoria's Secret, and Spiegel stack up

Greed may no longer be good, but high materialism is still a lure these days — the elusive yet desirable goal of deciding on just the right things, and figuring out how to get them. So when the holidays roll around, and into our longing hands come those shimmering tempters of our times, the mail-order catalogs, many of us can’t resist leafing through them and calling to place an order. This year, one of every two adults is expected to buy something from a catalog, with sales peaking in the six weeks before Christmas, according to the Direct Marketing Association. Today’s catalogs are much more than just high-gloss, though. They reflect ZIP-code sociology and very particular sensibilities; they show their wares in wily photographs of carefully typecast models and make marketing statements as fastidiously researched as any presidential TV address. Not exactly an art form, not quite a magazine, the modern catalog is a kind of fifth estate of yearn-alism.

With money tighter and the economic outlook unsure at best, catalog shoppers will need to make hard choices soon. Will it be something warm from Patagonia or hot from Victoria’s Secret? To help you decide, Entertainment Weekly offers a selection of the season’s hits and misses — near, mere, and drear, with appropriate letter grades.

L.L. Bean
The Old Testament of outdoor-gear catalogs shows up every year, as the leaves begin to turn, with some of the best cold-weather clothes around. When these nice folks from Maine step indoors, though, they’re so square you might suspect David Lynch were directing the whole thing. Given the increasing competition, if the company doesn’t stick closer to its roots — old L.L.’s original vision of Down East basics like the Maine hunting shoe — it could end up being a has-Bean: all cult and no clout. C

Land’s End
A Bean sprout, this source-book for the suburban outback might be best described as the blonds wearing the bland. True, Lands’ End is a notch more sophisticated than Bean. But after showing a few pages of middling cold-weather gear, the catalog lapses into a long dearth march of standard-issue civilian duds — Calvinist camouflage — including page after page of neckties that Dad’s probably going to hate. D

In the beautifully art-directed pages of this oversized outdoors catalog, Jeremiah Johnson meets Alexander Julian. Patagonia carries the bright stuff to wear skiing down precipitous slopes or climbing ice cliffs using axes and pitons. It’s a kind of Sherpa Image that mixes great looks, incredible combinations of color (one pullover is pink, periwinkle, and Day-Glo green), and useful information about the clothes, such as their water-resistance level. A

J. Crew
This winter’s bunch of scrubbed models wearing infra- prepster clothes would make a Young Americans for Freedom rally look downright decadent. The merchandise is mostly cold-weather variations on the same theme that Crew has played for years, with a fairly silly line of men’s boxer shorts (cow prints, big polka dots) providing the only surprise. The quality’s good, even if the inspiration is lagging, and pricier items have been added recently. B

Billed as a ”Catalog For Fans & Friends Of Public Television,” this uninviting hodgepodge looks suspiciously like a collection of leftover fund-drive incentives. Signals is a veritable sargasso of T-shirts with Egyptian hieroglyphics, Victory at Sea videos, This Old House coffee mugs…all the things that couldn’t get you to pledge to public TV originally. Where’s the Mister Rogers cardigan? D-

The J. Peterman Company
There really is a J. Peterman — first name John, a onetime cheese salesman in Lexington, Ky. — and his catalog suggests that he’s a man with varied heroes (Gauguin, Hemingway) and many opinions (for instance, that gloves of anything but deerskin are a mistake). J. Peterman is no S.J. Perelman, but the copy in this 114-page “Owner’s Manual No. 8” suggests the early, chatty Banana Republic. It is sometimes droll, often informative, and only slightly smug. The clothes and gear, shown in pen-and-ink drawings, range from demi-military surplus to biographical (FDR’s Yalta cape) to quintessential (the Brigg umbrella) to quirky (the New York fireman’s coat). B+

Victoria’s Secret
Victoria’s real secret may be how she’s kept her catalog from landing in the mailbox of Sen. Jesse Helms. In the sexy world of Victoria’s Secret, cellulite doesn’t exist and the law of gravity has been repealed. Some men have been complaining lately that the catalog is losing its steaminess, though. After about 20 pages or so, the first flannel nightgown appears, and before you know it you’re looking at mostly unspectacular workday and dressy clothes. But for the gift-minded man, these outfits offer a useful cooling-off period. A-

Hanna Anderson
The Hanna catalog spins out hip-haute Scandinavian pre-hand-me-downs for parents who want their kids to look as European as they wish they could. Its prices seem reasonable, until you realize that kids outgrow entire wardrobes every 20 minutes or so. One phone-shopping tip: The best stuff here is for babies. From toddlerhood on, things get just too, too itsy poo. C+

Smith & Hawken
This new look at the old sod isn’t likely to be found sitting on the kitchen table of any actual farmers, whose need for a professional flower press, edible apple wreaths, and floral toning waters may not be top priorities. But for weekend tillers of the soil, the 43-page offering of gift plants, boxes of fruit, and gardening tools is a miniature garden of earthly delights. B

The 416-page Holiday Collection from the kingpin of catalogs is not for beginners, what with everything from tree decorations to diamond rings, Bart Simpson watches, and blue blazers. Think of it as the , Augusta National of home shopping, with an abundance of traps in the way of the triumphs. The trick is being able to tell what’s good (a $220 hand-crafted Barbie doll wearing a black strapless number, for instance) from what just looks good (a $98 Mickey Mouse mantel clock). If you haven’t honed your skills on smaller, less omnibus offerings, the odds of making a goof are high. B

This Orwellian font of relentless self-improvement, filled with audiotapes, videotapes, and pneumatic devices to improve your sales technique, golf swing, and pectorals, is to Dale Carnegie what Dianetics is to Plato. Hey, get a life! F