This then is Barneys’ warehouse sale, the day after the lights come back on: a roiling mass of grabbing, shoving, panting shoppers standing three deep in the aisles, then hauling their picks to a cash register line so long it could be in front of a food truck during a blackout.
Oh, if only these frantic customers knew the truth: In these first few days of the Barneys sale (255 West 17th Street), prices are exactly the same as they were when the stuff was marked down at Barneys proper. Yes, it is true that as the sale grinds on (it ends September 1) prices tumble a bit further: That Balenciaga wet suit with the sharks printed on it, once $3,720, now $939, will no doubt get a little cheaper, and those $149 DVF wraps are destined to descend a bit more too. Still, we couldn’t help but notice that a pair of striped shoes, originally $190 and marked down to $75, could have been bought earlier this summer for the same amount at Barneys on Madison Avenue. (We know this because we bought them at Barneys three weeks ago, and back then we got to sit on a lovely couch in the shoe department to try them on.)
“Ladies, please keep your undergarments on, thank you,” reads a wall sign, alluding to the lack of fitting rooms and the propensity of certain modesty-free types to strip down in front of the crowded mirrors. (What could be more fun than trying on a Balenciaga surf suit over your panties and bra while a roomful of strangers looks on?)
So why do we return to the Barneys sale, a site where we have experienced many, many failures and yes, OK, one or two slender triumphs? Could it be the persistent fantasy that a lost lamb from an old Dries Van Noten or Comme des Garçons collection is lying on a table waiting for us with a $10 price tag? Whatever the reason, there is no Dries or Comme on tap this time: We depart empty-handed, repeating our warehouse sale mantra: You’re better off buying the skirt you really want for $200 and wearing it 200 times than settling for a $20 skirt you wear exactly once. (Or never—how sad is it to give something to the Goodwill with the tags still attached?)
Since we are in Chelsea, we decide to check other venues that specialize in cut-rate clothes. At Loehmann’s (101 Seventh Avenue), the slushy soft rock and harsh lights and profound disorder are distinctly lacking in glamour (not that Barneys’ warehouse is exactly the Ritz bar), but the store does accept returns, and there is a fitting room, of sorts. Here your best bet is to eschew the racks of newly arrived merchandise, where the reductions are a mere 40 or 50 percent, and head instead to the slovenly supersale racks, where in two seconds we had turned up a pair of narrow-legged Nicole Farhi taffeta trousers marked down to $19.99 from an astonishing $420. With these savings, we could buy a black wool Castelbejac dress, cut along the new mod lines, that features the outline of Keith Haring’s Radiant Baby embroidered in red. This collector’s item—just the kind of curio that is wont to surface at Loehmann’s—is marked down from $325 to $129.
Around the corner at Housing Works (143 West 17th Street), lots of things are $15 and $25, the right amount for a garment whose purpose is to cheer you up during these waning weeks of summer. (Without much effort, we found an ankle-length raw silk beige DKNY skirt for $25.) Though you must scramble a bit—it is, after all, a thrift shop—the place is in fact better organized than Loehmann’s or the Barneys warehouse, plus wouldn’t you rather give your money to homeless people with AIDS than to the overfed CEOs of department stores?
For our last stop, we walk a block west to the Find Outlet at 361 17th Street near Ninth Avenue. We found a poufy velvet skirt here for $70 last February, so we are predisposed to like the place. There’s no velvet this time around; instead we admire the $19 Paul & Joe stars-and-stripes sneakers (this brand had a swanky boutique on Bond Street, but it closed) and a raft of flower-printed dresses that have been reduced from $160 to $79. Though their label says Mon Petit Oiseau, there’s another tag reading “American made,” which makes us wonder if this second label was hastily added after the Iraq war. Oh, well. At least you don’t have to strip down in front of people to try it on: There are fitting rooms and a full length mirror on which someone has written “You are cute!” Good words to keep in mind, even when nothing fits.