Outlet Pass

The Travails and Triumphs of Woodbury Common

There is a moment that comes to every Woodbury Common shopper as he or she drags around that concrete desert, feet burning, starving but loath to visit the food court, ready to retch at the syrupy muzak that pursues patrons even into the very toilets, when the hapless visitor thinks: For this I paid $27 and sat on a bus from Port Authority for an hour? Do I really have nothing better to do with my life than schlepp around an outlet mall?

But then suddenly, as can often happen with discount shopping, there is God so quickly. Five minutes after you swear you'll never darken Woodbury's doors again, you're dying over a white mohair sweater at Lucky Brand which is now $12 instead of its original $120, or grabbing a peach-colored bandeau bra, $15 from $114, out of bargain bin at Prada.

Astonishing deals turn up all the time at Woodbury Common, a fake clapboard village that mars a gorgeous glen in a place called Central Valley in upstate New York, though extreme shopping fortitude is required. Unlike other outlet centers, which are resolutely middlebrow, Woodbury mixes Madison Avenue and Main Street. It's hard to resist the lure of a burg where Chanel and Dior, Armani and Etro, commingle easily with Gap and Banana.

Uncommon shoppers: Bert and Ernie go to Gucci.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Uncommon shoppers: Bert and Ernie go to Gucci.

So, besotted with optimism, we take the Shortline bus to Woodbury, dreaming of real bargains on real, capital-F fashion. Not for us the impenetrable aisles of Nike and North Face: We are in search of merchandise that was flown into the Catskills direct from Milan or Paris, or at least looks like it was.

Our first stop is the Italian shoe store Bruno Magli, a brand made famous at the O.J. Simpson trial. (When incriminating evidence involved a pair of Magli shoes the defendant allegedly wore, O.J. had this to say: "If Bruno Magli makes shoes that look like the shoes they had in court that's involved in this case, I would have never owned those ugly-ass shoes.") It's as quiet as a churchyard inside Magli, despite a special on boots, with turquoise Italian cowgirl numbers marked down from $400 to $120. Across Grapevine Court (we're not making this up), TSE Cashmere is so empty it makes Bruno seem bustling. Two clerks stare forlornly out the window; inside, only the back row is promising, offering 60 percent off the lowest price, which makes a perfectly presentable if hardly breathtaking white cashmere cardigan an encouraging $102.

Sick of being the only ones in a store, we try the far busier Neiman Marcus Last Call, where we first peruse the neat, well-ordered designer section, filled with items like a puffy olive green silk Gaultier coat, once $3,020, now $755. Your best bet is to plunge into the super markdown racks, which are crammed with what must be years of rejects. Despite dramatic reductions, these items have failed to find a buyer, so now they sport colored tags offering still deeper slashings. In the case of a more than acceptable red cotton DKNY sweater, the original price was $138, it's marked down to $48, and its code orange tag makes the final price an astounding $12.

Of the other department store outlets here, the less said the better. The Saks is sad; the Barneys has only a one teeny designer section, the highlight of which is a McQueen denim jacket for $229 instead of $915. The rest of the store is given over to Ann Taylor-ish garments you would never, ever see on the floor of an actual Barneys.

Judging by the number of people speaking Italian (Woodbury is in fact a heady mix of European tourists, Japanese fashion plates, local Hasidic families, and bargain-hunting Manhattanites), we decide that this must be the place for Italian accessories. After all, if people come here all the way from Milan and Rome, it's got to be cheap, right? Gucci is packed with hopefuls pawing through tables of those silk scarves people have been bringing home as souvenirs from Italy for half a century. (They're $89, down from $245.) We try Bottega Veneta, but it's another eerily empty place (maybe because a woven leather carryall is still over $1,000?). Next door, Versace is far zippier, with some accessory prices descending practically to the level of Canal Street copies: Sunglasses are $38; a South Beach-worthy Medusa medallion on a leather thong is $56.

Though she's 100 percent American, we can't resist stepping into Betsey Johnson. Unlike most Woodbury venues, which haven't wasted a lot of time or money on decorating, Betsey's place looks like a low-rent version of her regular stores: The walls are marigold, the floor is fuchsia, and there's even an overstuffed floral-slip-covered easy chair. Most things seem reduced by maybe a third, but there's also a $15 section; unfortunately, it is filled with gaffes like lace parachute pants and a gigantic dress with tiny tight sleeves.

Because the salesclerk at Fendi tells us that the Polo Ralph Lauren store does far and away the most business in the whole outlet mall, we decide to take a look. (She also informs us that a few weeks ago, Fendi cosmetic cases were $10 and there was a line out the door; needless to say, absolutely nothing is 10 bucks the day we visit.) At Ralph Lauren, the very first thing we see—a pair of creepy men's gray sweatpants marked down from $65.50 to $39.99—makes us want to run screaming out the door, but instead we search, in vain, for leftovers from Lauren's high-end purple label. At Donna Karan the markdowns are slightly better: A pink polka-dot skirt made of burlap-ish fabric is now $129.99, or around 50 percent off, though the skirt we prefer, an orange chiffon number from Donna's top line, is still around $300. (It does, however, proudly sport a UNITE union label; the dotted skirt says "made in Hong Kong.")

Donna and Ralph are sufficiently crowded, but the true sardine cans are, for some reason, Coach and Burberry. The beige plaid awnings outside Burberry give a good indication of what is to be found inside: On this particular day, the pickings include beige plaid pants with a curious fringed flap in front (could this be why they're at the outlet?) marked down from an ambitious $549 to a still hefty $279, a minuscule beige plaid kilt reduced to $249, and a beige plaid silk coat that is still $499.

Despite the teeming humanity, the Coach store exudes a lovely leathery smell and the counters are crammed with discounted handbags—around a third off list—in tattersall checks and stripes and in versions that range from a wristlet to a vast carryall called a market tote. The various styles have been given monikers that include Hamptons and Mercer, the former in honor of those famous Long Island towns, the latter surely an homage to Soho's Mercer Street. Both place-names are meant to evoke a certain haute hipness: neighborhoods where you can proudly show off a Burberry kilt or a Gucci scarf or a McQueen jacket or even a Prada brassiere without anyone ever guessing where the stuff came from.

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