It’s Back to the Aisles, Ladies!

On Thursday, Sept. 27, lines were forming in New York stores, but

they were on the other side of the cash register. At the cavernous Hermès store

on Madison Avenue and 62nd Street, a saleswoman was propping herself up on a

cash register, bored. At Prada on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, an employee was

listlessly petting a fur stole. Over at Barneys, three salespeople in the

designer-shoe department were leaning against a display, looking lonely.

“It was really, really slow for the first week-God!” said a

saleswoman at Prada, who wished to remain anonymous. Her eyes swept across the

sales floor, which was empty save for overdressed actress Brittany Murphy, who

was asking if she could pay for a pile of clothes with a check, as four Prada

employees fawned around her. “Then, starting last Saturday, it picked up,” the

saleswoman said. “Little by little, every day is better. Kind of.”

As if fall sales weren’t slow enough, the terrorist attacks of

Sept. 11 shook the foundations of the city’s retail industry. Fearful of

recession, shoppers stayed home, sending the nationwide consumer-confidence

index down in its biggest tumble since the Gulf War.

“It’s a debacle,” said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz

& Associates Inc., a New York–based retail consulting firm. ” Everything is in a funk, from Duane

Reade to Bergdorf Goodman. The department stores are going to have to change

their operating plans, reduce inventory and help and lower prices, because

expectations are lower. So much of Madison Avenue sells things you buy to go to

parties, but no one feels like going to a party anymore. That’s going to impact

jewelry, couture and designer businesses. Business was not good to begin with,

but now it went off a cliff.” He added that he was confident New York retailers

would bounce back in time.

New Yorkers have also been forced to radically reassess their

personal relationship with fashion. While fashion has always been a love-hate

affair, its ability to arouse passion and consume paychecks suddenly seems

suspect to even its most ardent practitioners.

“It’s just not the same,” said Carrie Ellen Phillips, a

25-year-old partner in the fashion public-relations firm of Bismarck

Communications. “I went to Kirna Zabête, where I would have mortgaged a small

house before, but I couldn’t even get interested. I almost felt bad shopping,

like, ‘You should be doing something better with your time. Is this what you’re spending your money

on?'”

Ms. Phillips and her roommate cleaned out their closets and

donated clothes to the Red Cross center near their West Village apartment. “I

don’t have to have the ‘thing of the moment’ anymore,” she said, sounding

slightly incredulous.

On the day before the W.T.C. attacks, Liz Morgan Welch, a

32-year-old freelance writer, took a break from a story she was writing about

shopaholics for Mademoiselle  magazine to splurge on a $500 Tracy Feith

dress for a wedding she was to attend that weekend. The next day, she said, “I

literally wanted to flush it down the toilet. It just didn’t matter . And it’s persisted, that feeling …. My Tracy

Feith dress could have fed a fireman’s family for a month. And I can’t forgive

myself.” (Meanwhile, Mademoiselle announced

on Oct. 1 that it would be folding.)

Reexamining their shopping habits-the fact that it had become

normal for some to pay $970 for a pair of Jimmy Choo boots and join a waiting

list for $1,500 cotton peasant blouses at Yves Saint Laurent-many women are

overcome by guilt.

Ms. Welch, who said she nearly dressed her way into debt as an

assistant at Vanity Fair four years

ago, was cured overnight of her taste for Prada shoes. “I’m still in the place

where shopping feels disrespectful,” she said. “I was in Starbucks on the Upper

East Side last week, and there were these women in jewels talking about the

cute shoes they’d just bought. I wanted to dump a latte on their heads.”

One of the first signs of trouble in the racks was a Sept. 20 Women’s Wear Daily article which

reported that Bergdorf Goodman had canceled its remaining portion of fall

orders, with the exception of special orders. (Bergdorf Goodman spokespeople

did not return calls by press time.) Saks Fifth Avenue projects that sales for

its Manhattan flagship store, which accounts for 17 percent of the chain’s

sales, will be down approximately 30 percent for September. Asked if Saks is

canceling remaining fall orders, spokeswoman Lori Rhodes said, “Canceling

orders is a natural part of business. We’re monitoring the New York situation

very closely.” Sales at the Manhattan flagships of Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s

are estimated to be down 15 to 20 percent for September.

Asked about Barneys’ sales, store publicist Dawn Brown said some

days had been strong, others less so. “This store reflects the mood within the

city: It fluctuates,” she said. On the day after the attacks, Barneys actually

did relatively brisk business, selling to stranded tourists and fashion press

who were in town for Fashion Week. (Barneys salespeople had the added stress of

a bomb threat, which emptied the building during the week after the attack; it

turned out to be groundless.)

Strangely enough, store buyers must now think spring. Bergdorf

and Saks did not send buyers to the European collections, while Barneys sent

considerably fewer staff.

Just as Republicans and Democrats are being forced to work

together in Congress, the stores, designers and suppliers will have to come

together and pool their resources. “These stores will have to work with

manufacturers to develop a strategy where no one party takes all the pain,”

said Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon

Associates. “Value-concept stores like Wal-Mart will fare best, while luxury

stores got hit harder, because it’s hard to combine grief and mourning with

going out and making conspicuous-consumption purchases.”

But some are trying,

takingMayorRudolph Giuliani up on his suggestion that shopping in a time of

crisis is every New Yorker’s patriotic duty.

“When he said to support the city, I thought, ‘I’ll do what I

can: I’ll get some fall clothes,'” said Stacy Nathan, a 31-year-old vice

president for advertising sales for Nickelodeon Online. “You want to be

helpful, dumping money back into New York. I live in Tribeca-I go home to it

every day. I want some bright spot in the day. I’m a little depressed, and

shopping-not that it makes me happy, but I like it. It’s worked for the time

being.”

“People come in here and say, ‘I’m going to do the patriotic

thing and go shopping,'” said Anna Kimtz, co-owner of Hedra Prue, a Mott Street

boutique.

Kim France, editor in chief of the Condé Nast shopping magazine Lucky , said that while the Mayor’s

exhortation was powerful-“If he told them to jump on one foot right now, they’d

do it”-it might not translate. “As for the whole Sex and the City status-shopping moment, it’s a tough thing to

swing right now,” she said. Ms. France added that empty stores would impact not

just the designers but also the city’s economy. “Shopping is seen as girlie

Trivial Pursuit,” she said. “But right now, it’s not trivial, it’s primary.”

Retailers are actively trying to bring status shoppers back,

using charity donations as bait. On Sept. 28, Diane von Furstenberg opened her

West 12th Street studio for a one-day sample sale, which raised $50,000,

proceeds of which went to the Children’s Aid Society, which has established its

own Sept. 11 fund. “If it hadn’t been for charity, we wouldn’t have had as many

people,” said Maureen Cahill, the design company’s director of marketing.

“People bought more because they wanted to help out.”

Designer Nicole Miller helped organize “Pump Up Prince Street,” a

block party for local merchants on Saturday, Sept. 29. Outside her store, an

impromptu fashion shoot was taking place, with store employees and models

“donated” from the Wilhelmina agency prancing to a D.J.

“We’re busy today, actually,” said Nicole Miller store manager

Demi Mouyiaris. “It’s been sad-pathetic! People think 14th Street and below is

like a war zone.” As she spoke, proprietors of nearby restaurants and stores

stood in their doorways, staring blankly into the street as neighborhood kids

hung the pictures they’d painted on butcher paper on every available surface.

Around the corner on Wooster Street, Patagonia had set up a tent with a band

and vendors from the Union Square Greenmarket selling “Apples for the Big

Apple.”

Those who do venture out are finding a full range of fall

fashions to choose from; little was bought before Sept. 11, and thousands of

cartons of European clothing were stuck in customs until recently.

After being evacuated from her office following a bomb scare in

the Condé Nast building on Sept. 13, Glamour

editor Alexandra Marshall said she was feeling “disconnected.” So she went

home, got online and ordered a pair of J. Crew jeans and some used Manolo

Blahniks. Asked how she felt, she laughed: “I felt … really glad to have scored

those shoes for a wedding in Italy! It had me thinking ahead: You fantasize

about an item, and it takes you out of your reality. I was just the girl with

the perfect jeans-not just the girl slugging through the misery of New York

City.”

But the fashion-as-cure philosophy is wearing a bit thin with

some New York shoppers.

“I realized I don’t need it, I don’t want it, it can’t improve my

life right now,” said  Christine Shea, a

31-year-old freelance beauty writer and former editor at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar ,

who related a surreal trip she took with friends to the Michel Perry shoe store

on Sept. 22, where women “talked about which 9/11 fund to donate to, and going

online to liberty-unites.org while deciding whether or not they should buy

these ‘classic’ $350 black pumps. They did.”

Donating one’s clothing allowance to one of the various

disaster-relief funds seems to help some feel better. Others, like Ms.

Phillips, are editing their closets for the cause (though it’s doubtful that

rescue workers need a laser-cut leather McQueen dress). Some are doing it for

profit: Medea Juhasz, the manager of Ina, a designer consignment store on

Prince Street, said they are booked solid for the next two weeks as women look

to offload their excess bags. “People are starting to get rid of things; it

makes them feel better,” she said. “We have one rich person who said, ‘I feel

really guilty. I have so much I don’t need.'”

Of course, there’s little chance that New York will become a city

of people attired in Gap and track suits-fashion is a vital part of how New

Yorkers announce who they are, and any abandonment of the higher reaches of

fashion is a temporary reaction. The closets that are being earnestly cleaned

out will eventually be filled again. If anything, the changed mood now

engulfing the city will find its way into fashion, to be repackaged and sold

back to us at a mark-up next fall.

In the meantime, fashionistas and shopaholics are finding new

ways to fill the void.

“Before, talking about

shopping was a way to bond,” said Ms. Marshall. “Now there are more genuine

ways of bonding. People are more open and genuine.” She said she was rethinking

her trip to Italy. “My friends’ wedding is 20 minutes from the Gucci outlet,”

she said. “Before, there were visions of double G’s dancing in my head. Now I

want to experience being in a foreign country. I don’t want to go there and

just get lots of tote bags.”

 – With additional reporting by Tom McGeveran