Union Square's Cut-Rate Consolations

Bright stores open in a dark time

The first time we visit the new Filene's Basement on Union Square, it's Election Day, late in the afternoon, when the early exit polls on the Internet are predicting a Kerry sweep. Almost hysterical with excitement, we ride the elevator up to the third floor and gaze out at the view of Union Square, remembering the wonderful week of anti-RNC protests and how vibrant and alive the park was then. Practically vibrating with happiness, we survey the new Filene's, which has taken up residence in the behemoth on 14th Street that once held Bradley's and, before that, Mays.

The lighting is hideously bright and flat, and there's slushy music and no customer service to speak of, but nothing can get us down. We're ecstatic to see genuine labels, even if the Prada shirt offered is a hideous orange and costs $189.99. In fact, a lot of discards from eminent European houses have found their way here: Moschinos, Krizias, Chloes, Gaultiers, and even an Alberta Feretti skirt, in whispery chiffon, for $199.99.

The labels are lovely but the prices are not, so we decided to try our luck on the cheaper side of the store, where a pale-pink, pearl-encrusted French Connection chiffon skirt, a pretty if poor relation of the Feretti, is marked down from $118 to an encouraging $39.99 and an ice-blue shirred satin bustier by Laundry (what a terrible name for a fashion line) is now $49.99 instead of $155.

One dramatically long escalator ride down—we've rarely seen so many steps outside the London subway—there's another new addition to the neighborhood—a place called DSW, for Designer Shoe Warehouse, not be confused with the furniture company DWR, which stands for Design Within Reach (it emphatically isn't.). This vast emporium, big enough to accommodate labels pretentious and plain, has all the ambience of Payless. Nevertheless, a pair of Dolce & Gabbana boots, helpfully inscribed with the designers' names in screaming letters, in case passersby question the pedigree of your footwear, are $199.99; a thick cashmere shawl decorated with furry flowers, clearly a Fendi knockoff though in Fendi's case the rosettes are chinchilla and these are rabbit, is a hefty $499.99.

Still, we are so thrilled about our imminent victory that we can't help seeing the place through a warm, fuzzy haze. So the next night, in a very different mood, we go back, and this time, the scales have fallen from our eyes. At DSW, we notice at once that though the range of brands and sheer selection are impressive, some of the reductions are frankly pathetic. A pair of patent Anne Klein slip-ons, for example, are $52.90, down from $62, which is not really worth a special trip; a shiny Prada hunting bag, in perfect condition and marked $249.90, is at least three or four years old.

It's a chilly evening, and as we get on the escalator we look again at Union Square, where a benumbed, shell-shocked crowd has gathered. A sad yellow sign reading "Stop the Occupation of Iraq" flutters in the wintry breeze, and it seems like no new Prada, no matter how dramatically discounted, will ever lift the gloom.

 
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