A Dior Dress at $6,000 Discount: Chic Scavengers Hit Bargain Bins

Those who aspire to wear Prada have learned how to shop Manhattan’s troika of “off-price” clothing stores–Century 21, Daffy’s and Loehmann’s–in a single workday. Century 21 opens at 7:45 A.M. every weekday, and there’s a Daffy’s three blocks from Loehmann’s on Seventh Avenue and 17th Street, close enough for a two-in-one hit during “lunch.” If that fails, all three stores are open until 8:30 or 9 P.M. at least one day during the week. (Only rookies go on the weekend.)

Just combing the sale racks at Barneys or Bergdorfs–or rustling through the piles at sample sales–doesn’t cut it anymore. More and more, designs that start on the runway end up at these monster discounters, which in the past few years have tried to morph into real department stores with personal shoppers, dressing rooms and return policies . New shipments arrive daily and their inventories are unbelievable: Alexander McQueen, Gucci and Paul Smith at Century 21; Karl Lagerfeld, Etro at Daffy’s; Jean-Paul Gaultier, Alberta Ferretti at Loehmann’s.

This is not a day at the outlet mall. “You are competing with a lot of very sophisticated shoppers,” warned Ellen Shanley, the curator of costumes at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who bought a Gaultier at Century 21 for the institute’s 50 Years of Fashion exhibition. “They will be looking for something–that Gaultier or John Galliano or Alexander McQueen–that they can’t afford to pay for at Bergdorfs or Saks that might be there the right day when that one piece comes in and it happens to be their size.”

As Bud Konheim, chief executive of Nicole Miller, put it: “We have trained the customers to buy anything with a percentage sign. Everything has become off-price.”

Even before the superdiscounting of couture, Chanel, for one, decided it would rather their clothes meet a more respectable demise–if you can call shredding them respectable. “We do shred the merchandise so that it does not fall into strange channels of distribution. That is a tradition here,” said Barbara Cirkva, Chanel Inc.’s senior vice president.

Twice a year, Chanel has a three-day, by-invitation-only sale for their best customers. This is followed by a one-week, 40 percent off sale open to the public. Finally, Chanel holds an employees-only sale, at an even greater discount. Whatever is left is destroyed so it won’t end up on the racks of a discount store like Loehmann’s. The only thing they save is the buttons. Hermès and Louis Vuitton are the only other companies rumored to protect their brands this obsessively.

“I think that in the long run our customers appreciate that,” said Ms. Cirkva. “They have spent a tremendous amount of money acquiring the piece.”

On the other hand, Daffy’s customers appreciate that Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld’s other labels show up from time to time. In late April, orange and purple jackets were for sale for $198 and $140; the original price was marked as $680.

‘Undertaker’ No. 1

According to retail experts, the clothes that make it to stores like Century 21 are unsold inventory that the designer has to take back from retailers, plus leftover quantities that never went to any store at all, and samples, which are prototypes used to show to fashion editors and buyers, especially on the runway.

“You have your choice of how to get rid of what is left over,” explained Mr. Konheim. You can usually find Nicole Miller clothing a t all three stores. “I don’t care how clever you are, you can’t make the supply fit the demand. There is always something left over. It sticks in your throat to throw it out, so you give it to what we commonly call the undertakers.”

Said Marcia Wilson, president of Daffy’s: “We are a necessary evil.” Ms. Wilson wouldn’t comment on how she gets clothes from Barneys labels like Les Copains. Instead, she kept repeating, “We have built up relationships over the years.”

In principle, though, those relationships work best a little farther away from Seventh Avenue. “The success of Loehmann’s is that they were never in a metropolitan area,” said Mr. Konheim. “They were never in the regular department store’s face, so they were able to take the excess. When the department stores started [marking things down a lot], the off-price stores said, ‘My God, we can’t exist in Norwalk, we have go to be in the metropolitan area.’ And then apparel became an off-price item.”

Century 21, with only three stores–one on Cortlandt Street near the World Trade Center, one in Brooklyn and one in Long Island–is the fashion acolyte’s darling. Though no one at the store would be interviewed for this article, one look at the racks explains everything; Century 21 is what this movement is all about. They have the designers Barneys has, the designers young New Yorkers are hunting for.

Martine Sitbon sparkly cream skirts ($60, from $278), a fabulous yellow floral cotton Miu-Miu dress from spring 1997 ($89.99, from $300), a Bella Freud polka dot dress ($129, from $450), a black Paul Smith long linen jacket with purple stitching ($279, from $750), Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses ($49.97, from $190), gorgeous Gucci jackets ($295, from $459.97), Prada jackets ($500), Lawrence Steele jackets ($200, from $800), a stiff black Helmut Lang skirt covered in stretchy wool ($229, from $600). Shoes by Patrick Cox, Cynthia Rowley, C.K. and Fendi. Also, Ellen Tracy thongs–very of the moment–$60, from $110. Unlike Daffy’s, Century 21 comes out and identifies the designers they carry with display signs: John Bartlett, Fendi, Susan Lazar, Norma Kamali, Valentino. All the clothes there look a lot more current than at Daffy’s or Loehmann’s.

This must be why the curators love Century 21. Back in 1995, Richard Martin, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute found a Galliano there: a white bias cut gown with gray chiffon, and a drapy 1930’s silhouette. He snagged what he believes to be a sample for $200. Since April 6, it’s been on display at the Met in an exhibition called Our New Clothes . Mr. Martin sorts through off-price stores at least three or four times a year. “You get a rumor that there is a great new shipment,” he said. Those rumors are passed around the fashion crowd. “You are there and the ladies are all screaming at each other, ‘Margiela over here! Gaultier over there!’ And I think, ‘These people have the sensibility for Gaultier? Isn’t that wonderful!'”

One of his greatest regrets, he said, was not buying a Martin Margiela dress he found at Daffy’s. “I just wasn’t sure it was a Martin Margiela because it was at Daffy’s. Even I have my doubts,” Mr. Martin said. “It was that series where he did a collection that was inspired by doll’s clothing, so all of the sizes were awkward and the buttons looked very big on the dresses. I thought it was authentic, but I finally gave it away.” Now he knows it was the real thing because he has since seen old pictures of the same collection. “It was the one time that I hesitated and I lost.”

The Century 21 Gaultier that F.I.T. displayed was a “speed suit” unitard with silk-screened computer graphics on it. Mary Tyler Moore once wore a similar one, according to F.I.T.’s Ms. Shanley. What makes a dress found in a discount store museum-worthy? “Something that was on runways,” she said. “An important piece that designer does that season, a signature look, a good historical piece, something with some kind of special significance, like an extraordinarily interesting new fabric.”

You Didn’t Get It Here

Daffy’s has been in business for 40 years and has stores in New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Long Island and New York City–on 57th Street between Lexington and Park avenues, a few blocks from Bloomingdale’s; right across the street from Macy’s on Sixth Avenue at 34th Street; inches from Grand Central Terminal on Madison Avenue at 44th Street; and on Fifth Avenue at 18th Street. But every time an article is published that mentions the names of their designers, retail experts said, they lose vendors. Daffy’s used to have signs in their stores asking customers to keep the brand names secret. To this day, they don’t mark sections by designer names. Instead, there are “finds” at Daffy’s under signs labeled Designer, Haute Couture, New Arrivals or Made in Italy.

Part of the problem is that regular department stores may demand their money back if their clothes are simultaneously hanging in an off-price store, which happens, quietly, quite a lot. “It is a very tricky game,” said Mr. Konheim. “If you have extra merchandise and you can’t hold it until the end of the season, then you have a serious problem. You are better off taking it back from Saks and giving the whole thing to Daffy’s.”

On a recent visit, the Daffy’s on 57th Street was filled with Italian labels: an Alessandro Dell’Acqua floral jacket with cream mesh overlay for $119, down from $475; an Armani black linen jacket for $325, from $1,120; Valentino floral dresses with quilted bodices for $190 and less, from $840.

On the sale racks: a Plenty rust-colored, Prada-like pleated skirt for $8. (Plenty sells for more than 10 times that on the trendy seventh floor at Barneys.) Under signs marked Contemporary and Spring Collection were racks of names found on the second floor of Bloomingdale’s: Urchin, Laundry, Theory, BCBG and an adorable yellow Parallel sweater for $69.99, down from $126. The find of the day? A single Christian Dior black gown with black fringe, size 10, valued at $8,500 being sold for just under $2,000. And Hervé Chapelier bags–the successor to the Prada knapsack that sells at Barneys for $85–for $16.99.

Lauren Leather Dress: From $2,195 to $299.99

That Loehmann’s inhabits the former Barneys flagship on Seventh Avenue between 16th and 17th streets does not make it easier for it to compete for the cast-offs of the most expensive designers. The competition is brutally fierce, but apparently depends on a level of discretion. But despite the fact that those in charge were reluctant to discuss the designers they carry and how they land the clothing, Loehmann’s advertises brand names more willingly than any of the other discount stores in New York.

Robin Hall, vice president of marketing at Loehmann’s, said, “We are relatively subtle about who the designers are and some still require [slashed labels]. The standards of the industry have changed a bit.”

A quick look revealed Fendi, Moschino Couture, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta. “We have a reputation for having prize things on our selling floors. You could come in and find something really, really special, but we are really not at liberty to discuss the vendors,” said Mr. Hall. “That is part of our deal.”

Loehmann’s is the oldest of the off-price stores in New York, in business for almost 80 years and with 68 stores across the country. The layout of the Manhattan store–which, since it opened in 1996, has boasted several off-price rarities like dressing rooms with doors , a personal shopper named Evie, an Insiders Club card for special discounts and a return policy–is very department store. The lower level has the men’s clothes, the first floor is handbags, shoes, perfume, household items and jewelry. In late April, the shoe department was flush: bright yellow Walter Steigers with silver spike heels ($119, from $295), gray green shiny, pointy-toed Prada heels ($249, from $475), delicate and sexy open-toe Marc Jacobs pink heels ($95.99, from $302), and a pair of brown faux-crocodile Gucci heels ($249, from $625).

The second floor has junior brands including BCBG, CK, Polo Jeans. The third floor has dresses–DKNY, Lily Pulitzer (a fuchsia and green terry dress goes for $39.99, down from $120), bathing suits, lingerie and suits.

The top floor is where the true finds are–in the infamous Back Room. Racks of designer clothes reveal a Tahari blackberry-colored long suit jacket for $229.99, from $420; a kimono-inspired sleeveless jacket by Jean-Paul Gaultier for $129, from $275, and on a rack filled with Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti (adorable summer dresses $119, from $302), a find: a Ralph Lauren Collection short-sleeved black leather dress with light blue stitching for $299.99, from $2,195.

Lauren Sweder, an assistant in the fashion department at Sotheby’s, the auction house, said her greatest find was a Romeo Gigli cigarette pant suit in gray shantung from Loehmann’s. It was $1,000, then reduced by half, then half-off again.

“Then I opened up a charge card account to buy it and when you do that you get 10 percent off. Plus it was five days after my birthday …” Loehmann’s offers a birthday discount of 15 percent, “so I got it for around $200.”

Mr. Konheim sees doom: Many full-price stores, he said, have taken to throwing sales year-round to try to compete. “These stores are on their way to zero and they are destroying their own business,” he said.

Ms. Sweder, on the other hand, will go so far as to recommend Dollar Bill’s, on 42nd Street near Madison Avenue. She buys her Donna Karan eyeglasses there. And she has seen their Badgley Mischka gowns.

“Downstairs. They are like $5,000, but that’s a lot off!” Calls to Badgley Mischka were not returned.