Reducto ad Absurdum

The Uptown Markdown Scene

By the time you read this, prices at the upscale department stores we surveyed last week may well have tumbled even further, a happy thing for eagle-eyed shoppers even if it spells heartbreak for retailers. Every end-of-season sale slashes prices, but this year, the discounts came early and the slope was even slipperier.

Saks calls its current markdowns the finale sale—'the last best sale of the season"—but this isn't necessarily true: In the past, Finale Sales have been followed by even huger consolidation events. On the other hand, you may not want to wait until the very last week of August to buy a pair of Versace jeans spattered with sparkling starfish (originally $312, now $112) or a Just Cavalli shirt with a trompe l'oeil ersatz diamond necklace (once $275, now $99), or a Gucci pullover made of featherweight cashmere meant to simulate thermal underwear ($263, from $730). After all, you want to have at least a few weeks to wear this stuff, since God knows how it'll strike you next summer.

"How long will we have to look at people wearing those peasant blouses?" a young woman was overheard moaning the other day, and the answer can now be revealed: Valerie Steele, the curator at FIT's gallery, believes that September 1 will mark the definitive end of the peasant blouse phenomenon. In anticipation of their imminent death, Saks has plenty of puffy, embroidered, drawstring numbers marked down, including a model by Jill Stuart with full lace sleeves and beaded trim (originally $285, now $102), and a heavily puckered version (once $122, now $43.74) from ABS, the company owned by Allen Schwartz, the knockoff king responsible for translating Oscar gowns into prom dresses overnight.

illustration: Jorge Colombo

If you have had a hankering for one of those Marc by Marc Jacobs jackets with the big buttons, there's a striped double-breasted one at Saks for $172.80, down from $288. (Of course, you probably wanted the solid blue-denim single-breasted one, but that's the sad side of sales shopping.) Still, if you settle for stripes and have a change of heart, there's nothing to worry about—unlike at chic designer boutiques (including Jacobs's own), you have virtually unlimited return privileges at upscale department stores. (The only exception is Barneys, where returns are limited to a mere seven days, but then again, something has to keep them out of bankruptcy.)

Department store sales can be terrific places to pick up avant-garde fashions that are frequently overlooked—and, one suspects, ridiculed—by the ladies who lunch. The uptown crowd evidently didn't take to the Comme des Garçons skirt at Saks, a garment that features a gigantic overlay of pleated tulle mounted atop a muslin skirt appliquéd with black patches reminiscent of the spots on a cow. It's still a serious $496.74, down from $1380, but something tells us this item has not seen its last reduction.

Saks's enthusiasm for Comme des Garçons is hardly the only example of a department store trailing after the elusive quality of hipness. At Henri Bendel, there's a House of Field department, a branch of Pat Field's downtown empire, with a red shag carpet and a disco ball but, alas, no transgendered sales help. Though the House of Field isn't currently featuring any markdowns, there are other reductions nearby, some more encouraging than others: A Vivienne Westwood dress that manages to look slinky even though it's made from mattress ticking is still $426; a glorified T-shirt with a scoop neck by wunderkind Zac Posen, the flavor of the month at last spring's runway shows, is now $188, hefty, perhaps, for a T-shirt (it was originally $458), but then it is trimmed with suede and if Posen's career takes off, it may qualify as some kind of collectible.

The people at Bergdorf Goodman suggest that you spend the upcoming winter months in a coat from Yvette Siebel, a designer who picks up flea-market military jackets, adds cuffs and collars of sable, lines them with vintage Pucci fabric, and charges upward of $5000 for the result. Until the Siebels start walking out of the store, Bergdorf's has lowered prices on most summer items, including—surprise—any number of those infernal peasant blouses. An example by Dosa, suitable for the serf who likes her clothes made of wallpaper-printed silk chiffon, is $99, from $165. The spongy velour fashions by Juicy Couture, which look like they came from the back of Olivia Newton-John's closet, are nevertheless mysteriously popular. A navy hooded dress sporting Juicy's trademark label, "Made in the Glamorous USA," is now $59, but it was only $75 to begin with, so hang on for further reductions. If Bergdorf's oversupply of loud Voyage Passion ($219, from $540) reminds you of the stuff at Century 21, this might be because plenty of nearly identical Voyage jeans have been at Century for months.

There's good news for shoppers who are gnashing their teeth because they missed out on one of those notorious Balenciaga patchwork vests. (Balenciaga's designer, Nicolas Ghesquière, has admitted copying the vest, line by line, from a collection that an obscure designer called Kaisik Yoon showed in 1973.) A few of these vests are still at Barneys, chained to the wall to thwart shoppers who believe in an even more direct form of appropriation than Monsieur Ghesquière, and they're now an inviting $5039, down from the original $8390.

But not everything at Barneys is so heavy with history. In the Co-op, the store's least expensive area, markdowns include a selection of garments bearing the Mayle label, a line that has developed something of a cult following. A denim hip-hugger mini with a built-in chain belt, $109 from $228, retains a certain charm, and there's also a yellow bouclé dress with eyelet cutouts (once $558, now $279) that seems slightly sorrowful, as if it's just dying to go to one really good party instead of ending its days on a table at the Barneys Labor Day Warehouse Sale.

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