A Tale of Two Cities

Shopping on 14th Street, from Union Square to the meatpacking district

A very tall, exceedingly slender young woman with a platinum pompadour and an air of supreme self-confidence is gazing with interest at racks of white cotton bubble skirts, olive polka-dotted camisoles, and black jersey dresses that could pass for cut-rate Lanvins. Though she would be right at home in Dolce & Gabbana on Madison Avenue or Prada in Soho, she is in fact cruising the aisles at Forever 21 on East 14th Street. This statuesque shopper may not know it, but she is participating in a decades-old Manhattan ritual: trolling the streets around Union Square in search of sartorial bargains.

Forever 21 (what a name! Could there be a bleaker fate than staying that uncertain age forever?) not only offers extremely low prices—cheaper even than H&M, veering close to Old Navy territory— it is located in a bastion of the street's former glory days, the old Mays department store building at the south end of Union Square, which also currently hosts Filene's Basement and a place called DSW, for Designer Shoe Warehouse.

Fifty years ago, scores of stores like these girdled the neighborhood, led by three bona fide leg ends: Mays; Lane's, where the New School is now located at Fifth and 14th; and S. Klein, where Zeckendorf Towers currently stands.

Now Union Square itself is no longer a rat-ridden needle park, but is full of baby carriages and greenmarket shoppers, and many of the really grubby venues are in danger of fading away entirely, replaced by businesses like Tavalon, a tea salon that opened a few weeks ago (it actually employs someone called a tea sommelier) a few doors away from Taco Bell.

If all this makes the bargain shopper worry about what the future may hold, he or she has only to walk west to confirm these dark suspicions. Tread far enough, and you will encounter stores that not only are not cheap, they are not middle-class, or upper middle-class, or even haute bourgeois. They sell what can only be described as the most expensive clothes you can buy off the rack anywhere.

But before you are buzzed through those hallowed portals, why not spend a few hours on 14th between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, where the doors are unlocked and $100 can fund a spring wardrobe? On weekend afternoons the area fairly cackles with jejune joie de vivre: hordes of girls talking not to each other but babbling away on cell phones to still other girls; young guys on their way to or from the Virgin Megastore, trying desperately to look nonchalant. An air of gleeful, boisterous salaciousness bubbles just below the surface, at least if the T-shirts for sale are to be believed. Though the ones on the back wall of Forever 21 read, "I Love My Boyfriend," right outside that store a guy is selling tank tops that say, "My Dick Would Make a Better President"; across University Place a shop called Foxy Lady has shirts printed with a stark "Kiss My Ass," or alternatively, the plain "Eat Me," albeit decorated with a picture of a hot dog. A few feet away two panhandlers, one wearing a clown nose, are holding up a sign that says, "Please spare change for hookers and condoms."

At the corner of Fifth and 14th, where Lane's used to be, a vendor offers a remarkable collection of ersatz designer handbags from a table on the street: Chloe Paddingtons complete with metal padlocks (real or fake, a lot of people crave a heavy leather bag further weighed down by a gargantuan brass lock) and stringy Balenciaga sacks, a style that has been eclipsed recently by the Fendi Spy bag, which is also here in a convincing replica.

"Ladies, feel free to try anything on!" greets shoppers as they enter Laila Rose, a chain that in the last several years has spread its thrifty tentacles all over town. Costume jewelry is the big draw here—and shouldn't costume jewelry, which by definition is fake, be bought as cheaply as possible?—but there are other seductions, including a Marni-esque beach bag (it's a big season for Marni, authentic or not) with multicolored dots like a Wonder Bread wrapper. Laila Rose is not without competition: At Cinderella Club you are met at the door by people imploring you to take a tray, meant for stacking up potential purchases but also making it easy for the staff to monitor your selections, which might include rhinestone dog tags, curious necklaces that mix beads and fur balls (better than it sounds), and a wristwatch set in a chunk of silvery metal, reminiscent of Hermés, for around $20. Yet a third accessories shop, Spoon, welcomes customers not with trays but with a barrage of signs that read like the admonitions of a fussy schoolmarm: "Do not smoke or stand in doorway," "Do not try on earrings," "Shoplifters will be prosecuted." Though almost everything is reasonably priced—a faux Louis Vuitton Daumier check makeup case is $10 (stealing presumably only applies to shoplifters)—a large hobo bag covered in fishing mesh punctuated with stones and heavy beads, in the style of Oscar de la Renta, is a lofty $295.

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