Buried among the cheery headlines in The New York Times on the first day of 2008—Bhutto assassinated, riots in Kenya, collapsing stocks—was a tidbit you may have overlooked: an advertisement from the jewelry firm Harry Winston for a diamond-studded 18-karat gold wristwatch with the caption, “Light up the Avenue. The Avenue C Midsize from $37,300.”
OK, I admit that I haven’t been over to Avenue C lately, and it may have really perked up since the last time I popped by, but $37,300? (Think they’d take an even $37,000 for it?) Has this new gilded age, where the wealthiest 1 percent of the population now owns more than the bottom 95 percent, finally arrived on the Lower East Side?
Well, maybe Harry knows something I don’t know. (Actually, pretty much all I know about him is that he was immortalized by Marilyn Monroe when she murmured, “Talk to me, Harry Winston” in the middle of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”) The Times ad mentions Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, and Bal Harbour as places where Mr. Winston has hung out his shingle, but no Loisada Avenue, as Avenue C is sometimes called, is on the list.
Could it be that Harry opened downtown and he’s just too embarrassed to admit it? I decide to walk over to C to take a look, but though I find Bite Me Best Pizza, a pair of psychics offering crystal, palm, and tarot readings, an Associated supermarket, a place called Recycle Bicycle, Manny’s Auto Repair, and a Papaya Express, not only is there no Harry Winston but there doesn’t seem to be any jewelry store at all. In fact, there’s only one place even selling clothes: It’s called Olivo’s Fashions, on the corner of Fourth Street, and upon closer inspection more than half of its storefront is given over to Olivo’s Games Depot. The fashion, as it were, is confined to polyester blazers, cotton-knit bras, and little girls’ blouses with Peter Pan collars from a company called Queensbury (“For Little Queens,” the tags say) that are on sale for $3.99.
OK, maybe Harry thinks you will light up the avenue by purchasing an Avenue C in, say, Bal Harbour and merely wearing it in the far East Village. In that case, you could sport your new timepiece next summer at La Plaza Cultural, a green-thumb public garden and frisky performance space on the corner of 9th Street that barely survived being bulldozed.
Had enough? Let’s face it: The Avenue C watch, sick as it is, is only one manifestation of the deeply disconcerting retail season we’ve just been through. “It was a perfect storm of not buying,” a deep throat who has worked for decades at a designer boutique in Soho recently told me. “The weather was too hot, the clothes were ridiculously expensive, and anyone who had any money wanted to buy real estate.”
(Unfortunately, I cannot tell you who this guy is or give you any further clues as to his identity. Apparently, working in a stylish shop is the fashionista equivalent of Valerie Plame: Reveal your identity to a member of the press, speak on the record, and you will be canned forthwith.)
“Everything is on sale, and every size is left,” mourned a magazine editor in chief I sat next to at a black-tie dinner a few weeks ago. But Madame Editor did not go on to say what I believe is the patently obvious reason that so much stuff is dying on the racks at uptown department stores: These items, for all their high-toned labels, are frequently not substantially different from their younger, freakier, fun cousins for sale at Zara, H&M, or even the rock-bottom Forever 21 for hundreds of dollars less.
A bit of fashion history for the new year: Once upon a time, buying a designer ensemble meant you got a jacket that sported little gold chains (to weight it, so it hung perfectly), silk satin linings, and exquisitely milled fabrics. The cheaper stuff looked—well, cheap. Now the expensive merchandise is, more often than not, a pathetic shadow of its former self: The material may be slightly more interesting than the cut-price alternative, but all those dressmakers’ flourishes have long vanished. (Ironically, the only place to see this superior tailoring now is at a vintage dealer, and, FYI, the next edition of the wonderful Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show, where 80 dealers will offer spectacular old clothes, is coming up on February 8 and 9.)
But hey, all these extreme markdowns, all this wonderful inexpensive stuff is, when you think about it, extremely good news. In fact, 2008 may just turn out to be the beginning of the golden age of fashion. So what if you won’t be able to buy any new clothes until next July, when the skimpy overpriced fashions flowing into stores right now (and please, how stupid is this business of selling summer clothes in the dead of winter?) reach their final markdown stage. What’s the hurry? By the time you buy it, it’ll be warm enough to wear it.
One final note: Did you by any chance get a gift card this holiday season? Businesses are just gleeful that so many recipients forget to cash these in, resulting in a ridiculous windfall for the stores. So go out and purchase something with that thing immediately! Remember, if you don’t use your gift card, the bad guys win.
What? Can’t think of anything you want? How about a watch?