Designer Shoe Warehouse

Two months after opening in Manhattan, the Designer Shoe Warehouse, on the second floor of the old J.W. May’s building at the foot of Union Square, still feels like it’s in the “grand opening” phase. Cartoonishly proper doormen flank the entrance of DSW, as it’s known, and a cheery staffer at the top of the escalator hands out color-blocked maps of the premises. As one enters, the vast, 30,000-square-foot space seems arrestingly bright, with endless chest-high aisles of shoes-a mixture of brands from $49.90 Nine West slingbacks to $259.90 Christian Lacroix mules-displayed in a sterile, warehouse-like format.

And the ladies are lovin’ it. Juliette Pope, 37, the wine director for Gramercy Tavern, was trying out black Cole Haan mules there on a recent weekend afternoon, after colleagues and a hairdresser recommended the store to her. “I’ve been saying, ‘I need shoes, where should I go? I’m sick of all the usual places.’ And they’re saying, ‘Go to DSW,'” she said. “I’m pretty impressed so far. There’s tons of space. You can just drop your things and rattle around.” Emma Karhan, 29, a reinsurance broker, was shopping nearby with a friend after purchasing heels and ballet flats there the previous weekend. “I love it,” she said. “This would be my first stop for shoe shopping. It’s exactly the same range you’d see at Bloomingdale’s or Saks or somewhere-I mean, you’ve everything from Anne Klein to Givenchy.”

Does it really come as a surprise that the city’s new designer-footwear mecca comes from … grrr … Ohio? The store’s first branch opened in Columbus in July of 1991, the brainchild of executives at a private company called Shonac, owned by members of the local Schottenstein and Nacht families. In 1998, the business was acquired by a public conglomerate, now called Retail Ventures Inc., and there are now 170 DSW’s in 31 states, including another recently opened Manhattan branch in Battery Park City. Mike Levison, the company’s vice president of marketing, hinted that this was just the beginning. “We’ll continue to look for opportunities to open stores,” he said.

And they’ll probably find them. Even prior to Sarah Jessica Parker cantering into that spray of bus slush, New York women have long been the ultimate shoe collectors, a city stocked with Imelda Marcoses. It must be something about the walking culture, because designer shoes are our own personal luxury vehicle.

There are those who suck it up and pay full price for tip-top brands like Jimmy Choo and Prada; those who stick to the reasonably priced troika of Nine West, Kenneth Cole and Banana Republic; and those willing to scrap it among the battered shoe boxes of Century 21 and Loehmann’s.

And now the concept of the shoe-mad Manhattanite has been processed by Hollywood, swallowed whole by middle America and regurgitated back into our laps in the form of DSW.

The new competitor must feel haunted by the ghosts of discounts past: It’s on the site of both the former May’s and Bradlee’s, lower-end department stores that closed in 1988 and 2001, respectively. “Traditionally, 14th Street was very, very low-end retailing,” said Caroline Banker, a Douglas Elliman retail broker specializing in downtown. But now, she said, “Union Square is a melting pot. You have tremendous wealth and tremendous diversity. It’s a very accessible marketplace. The appeal for DSW is that they cross many economic and many socioeconomic categories. They want the young, the old, the various ethnicities, the secretary, the Madison Avenue shopper as well. This is a location where they can do that.”

But though New York women are clearly enjoying the store, they seem skeptical that it can really grant them the “designer” fix promised by its name, despite the presence of $299.90 Roberto Cavalli linen heels, $359.90 Vera Wang satin pumps and $289.90 Marc Jacobs sandals-a stock specifically customized for this city, where, Mr. Levison promised, “We’ll maximize our selection of our finest, most prestigious brands.”

“I’m a Barneys shopper,” said Teresa Pemberton, 41, a slender makeup artist who lives in Tribeca and was underwhelmed by the generous selection of Anne Klein and Nine West at DSW the other day. “You go there and you find your ideas, then you come to these knockoff places.”

“When I walk into DSW, it’s like, ‘That’s a Manolo knockoff, that’s a Prada knockoff,'” said Anne von Hemert, 27, a fashionably dressed graphic designer at a recent W magazine party. “I don’t give a shit who makes it-but being in fashion, I also know who they’ve knocked off. It’s not really ‘designer.'”

That wouldn’t stop her from buying stuff there, she hastened to add. “I’m not shopping for the brands,” Ms. von Hemert said. “I’m shopping for the knockoffs. When you go there, you want to spend $60 as opposed to $260.” The DSW sales team was also to her liking. “They’re nice-they’re not nasty,” she said. “I think they train their employees to treat everyday like it’s a sale.”

Ms. von Hemert’s friend, Amy Chan, 27, a shower-curtain designer, suspected that DSW’s fanciest offerings were not the real draw. “They have it just to have a high price point in the store, but I don’t think most people are going in for those items,” she said.

Lauren Grund, 25, a senior account executive at fashion public-relations firm LaForce+Stevens, has been a DSW addict since the chain first appeared near her hometown in Columbia, Md. But she’s ambivalent about the new branch’s arrival in her neighborhood downtown. “I go back and forth,” she said. “I don’t necessarily want to share them with other New Yorkers.”

Indeed, it’s possible that precisely what seems so novel about DSW-the space, the cleanliness, the suburbanness of it all-might ultimately be its undoing in our grimy burg. “I used to go out to New Jersey to go to DSW. I would always get a bunch of shoes,” Ms. von Hemert said. Then “my friend was like, ‘Anne, DSW is moving into the city; it’s going to be in Union Square!’ And that killed part of the allure for me. Part of the allure of DSW was going out to the suburbs, like I’m going to find this great bargain in the middle of nowhere. As soon as it reaches the city, I lost interest in it. I haven’t been to the one in Union Square! And I live in Chelsea.”