Luella was a dud. Not only was she obscenely expensive, but she caused excruciating pain hanging off your arm. “I hate that thing!” wailed J., who rued the day she bought her huge orange leather Luella—the handbag of the season—just because it looked so fetching on the cover of the Neiman Marcus catalog.
Unfortunately, loaded up with J.’s iPod, cell phone, and other necessities of working life, Luella threw J.’s back out the first time she carried it. And since one tiny scratch on Luella’s underside made it ineligible for returning to Neiman’s, there was really only one alternative: Dump the bag at a consignment store, where another sucker might be seduced by its good looks.
So, our curiosity piqued by J.’s plight, we undertook a tour of fashion-forward downtown consignment shops that cater to the label-conscious if comparatively broke customer. At the rather ratty TOKYO JOE (334 East 11th Street), Joe refuses to speak to us, but a woman called Michi explains that they split the proceeds 50-50 with consignors. (This is the case at most of the shops we visit.) The place smells musty and is slightly depressing, but maybe that’s because we don’t see anything we want—we’re not in the market for slightly used, size-six green Manolos ($120), and a ruffled Club Monaco skirt, though only $25, isn’t our size. Our next stop, TOKIO 7 at 64 East 7th Street (no relation to Tokyo Joe), has an old baby carriage out front stuffed with $2 finds, but of course, we don’t like anything for $2. Inside, we find a Margiela tee for $25 (men’s, but it would fit us), a velvety Voyage cardigan for $65, and one really superb deal: a gorgeous black-on-black Marc Jacobs dress, not more than a season or two old, for $120.
There is no MJ at YU (151 Ludlow Street), where the owner, Eiko Berkowitz, collects Japanese labels. The afternoon we meet, Eiko is wearing polka-dot shoes, overalls, and a plaid Amy Downs hat. “When I was growing up in Japan, my mother wore a lot of Yohji, Issey, Comme—and I loved those things,” Eiko explains. She came to New York in 1986, largely because she didn’t like the social station of women in Japan, and opened Yu in 1997. A friend who worked at Yohji Yamamoto told her that a lot of customers had old Yohji they wanted to unload, and these rejects became Eiko’s first stock. Though she has now expanded to include a score of A-list European designers (“Dries, Vivienne—I’m very picky”), there are still plenty of Japanese frocks on the rack, including a Comme des Garçons summer dress for $240, which is probably about what it sold for when it was made in the early ’90s. Though Gaultier and other designers in search of “inspiration” have swept through, buying with abandon, Eiko’s favorite customers are young people: “I like to introduce them to these labels, but in an affordable way.”
If Yu offers a highly edited selection, INA has far more on her plate, but then again she has four eponymous stores to fill, one on the Upper East Side and three below Houston Street. Ina opened her first resale shop 11 years ago, when she rented a vacant Soho storefront on a whim. “I didn’t have any capital, but I did have a closet full of clothes. It was totally a fluke—I’d never even been in a consignment store.”
A visit to the Ina branch in Nolita (21 Prince Street) finds an especially eclectic mix: a Paul & Joe summer dress that seems high at $155 (how much could it ever have cost?) and a nutty, glittery shirt from Lacroix’s Bazaar label (it looks like a Missoni on crack) that seems a better deal at $70. Around the corner at Ina’s men’s store (262 Mott Street), a Gucci denim jacket is $150; a Helmut Lang tee with loopy, crazily slotted long sleeves is $60.
It isn’t until we get to Ina’s original shop at 101 Thompson Street and see shelves full of Chanel satchels and Gucci wallets that we remember J.’s Luella. “Any interest in a gently used Lou?” we ask. “Oh yes, yes!” pants the woman behind the counter. “Oh my God! We had one in here last week, a shiny pink one, and two women actually had a fight over it! Tell your friend to bring it in, but tell her to hurry, before it goes out of style.”