Let us state up front that the notion of a downtown BLOOMINGDALE‘s did not strike us, on first hearing, as the pinnacle of sartorial cool. Though we love department stores, part of what we worship about them is their essential old-fashioned dorkiness, the reeking unhipness of places like Saks and Lord & Taylor, no matter how much money is spent trying to convince you otherwise. So we were already casting a cold eye on the “Happening in Soho!” sidewalk chalkings, plastic tote bags, and umbrellas that started cropping up a few weeks ago, announcing the opening of Bloomie’s at 504 Broadway. (If and when something is happening in Soho, you won’t hear about it from an umbrella.)
Nevertheless, on opening day we walk over to the store and find police barricades, guys on walkie-talkies, and an impatient line snaking toward the door. But once inside, we suspect the crowd control is manufactured: The building, while not exactly empty, has plenty of room for more customers.
The space bears only the faintest traces of its previous tenant, the beloved Canal Jean Company—there are a few incongruous brick walls in front of which now reside black lacquer cabinets bearing Prada sunglasses; a row of structural columns are agleam with flawless white enamel. On the other hand, in many ways the interior design does evoke the Lexington Avenue Bloomie’s: The trademark black-and-white-checked floor in the makeup department is a replica of the cosmetics department uptown, a famous pickup site in the ’70s, when Bloomingdale’s achieved a fleeting aura of semi-fabulousness. The pristine escalator, a real anomaly for a Soho store, spirits you from the lower level, where you can buy a Jim Morrison T-shirt for $62 (but come on, shouldn’t you be getting this on St. Marks Place?), to the fifth floor, where a pink silk sheath by boy wonder Zac Posen, who just entered into a financial partnership with Sean Combs, is a startling $1,500.
As it turns out, a lot of the merchandise is nicer than we expect, though we are struck by the fact that 90 percent or so of the labels are already for sale nearby. Those black goth-printed Gwen Stefani L.A.M.B. satchels, the runaway hit she (or someone) designed for LeSportsac, can no doubt be found at LeSportsac on Spring Street; a Miss Sixty tank with beaded footprints ($89) might just turn up at Miss Sixty on West Broadway; Ralph Lauren’s orange tie-dye Henley shirt ($65) is probably at the Polo Store, likewise on West Broadway; workaday Eileen Fisher outfits are available by the truckload at Fisher’s Soho flagship.
So why would you buy these things at Bloomie’s? Well, for one thing, you can return them for a full refund if you change your mind, no small thing for world-class returners like ourselves. And we’ll be the first to admit that there is something irresistibly easy and delightful about swanning around a department store, picking one from Column A and one from Column B, trying on things for hours, enjoying the excellent bathrooms, and not having to deal with salespeople who are wedded to a particular brand or are too disgustingly cool for school. It’s fun to fondle a weird mix of stuff, even if you hate some of it (those middlebrow Kay Unger dresses should be thrown in a pillowcase and returned to the 59th Street store immediately).
After covering all six floors—they’re small—we wander out to the sunny street, past the vast, insanely arty Prada store. We know it is far too late for death-of-Soho ruminations, and anyway, we have always viewed that death-of-Soho business with great suspicion, believing as we do that an art gallery is in no way superior to a boutique. So why do we feel so wistful? We amble down Crosby Street, still cobblestoned, and then into the wilds of Soho proper, heading for a shop on Grand Street where they still stock labels like Junya Watanabe and Marc le Bihan. “So you were at Bloomingdale’s?” the salesman, an old friend, snorts when he see us. “How’d you like it? I bet it’s full of those horrible little girls who try on everything and then finally buy something and return it the next day, right?”