Earmuffs in August: Department Stores on the Brink

"Oh daddy! Lord & Taylor!" moans a sub-deb in John O'Hara's novel 1958 From the Terrace, treating the store's name as a mild expletive. Back then, L&T was the kind of place where upper class girls and their moms would shop, walking over from Grand Central or the majestic Pennsylvania Station (before it was felled by the wrecking ball in 1963) to buy camel hair polo coats and black watch plaid back-to-school kilts.

No one is coming in from Manhasset or Larchmont to shop at Lord & Taylor any more. Now the granddaughters of O'Hara's girls drive to the mall and buy Juicy Couture or order stuff over the internet. Which is just one reason why the store—located in a retail no-man's land at 38th Street and Fifth Avenue, between the plebian department stores on 34th Street and the upper-crusty emporiums clustered in the 50s, is in such a precarious position.

Before a spiritual wrecking ball destroys the last of the old-style department stores, we thought we'd take a look inside L&T, a place we tend to visit only once a year, to see the Christmas windows, which, with their miniature renderings of an Edith Wharton-ish New York, are, unlike the supercilious tableaux at, say, Barneys, blissfully irony free.

Muff-lover Kenny Kenny guarding the door at Bendel's Heatherette fete
photo: © Patrick McMullan/Photo-Patrick McMullan/PMc
Muff-lover Kenny Kenny guarding the door at Bendel's Heatherette fete

The main floor still has its glorious circa-World War One plaster ceiling, though the structural columns are swathed in mirrors, giving the space a ‘70s deco-disco feel. The upper floors are quiet, but, surprisingly, not as tomblike as, say, Bergdorf Goodman on a hot afternoon (the BG shopper is likely away for the month.) On the second floor, we love a fuzzy mohair sweater, heavily embellished with ribbons by Cynthia Steff, even if its price, $195, seems rather stiff. (Could this be because even we, stuck-up as we are, have lately succumbed to the charms of H&M and Forever 21? Once you get used to seeing stuff like this for $29, it's hard to go back.)

With reports indicating that the super-luxury customer is still spending at places like Bergdorf's as if her credit card is on fire (guess those Bush tax cuts have stimulated her personal buying frenzy, if not the economy as a whole) and the Target-Mexx-Gap shopper finding cheap stuff that is a lot cuter than it was even two or three years ago, what can stores like Lord & Taylor do to defend themselves?

Well, let's see what the other kids are contemplating. Over at Saks Fifth Avenue, the management has said it is determined to go even more upscale (what? You already can't afford Saks?) while Henri Bendel, which never recovered its reputation once it relocated from 57th Street to its current location on Fifth, is moving in another direction—trying to prove how cool and groovy it is. (Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Can this be the same place of which Cole Porter once wrote "You're a Shakespeare sonnet, a Bendel bonnet, you're Mickey Mouse"?)

For a while Agent Provocateur, the saucy underwear company headed up by Vivienne Westwood's son, had a boutique at Bendel's, along with departments showcasing club-kid merchandise from Pat Field and Tiffany Dubin's Lair (vintage cast-offs she found at places like the 26th Street flea market). Last Tuesday night, it was Heatherette's turn.

To launch their debut at Bendels, Heatherette's goofily glamorous founders, Richie Rich and Traver Raines, hosted a fete. Every freak, every funny dresser, every pretty-pretty substance abuser in the city of Manhattan crawled out of his or her own lair and made it up to 56th and Fifth for the occasion. Legendary doorperson-artist Kenny Kenny stood at the gates, but he didn't consult a clipboard—your appearance got you in, just like the old days.

Kenny was dressed in a sumptuous glittery gown, and on his shaved head he sported the perfect decoration, though we doubt he bought it at Bendel's, Lord & Taylor, or any other uptown store: a pair of furry, bright scarlet ear muffs, just right for a party on a sweltering August night.

 
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