A Tale of Two Cities

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

Lest you think $300 purses are wrecking even the down-market section of 14th, a visit to Dee & Dee, one of the last of the old-fashioned rock-bottom dens on the street, restores optimism. Al Green is singing on the sound system, whole families are lined up at the cash registers, baby carriages and wheelchairs crash in the aisles, and the shelves are full of items like $1 bunny mugs (for that price you also get a stuffed rabbit toy). A sleeveless denim button-down dress is, believe it or not, not half bad for $4.99, and the long pastel Indian crinkle cotton skirts, as presentable as anything on Eighth Street, are $7.99. Both of these items could be modified by a creative fashion student with sufficient attitude and a pair of cleverly wielded scissors.

Or put the needle and thread away and go the vintage route: The odoriferous Rags-A-Gogo is jammed with possibilities. Before you run out gagging, elbow the college students out of the way and examine the dress rack, where everything is $28, including a never-worn sailor-style shirtwaist printed with seafaring symbols and still sporting an ancient ILGWU label.

As you continue west, the retail offerings thin out, giving no indication of what lies ahead, just across Ninth Avenue. The High Line, the rusting railway trestle soon to become a park, and the majestic river beyond become visible, but so do a group of people you have not encountered anywhere on your shopping trip thus far.

Can these folks have dropped into the meatpacking district from a hot-air balloon? Surely there is no one like them anywhere else on 14th: a tiny woman ensconced in a bubblegum-pink leather trouser suit, a man with a perfectly trimmed beard resplendent in a white cashmere zip-front pullover, and yet a third shopper, soignée as a Hitchcock blonde, in a sable-collared tweed ensemble and carrying a Prada train case. Legions of svelte women in super-tight jeans are walking little dogs. Some are eating (though one assumes not much) at Markt, the unpronounceable restaurant on the corner of Ninth and 14th.

Jeffrey is the big store on this strip, and it is an odd place—unpretentious and affable in atmosphere, welcoming to all those skinny hotties and their pooches, but strictly business when it comes to prices. Here at last is real Marni merchandise— gray silk beaded skirts for $4,050, a twill coat bargain priced at $1,295.

"Hi, I'm Raul," says the puppyish salesperson, who has black patent leather hair and little square glasses, adding that it's OK to quote him by name because "Jeffrey loves me! If you want vintage—how good is this?" he says, holding up a faux-vintage, pale-green silk-front Viktor & Rolf polo shirt printed with birds and priced at $720. Raul wings around the floor, fawning over the spiffy $2,500 Balenciaga skirts, the lavishly embroidered $2,000 Dries Van Noten dresses, the ragged $1,500 Libertine jackets with their faint goth prints, deliberately made to look like you fished them out of a recycling bin.

These are the most expensive clothes you can buy anywhere, the identical frocks and socks you will find on the Faubourg St. Honore in Paris, or Bond Street in London, or the Via Condotti in Rome. But unlike those streets, which have hosted elegant boutiques for centuries, there was nothing of this kind over here even a few years ago—only the slaughterhouses, and the tranny prostitutes, and the venerable nightclub Jackie 60, and the famous bagel store where night owls and meat cutters would meet at 5 a.m., some starting their day, some ending it.

Now Paul McCartney's daughter has her New York flagship here, and as it happens, this season she is selling a bead-encrusted shirt for $1,295 that looks a lot like one in Forever 21's window. A few yards away, Alexander McQueen has a nautical-themed dress, reminiscent of the one at Rags-A-Gogo, only here it is $5,537 more. (Maybe Rags-A-Gogo didn't smell that bad after all.)

You can visit swanky venues up and down the street, but you will be hard put to find anyone, save the rambunctious Raul, who is willing to talk on or off the record. Finally one salesperson agrees to chat, after you swear you'll disguise his (or her) identity in every possible way.

"These customers are so abusive, they treat you like a handmaiden," reports the reluctant source. "But they're paying to abuse you, unlike at the place where I used to work, further downtown. There they were mean and they didn't even buy much. The volume in sales here! I can't explain the difference between this place and the store where I used to work—it's a different world."

But who are these pink-leather-draped, fur-collared characters with bursting wallets and pampered fidos? Where do they come from?

Deep Throat answers in a whisper. "Oh my God. They drive here. It's really weird."

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