Sweet dreams for those with fat wallets

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A Shifman mattress takes about nine hours to make (by hand, of course), features hourglass-shaped coils (tied eight ways with Italian twine), and costs (on sale) about $5,200. It's a luxury mattress "steal of a deal," really, when you start looking around.

"I would say Shifman is the Mercedes to our Rolls Royce," sniffs Adrian Jones, director of sales for Hypnos USA, touting the century-old mattresses from Buckinghamshire, England, that he markets. Queen Elizabeth II sleeps on a Hypnos, he confides. The Sultan of Brunei will never rest on anything else, and Luciano Pavarotti is a fan. The price tag? Anywhere between $4,000 and $12,000.

Den Koster Inte Mycket! (Ha! Cheap!), they exclaim over at Hästens, the purveyors of mattresses to the royal Swedish Court - and, like Hypnos, a new arrival to the US. Their top models (filled with carefully selected, meticulously cleaned, genuine horsehair mixed with pure wool that repels condensation) go for a cool $17,000 (a 25-year guarantee is included).

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Want to try out these mattresses before dropping the equivalent of a year's tuition at private college? Head over to Duxana, the flagship store of Swedish company Dux Interiors in downtown New York. There, before taking out the credit card (mattresses start at $4,500 and go up to $9,400 for a king size), you can sign up for a slot in its experimental sleep chambers (which come complete with fresh sheets, low lights, and music) for a trial run.

Wild and crazy? A joke? Madness? No, just the latest trend in extravagant indulgence and high-end cocooning. A tiny but growing number of consumers are spending as much as $20,000 for hand-made mattresses boasting superior coils and layered with cashmere and Belgian silk.

This fad is still something of a sleeper, since $600 is considered top end, and anything over $1,500 a luxury. "Ultra-luxe," according to the International Sleep Products Association, makes up only about 2 percent of themarket - but the balance is shifting.

About 17 percent of the market, according to the nonprofit sleep education group Better Sleep Council, is now taken up by higher-end mattress purchases. King size is catching up, natural cotton and flax stuffing is hot, and pure new wool is becoming a necessity.

"The trend in the industry is indeed comfort and luxury. That's the hot buzzword in bedding," says David Perry, bedding editor of Furniture/Today. "A great mattress is going to help you restore your spirits and rejuvenate your body. Who does not want that?"

Perhaps everyone does want exactly that - but it is only in the past few years that consumers have been willing to pay so much for it. A new report by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) says that luxury spending is up across the board - from $4 cups of coffee to $150,000 SUVs. "The new luxury phenomenon," says Michael Silverman, a partner at BCG, "is ... a structural, long-term shift that will continue to reshape consumer economy for the foreseeable future."

A soft place in tough times

Consumer trend watchers throw out an array of interconnected reasons as to why deluxe is "in," especially in the home, and bedroom.

It's a post-9/11 time, they say, and uncertainty makes people want to stay around the home. It's also a time in which disposable income is higher than ever before, and the culture of the spa and self-indulgence is at a peak. Heavy spending on oneself is far from extraordinary, experts note.

"In stressful times of war and uncertainly, consumers seek more comfort in their environments and stronger connections with family and friends," says A.J. Riedel, editor of the International Housewares Association's Market Watch newsletter. Concentrating and investing on the home, he continues, is about "consumers connecting with their families."

And the bedroom is where this phenomenon seems to be most clearly played out. "In the industry, bedrooms are the word," says Rosemarie Howe, a high-end interior designer in Washington, D.C. People feel they work so hard and are so scattered, she says, they want a luxurious haven when they come home. "Also, because they work so hard, there is less time to entertain, which also leads to a focus on the bedroom."

Those who can spend thousands without giving themselves nightmares don't stop at the mattresses. There are bed frames, fancy sheets, curtains, pillows, duvets, and draperies all to contend with, Ms. Howe points out. "It used to be people got a trousseau and that lasted a lifetime. You got five good sets of sheets and you rotated them, and that was that. Now, there is a new style of sheets every season. It's like buying fashion," she says.

People are indeed cocooning more, says Christina Murphy, a trendy interior designer in New York City, who notes that $1,000 sheets and $2,500 duvet covers ("and you still have to buy the duvet") are par for the course among her clients. "People are insulating themselves from the outside world and spending the money they would otherwise spend outside the home - to nest, in comfort, inside," she says.

Sweet (expensive) dreams

Celerie Kemble, a Palm Beacher turned top New York interior decorator, does not rule out 9/11 or the war in Iraq as explanations for people's penchant for plush, but she points out that greater exposure to other people's houses through watching TV shows is probably just as critical.

Peeking into the interior rooms of folks who are "just like us" (only with nicer living rooms), gives us ideas and sets in motion a serious "keeping up with the Joneses" race, Ms. Kemble says.

"We are constantly getting to know characters who are defined by their spaces. TV characters used to be defined by their clothing - now the space they live in is just as defining," she says. "There is much discussion about the 'right' to indulge and express yourself with your décor."

But the story of $20,000 mattresses is not all about trends and times.

"We baby boomers are getting to the age where our backs hurt," says Howe. "Last year everybody I knew in their late 50s was redoing their bedroom."

"Does it make sense to spend $50,000 on a car in which you spend 20 minutes - but only $1,000 for a bed in which you should put in eight hours a night?" asks Jones. "People are getting educated. Everyone knows that sleeping on a piece of foam will not give you a good night's sleep."

But floating off to sleep on a feather bed with Swiss-loomed embroidered borders, sewn-on handles, and customized springs - stuffed, nay, laid out by hand, with genuine horsehair and cotton designed to adapt itself perfectly to the unique curves and corners of your body - now that is another story. In fact, as anybody - anybody with $20,000 that is - can tell you, that's an entirely different sleeping proposition altogether.

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