“It’s, like, $198, which is like a lot of money if you don’t know if you like, like it enough,” says an uncertain shopper, holding up a presentable if hardly thrilling flowered blazer at the J. Crew store in the new, much ballyhooed Time Warner mall. She doesn’t buy the jacket, and she’s in good company: On a recent Sunday afternoon the mall is packed to near gridlock, but a quick check of wrists finds them almost universally shopping bag-less.
Rank curiosity has apparently impelled hordes of people to haunt these cold, slick corridors, though they’ll hardly be surprised by what they find. The place is full of stores you’ve seen a thousand times before: Pink for shirts to wear to that nonexistent office job you’re dreading; Eileen Fisher for the comfy, achingly basic separates that at least come in a full range of sizes—both perfectly fine destinations when you can feel the sun on your face as you drift from one store to the next, but sapped of any shred of fun in this marble mausoleum.
If most of the retailers are depressingly familiar, two places are new to us: a shop called JW Cooper that sells crocodile belts with sterling buckles to rich dudes, and the more promising Montmartre, where the girly dresses include a shirtwaist in a vintage print with net trim, a $235 price tag, and a label reading “Made in China,” not Montmartre. One flight down at Sisley, Benetton’s slightly more sober sister, a sexy fine-gauge knit dress is $78; a lilac cotton undershirt with lingerie hooks (good!) and cheap lace appliqués (bad!) is $38.
But hardly anyone except us is checking price tags. In fact, the crowd seems to be excited by just two things: the Whole Foods supermarket on the lower level (there’s a massive line to get in and fondle groceries) and the view of the city outside the third-floor windows, a gorgeous vista overlooking the park, the doomed Huntington Hartford building with its famous portholes, and the East Side glittering beyond.
As it turns out, a few blocks east of this behemoth another new shop is generating interest, at least uptown: the gigantic Louis Vuitton on the corner of Fifth and 57th, which has a stunning frosted glass facade and enormous video screens instead of window displays. (The screens offer a shifting pattern of pixelated purses interspersed with images of the original Monsieur Vuitton himself, who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Colonel Sanders.) Inside, it looks like any other LV, though like the TW mall, this one is filled with lookie-lous pushing baby carriages and evincing not the slightest interest in the merchandise. Just as well—if they want the season’s hot new bag they’re out of luck, since, according to a salesman, the purse, which is blue and features a drawstring and a big fat buckle, isn’t in stock yet. “It’s a very limited edition,” he intones, adding that he doesn’t actually know its exact price yet, but believes that “it’ll be around $3,000.”
Four-figure price tags are not the problem on Canal Street, where we’ve been buying our LVs lately, though other predicaments face the shopper here: In the last few months a mammoth police presence has made it increasingly difficult to stock up on adorable fakes. Still, perseverance does pay off. It takes us four visits to get the $18 LV stocking cap and matching scarf we crave, and when we finally find it, an imminent police raid causes us to be locked in the store with other customers for about 10 minutes. (Fun! Like a speakeasy!)
A more recent trip finds many storefronts shuttered, with enterprising vendors reduced to hawking wares from garbage bags on the sidewalk. But there is one place actually open: a tiny enclosure hardly bigger than a closet on the east side of Broadway just north of Canal, where there’s a wonderfully accurate facsimile of that big-buckled blue bag that Louis himself is waiting on. It’s $185, a tremendous sum for Canal—but—unless the cops swoop down in the middle of your transaction—you can always bargain for cash.