System of a Down

The Department Store January Sales

If ever there was a time to overcome your prejudices against department stores—they're too dorky, they remind you of shopping with your parents—it is this week. The worst Christmas season in 30 years has resulted in an unprecedented spate of markdowns, turning all of retail Manhattan into an increasingly desperate sample sale.

If you can manage to shelve your biases, you may even come to appreciate the distinct advantages of department store shopping: For one thing, there are rarely any salespeople breathing down your neck, which is often the case at those precious "final sale" boutiques. Plus, except at the churlish Barneys, where a draconian one-week time limit is enforced, you can return a marked-down department store turkey at virtually any time, with any lame excuse, no matter how much the price has been slashed.

Brandishing the twin banners of curiosity and hope, we visited the holy grail of uptown emporiums: the upper-crusty Bergdorf Goodman, the rather more plebeian (but only in comparison to Bergdorf's) Saks Fifth Avenue, the identity-crisis-ridden Henri Bendel, and the in-and-out-of-bankruptcy Barneys, in search of remarkable bargains.

illustration: Yuko Shimizu

At Bergdorf Goodman almost everything was 50 percent off the sale price, one of the most dramatic reductions in town. That's the good news. The bad news is, a lot of the merchandise was still so stupefyingly expensive you'd be hard put to afford it even if it were 90 percent off. Last week there was still a gaggle of tomato red Marc Jacobs coats available, but whether they remained unsold due to their ungentle hue, their Sgt. Pepper-ish military styling, or their price is anyone's guess. Whatever the case, they started life at—not a misprint—$3200 (OK, they're cashmere, but still . . . ) and were now $959.50. Upstairs, the far more reasonable Marc by Marc Jacobs department was packed with customers, though many eyes seemed to be straying toward the airy spring selections rather than the sad winter leftovers. (Keep looking, folks—that spring stuff won't be on sale until June.) Still, scavengers anxious to buy anything with a Marc label—and there are plenty of them—could purchase a perfectly presentable if prosaic thick cotton sweater in red or blue with striped turtleneck (originally $288, now $84.50); or perhaps the cherry corduroy trousers with the thick waistband, two safari pockets, and four decorative snaps that say Marc Jacobs—no doubt the garment's chief appeal ($44.50, from $158).

In Bergdorf's Voyage Passion department, a woman was begging a salesperson to be swift wrapping up a tie-dyed undershirt trimmed with copper lace, leopard insets, and the monogram VP inside a rhinestone heart (once $185, now $54.50). "I just got back from a major vacation, I haven't opened my mail, and I gotta get over to Barneys," she breathed in a dither. A few feet away racks groaned with dejected DKNY peasant blouses, replete with drawstrings, smocking, and ditzy embroidery. Though the most expensive of the lot was $187, down from $328, by the time you read this they may well have tumbled further, in which case you will have to decide once and for all if you agree with the fashion magazines that have declared the peasant blouse dead and buried.

Over at Saks' fifth floor (the cheap floor, comparatively speaking) a big sign on the wall read, "Saks suggests bohemian chic." (Whether bohemian chic ever, ever suggests Saks is a different matter entirely.) If you have any sympathy for this notion, the store was offering a pair of dirty-looking Sharagano olive jeans patched with squares of suede and tapestry for $47. Wide-legged pants from Moschino Jeans have two rows of snaps—they say Moschino—on the waistband and fully six rows of snaps encircling each capacious leg, none of which apparently was sufficient to get people to part with the full price of $400 (they're now $144). There were also more than a few party dresses that failed to make it out of the store in time for New Year's Eve, including a brown, flowered slip of a dress with spaghetti straps from ABS, the notorious knockoff house that has red-carpet dresses in the works two minutes after the Oscar broadcast. It wasn't clear whose dress was being copied here, but the result was pleasant enough and it was $67 instead of $188.

Hobohemia was similarly invoked on the eighth floor of Barneys, where a worn-looking Earl Jeans denim maxi with faint orange topstitching sported a raw, uneven hem ($89, down from $174); if that's not rough-hewn enough, a matching Earl jacket with a grungy pile lining that looked like it spent the fall at a Goodwill rather than on Madison Avenue was now $149 instead of $295. Not everything here could have rolled out of a moshpit, though: An achingly wholesome wool snowflake-patterned cardigan, from Barneys' in-house Co-op label, that tied under the chin with pom-poms and was a mere $69.

If it's true, as The New York Times has lately alleged, that it's nearly impossible for a young designer to stay in business, it is not the fault of Henri Bendel, where a whole department is devoted to what the store calls New Creators. Among these new creators is New York designer Alice Roi, represented by a white gabardine tunic with brightly printed buttons and a kangaroo pocket, now $200 instead of $413. The French designer Marc Le Bihan—he first caught our eye a few seasons back when he offered a shredded dance dress like the one Degas's little ballerina wears—failed to sell a fur-trimmed velvet skirt with appliquéd flowers in contrasting velvet, but maybe that's because it was still $992. (Well, it used to be $1768.) The plain truth is, most Bendel's shoppers appeared to be interested in just two things: those popular if hideous sweat suits from Juicy Couture, and the store's trademark knits, a line of mind-numbingly ordinary merino wool sweaters that nevertheless have quite a cult following. (If you're interested, they're now 50 percent off the first sweater, 60 percent off the second, and 70 off if you want three.) Pat Field may have closed up on 8th Street, but she still has a boutique in Bendel's that features a red shag carpet and a disco ball but, alas, no reductions. Nor were there any markdowns in Lair, Bendel's souped-up flea market department stocked with 1950s Buddha statuettes, mid-century alligator purses, boudoir lamps, and vintage magazines, including the June 1936 issue of Harper's Bazaar. For $100, you could take this home and contemplate the incongruity of a frothy fashion magazine published in the depths of the Great Depression.

 
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