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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 pricescheaper 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 hereand 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 priceda 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.
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 placeunpretentious 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 vintagehow 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 agoonly 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 workit'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."