Last fall, I wrote a big check at the J. Mendel sample sale and left with a new Russian sable jacket. My emotional state felt vaguely familiar: the initial attraction, the decision to commit, the pure physical pleasure, the brief afterglow … the guilt.
Though I knew sample sales could be dangerous, the invitation to this appointment-only event was irresistible. My shopping buddy Sheri and I entered the raw white space at the appointed hour with the taste of anticipation one gets around bargains, even very expensive ones. I didn’t own a fur and wasn’t really in the market for one, but flipping through the sumptuous coats, jackets, shrugs and blazers, I was getting interested.
I did know that in New York City, what you wear underneath a coat doesn’t really matter. In the same way that people in L.A. are all about their cars, and people in the suburbs are all about their houses, women in Manhattan are all about their coats.
One woman I know recently renovated her townhouse and had her decorator design a coat closet in brown and white lacquered stripes to resemble a Bendel’s box. Every time she grabbed a coat, it was like opening a gift, she said.
But hunting for size sixes, we found only 10’s, 12’s and 14’s. With no luck in outerwear, we turned to the more plentiful racks of eveningwear. In the makeshift fitting room, we faced the wall in our bras and thongs, trying on dresses we didn’t need.
“Where am I going in this?” I demanded of Sheri as I catwalked a nude georgette cocktail dress with a large circle of fur around the hem. “How do you even clean it?”
Desperate to buy something, we started trading clothes with the women around us. Sheri knew one of them, the owner of a designer boutique in Scarsdale. The woman, another size six, had an impressive trove of fur on her end of the rolling rack. She handed me a fur jacket trimmed in suede and lined with psychedelic silk that she didn’t want. Brown with long silky fibers, it grazed my hipbone and elongated my legs.
The room went quiet. It was just me and the jacket. My heart rate jumped. My color rose. I was enveloped in comfort more sensual than a lover’s arms. A few ticks past 40, I didn’t own a single square foot of real estate, but now I felt like a grown-up: a lady in her first fur.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
“You’ll have it forever,” said the sale’s organizer, a zaftig woman who played den mother to the half-starved socialites trying on five-figure coats all around me. “It’s half off retail and then half off that. You can’t get a good shearling for that price. And it’s Russian sable, which is the best.”
I nodded solemnly, pretending to know. (If you asked me yesterday where to get a good sable, I would have said Zabar’s.)
But once I left the sorority milieu of the sale and re-entered the real world, I broke into a sweat thinking about what I had just done without my husband’s consent. He was nothing to fear: an easygoing banker who never checked credit-card bills or, for that matter, yelled. I felt a bit dirty.
“It’ll be fine; he’ll love it,” Sheri said as we drove uptown.
I put down my window and thought of Diane Lane on the train in Unfaithful.
Waiting for my husband to come home that night, I showed the coat to my 9-year-old daughter.
“Oh, Mommy, I love it,” she said stroking my arm like it was the neighbor’s golden retriever. I remembered doing the same thing to my mother’s perfumed furs. When she died, my father gave me her long raccoon coat. Its outdated style was more Rudy Vallee than Jennifer Lopez, and I ended up donating it to the Salvation Army.
Then I remembered: My husband hated that coat. He hated fur. He hated women wearing dead animals to enhance their social status. It hadn’t come up in so many years that I’d forgotten.
That night, shaking slightly, I slipped into my new purchase and presented myself to him as he was changing out of his suit. It took him a couple minutes to notice.
“Well?” I said.
“What were you thinking? I won’t be seen with you in that thing …. You’ll probably get spray-painted …. Don’t even tell me what it cost,” he said as he went to say hello to the kids. He came back in. “You can’t return it? Sell it on eBay.”
I hung the jacket in the hall closet on my best wooden hanger and felt like throwing up.
Later, as I was leaving for my book club, my 11-year-old son handed me a Japanese manga-style cartoon he had drawn of a protester with a placard that read “Save the minks! Burn fur coats!” A figure nearby threw a fur jacket on a bonfire.
At the book club in the townhouse with the Bendel’s closet—which I noted contained a sheared mink bolero—everyone wanted to know how they could get into the sale.
“I’ll buy the coat, if you’re feeling guilty,” volunteered a fellow reader. Later, staring at the ceiling at 2:30 a.m., I toyed with the notion of selling it to her, trying to choose between the fur and my husband’s approval.
I did some research. One in five women in America own fur coats, and New York City is the leader in sales. Sable coats were going for $20,000 on eBay. I could sell mine and make money, but I’d lose my chance with a great fur.
Meanwhile, my fling hung in the closet. I stroked it every time I grabbed another jacket. Was it worth rocking my marriage over a coat that I might be in love with? I invited friends in for a look.
My tennis partner: “I never buy things at sample sales—I always regret it. It’s very fancy.”
A Park Avenue decorator: “I went to that sale on the first day, and all the socialites bought that jacket.”
An artist: “That’s a coat to wear in Paris—inside out.”
My friend, the shrink: “Tell your husband the box he fears most is the box he has to go into.”
A divorced mom: “Keep it. He’ll get over it.”
When it finally got cold, I wore the jacket to a holiday party. My husband took my arm with just a slight roll of his eyes. After greeting us, the hostess told me not to leave the fur on the rack in the hall. “Put it on my bed,” she whispered. I found it at the end of the party, lying next to a number of less exquisite pelts The next day, I wore it to a Third Avenue coffee shop for lunch with my daughter. The place was busy. I noticed the host notice my jacket. Rather than give us a cramped table for two in the back, he showed us to a large booth for four in the front. I folded the jacket carefully inside out, like I’d seen ladies do, and placed it on the seat next to me. Out of the closet, this jacket could do more than keep me warm. And I had a feeling that someday my husband might even accept our little triangle.