The World According to Century 21


So we’re on the R train going down to Century 21 and this guy gets on and starts preaching. He’s got a rather flat delivery but a real fire and brimstone message—if we don’t repent immediately, we’re going to hell and that’s that. The thing is, he’s wearing a stunning denim jacket, embroidered with biblical phrases across the back, and all I can think about is—where did he get a thing like that? Did his mother make it for him? After the sermon he starts distributing pamphlets to his captive audience; when I won’t take one he fixes his gaze on me and says, “Without Jesus Christ, ma’am, you’ll die and go to hell.” We’re not that worried about eternal damnation, but that ma’am really hurts.

Like so many fashion types, preacher man has an odious personality but a fabulous jacket. We’re praying we’ll find something half as good when we get to Century 21, where it is now high season: all the leftover designer duds (in both senses of the word) from last spring are stuffing the racks.

A wonderful woman called Ruth Findlay has for years published something called the Fashion Calendar, a day-by-day listing, available by subscription, of every runway show, showroom presentation, and other style-related event in the city. We have our own unpublished version of a fashion calendar: we pretty much know exactly when just about anything anywhere in the world will go on sale. And that’s how we know that we will have to confine our shopping to Century 21, Woodbury Common, and other discounters from now until late spring, when the regular stores finally slash prices. (Almost all designer clothes will go on sale the first week in June, but sometimes, a month or so before, Saks has a one-night-only blow-out when things are reduced, if only for a few hours. We call this secret sale night, but watch this space—as soon as we find out when it is the secret will be out.)

In any case, we’ve been visiting Century 21 a lot lately. Two weeks ago, we saw a rack of Marni handbags in the $100 range but, momentarily paralyzed with indecision, we left empty-handed. As soon as we were out the door we realized we’d made a hideous mistake, so the next night we returned with a shopping buddy, the renowned vegetarian fashionista, a high-fashion, non-meat eating, non-leather-wearing bohemian label-whore (oh, the contradictions of late capitalism) who adores Marni. We were horrified to find out that, though only 24 hours had elapsed, the Marnis had disappeared. We asked a saleswoman who said, “Marni? Marni? I just saw them someplace . . .”

She looked in vain around a handbag department so cluttered it made our closets look good. Could they all have been sold? Finally, she found a heap of Marni purses—in a garbage bag. On the floor. She dumped it and we went wild, like we were on “Supermarket Sweeps” except we had to pay. The bags were simple totes—sort of like Channel 13 bags—but the distinctive jolie-laide Marni prints were so seductive that the vegetarian fashionista violated his principles and bought two, even though they had little leather zipper pulls. (We are familiar with such exceptions in exceptional circumstances: When we were little, our mom, who would never buy anything made in Germany, waived the rule when it came to Stieff stuffed animals.)

Today, we’re hoping Century will have some Marni dresses to go along with those bags. We emerge from the subway and barely glance at ground zero, though it is directly across from the store: it now looks like a tourist-thronged construction site, totally absent of any grandeur or horror. Why linger at a building site? We take the escalator to Century’s third floor, and yes, there are Marni dresses, though when we gallop into the hideous horse-stall dressing rooms and have to suffer the humiliation of trying them on in front of a roomful of half-naked strangers, we realize all over again that an Italian size 44 is not very large. Whatever. Even if it’s not our day—if the $160 checked gingham Vivienne Westwood puff sleeved blouses are too girlish; the $110 Antik Batik sequined net skirts too transparent—there are always compensations when you shop at Century. Afer all, where else could you see a fashion god like Azzedine Alaia, who supposedly doesn’t allow department stores to mark his stuff down, ever, brought so low? His eyelet miniskirt is here, all right—but even at Century it’s an astonishing $699.97.