“I have a navy wool that has a little hook and eye and comes right to the hip bone. It’s $2,880—No. 24 in the look-book,” the no-nonsense salesperson is telling a customer over the phone at Barneys’ Lanvin trunk sale, an event held for the benefit of women hell-bent on ordering next winter’s clothes six months in advance. Outside it may be October 28, 1929, consumer confidence is at an all-time low, housing prices are reeling, but inside Barneys, the kind of people who spend $3,145 on a dress and $7,370 on a furry, spangled stole are still milling around. Or at least some of them are.
Hal Rubenstein, the fashion director of In Style magazine, is here, advising Dr. Pat Wexler to “try on the black one with the sheer sleeves.” Looks as if somebody chose the right field: Wexler, a renowned dermatologist with an extensive product line of her own, is counting on rampant bad skin to see her through the current financial crisis.
But am I really any better than these people? I linger longingly over a plastic printed tote, marked $1,025, which even the salesperson is viewing dubiously. Is this fabulous? I ask him. Or does it look like a fashion-show giveaway? He chuckles, says nothing, and turns back to the other shoppers, who may or may not be suckers for a coat made out of dead weasels that I fingered briefly before catching sight of its $21,390 price tag and dropping it like a hot poker.
Mildly depressed, I decide to go next-door to the Calvin Klein store, whose creepy gray-stone interior is as silent and forbidding as a mausoleum. I am searching for a particular $3,500 men’s sweater, which The New York Times‘s T magazine featured under the headline “Basic Cable, High Fashion, No Frills.” (Personally, for $3,500, I don’t mind a few frills.) My plan is to grill an unsuspecting salesperson about the price of this item, but the virtual absence of even a single other shopper, the deadly hush, the sense that the staff thinks I’m a slovenly potential thief serve to intimidate even fearless me. Plus, though I see racks of tuxedos and $400 sports shirts, I can’t even find this $3,500 pullover. (Could it be sold out?)
What I need now is a friend. So I amble down Fifth Avenue to Saks, where the salesman in the handbag department recognizes me (not because I’m so famous, but because I’m in Saks all the time to check the sales and use the ladies’ room.)
“Talk to me! I’m so bored—we’re not selling anything,” he begs, surrounded by perky patent Valentino purses sporting four-figure price tags. “Did you ever meet Anna Wintour? What’s she like?”
Alas, I have no Anna dish to brighten his day. But I realize I’m three blocks away from my friends in the 47th Street diamond district, and I’m wondering: What with the price of gold soaring, are people tempted to melt their heirlooms? Five minutes later, I’m at Ronald Kawitzky’s antique-jewelry booth when another celebrity name comes up. “This was Nan Kempner’s charm bracelet,” he says, holding up a clunky gold affair for the delectation of another dealer. According to Kawitzky, “It’s a gesunta look.” It is indeed. In fact, it looks like it weighs almost as much as the late socialite Kempner, who was famous for saying: “I loathe fat people.”
So, Ronnie, are people melting their jewelry? “Sometimes I see things not worthy of survival and I tell them, ‘You should melt it,’ ” he says. “People bring stuff in to defray the cost of their new purchases—they say, ‘Melt this toward a diamond bracelet.’ It’s a real alternative for worthless stuff.” As an example, he hands me a ring that he says is worth more melted down than it could ever sell for. I see what he means: The ring is in the shape of a Mayan mask with garnet eyes, and, sure, it’s hideous, but if Kate Moss wore it, would it not be instantly fabulous? Kawitzky gives it another look and concedes that, in fact, “Somebody might buy it.”
How do you know what the price of gold is anyway? Is it on the Internet somewhere? “I ask Eddie,” he says, waving to Eddie, who is standing behind a showcase across the aisle. “Hey, Eddie, you know what platinum is today? $2,000 plus? I remember when it was $300—lower than gold.”
Well, this must be good news for some people, especially since you can’t melt a Lanvin fur stole. If you’re really worried about the wolf at the door, your $7,000 is perhaps better invested in a Victorian tiara. Or is it? Maybe just stuffing the money in a mattress, or in an old doll like in The Night of the Hunter, is what you should do now.
I phone up Howard Davidowitz, the chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a retail consulting and investment-banking firm in Manhattan, to get a rough idea of how many new clothes and pieces of jewelry are in my future, and boy, does he rain on my parade.
“The consumer is really under water,” he tells me. “For the past 10 years, consumers used their homes as piggy banks. We’ve just about wiped that out. Consumers have nowhere to go for money now. Bush said the one thing he would never do is raise taxes, but inflation has raised taxes on every consumer. The average person who drives, who eats, has 5 percent inflation—a huge tax increase. We have stagflation and an effective tax increase that affects everybody.”
Davidowitz is just warming up. “More than 150 million Americans whose family income is $44,000 or less—half of America—their living standard will never be the same, never recover,” he says. “We can’t pay for Medicare, for Social Security! We can’t pay for anything!”
Um, does that mean most people won’t be getting new outfits this spring? “The apparel business is a disaster,” he tells me. “If you look at the biggest apparel sellers, you see the Limited—terrible, Gap—terrible, Abercrombie & Fitch down, Bon Ton, Dillard’s, Kohl’s, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom’s down, Ann Taylor down, Chico’s is wrecked—it doesn’t look too good.”
Kohl’s? Chico’s? What about Saks and Barneys? “The expensive stuff can’t even be discussed! Fine leather from Italy? Forget it! There’s been a 70 percent price increase.” So is anyone buying anything? “People from Europe. That’s what’s held up the New York real-estate market—because Europeans are coming here now.” How long can this national nightmare last? “I have a sign in my office that says, ‘Nothing is forever,’ but for half of the country, it will seem like forever. People won’t recover. When I look at what we have to do to crawl out of this hole, it’s bad as far as the eye can see.”
Now his voice is rising in anger. “Those nitwits on TV, they talk as if things will go back to normal. Bush is a complete and total moron. When we went to war, his message was: Go shopping. Everything Bush says is insane—he’s a C student, a cheerleader, a drunk! ‘Keep shopping’ is characteristic of an idiot—but I understand his point. If you have a bubble economy, you’ve got to keep it going, you’ve got to keep borrowing.”
At this point, Davidowitz is practically screaming. “No one runs faster than a scared banker! They sent 10 credit cards to people in homeless shelters, and of course they didn’t pay! Now the geniuses at the banks are surprised! A guy with no income, no job—they sold him a house! They gave him $400,000! And now the banks want to be bailed out!”
Um, sure, but what about clothes? “Who’s the biggest apparel seller in the country? Wal-Mart. And what are they cutting? Apparel. People are buying what they have to buy—drug chains are doing great. Those checks the government is throwing out of helicopters are going to go to Family Dollar for food—they’re not going to help Ann Taylor. People are eating at home more often, they’re driving less, starting to conserve, and what’s the thing they don’t need? Most people—they don’t absolutely need another pair of jeans. They have 14 sweaters, they don’t need 15.”
Well, I do, I mutter, barely above a whisper. “Yeah, my wife too,” Davidowitz says. “She’ll plotz.”