Recently, as the retail world was being rocked by the news that the venerable Fifth Avenue department store Henri Bendel will cease selling, oh, clothes, Myrna Skoller was on the phone from Boca Raton, where she spends most of her time nowadays, discussing the contrasting fortunes of her 19-year-old Upper East Side consignment shop, Designer Resale.
“I’m really excited to say I’m getting that final piece of space I always wanted, that store right next to us,” she said. “We’re adding another 1,700 square feet of space. That’ll probably make us the biggest one in New York!”
Ms. Skoller’s mini-empire of shops on East 81st Street between First and Second avenues already comprises Designer Resale, Gentlemen’s Resale and Designer Resale Too: three distinct storefronts that occupy a sizable chunk of their sleepy block. One recent afternoon, items for sale included a black eyelet Prada dress for $300; a sexy aqua halter dress by Versace for $125; and an oversize brown suede Jimmy Choo tote covered in barnacle-like studded hardware for $900. “We’re doing very, very well,” said Ms. Skoller said. “We don’t seem to feel any kind of economic crunch. We just don’t seem to feel it.”
Of course, being a resale outfit, Ms. Skoller’s business often sees misfortune’s silver lining—or micro-suede, as it were. In 2006, for example, she was tapped to sell 2,000 designer pieces from the wardrobe of former Palm Beach socialite Lin Gosman, wife of heath care magnate Abe, when Ms. Gosman was hit with a $66 million judgment in the wake of her hubby’s $500 million bankruptcy (Ms. Skoller does not disclose the names of her consignors, she was quick to note; this one was outed by The Palm Beach Post). The haul included a Hermes alligator Kelly bag that went for $10,000.
More recently, Ms. Skoller drove out to New Jersey and recovered 148 Hermes scarves from the closet of a deceased fashionista whose sons were selling her stuff. “It’s become so common,” she sighed, of the sartorial windfalls of calamity. “I only wish I kept a journal.”
The old-guard Upper East Side consignment shops are like a booming neighborhood luxury yard sale, with neighbors discreetly downsizing the wardrobes they accumulated in flusher times (like 2007; the best resale shops don’t take pieces more than a couple years old). They do it because they suddenly need the money, or because styles have changed, becoming less flashy and identifiably designer, or because “it’s just not cool to have that much stuff anymore,” said Melanie Charlton Fascitelli—wardrobe stylist, closet organizer and author of the book Shop Your Closet: The Ultimate Guide to Organizing Your Closet With Style—who is often charged with recouping for her clients a few of the many thousands of dollars spent on clothes and accessories right before the economy tanked. (She usually does so at Designer Resale in New York or at L.A.’s even more high-end Decades boutique.)
“I sold fabulous pieces last year with tags still on them from Balenciaga, maybe a two or three thousand dollar coat that gets sold for $400!” said Ms. Charlton Fascitelli, whose clients used to include “aspirational types” but are lately only “high-net-worth individuals.” “It’s just a repercussion from the way people were living before,” she said. “People were buying anything and everything.” (That said, “There is definitely an upper echelon that is extraordinarily less affected by what’s going on, and for that echelon, it’s more a consciousness thing and a psychological thing.” Besides: “It’s very green to consign.”)
Resale shops like Ms. Skoller’s have found themselves inundated with calls from hopeful sellers, giving them a larger pool from which to cull exceptional items.
At the same time, most resale shops are adjusting already bargain prices downward to compete with department store markdowns. “We can’t sell a Chanel bag for $1,500 if you can buy it at Chanel for $1,600,” said Laura Fluhr, owner of Michael’s, a Madison Avenue resale institution now in its 54th year in business (Michael himself was Ms. Fluhr’s father). “I would say everything in the store is slightly less money in consideration of what’s going on around us.” Not that she’s suffering for customers: “You should’ve been in here yesterday. We must’ve had 100 people in here! You couldn’t get through the aisles!” Ms. Skoller, meanwhile, admitted that “a bag that I might have priced at $900, maybe now I’ll price at $750.”
Still, as mainstream retail continues to flounder, with markdowns being the only way to move excess merchandise and increasing numbers of shoppers buying online—which now affords both privacy and blockbuster deals—the best consignment stores, swimming as they are in the riches of our vanquished era of consumerism, find themselves in an enviable position. Sure, you actually have to go there, often several times, and sure, most have fusty pastel walls and overburdened racks and signs like “Your husband called. He said to buy anything you want.” But while the luxury online discount stores Gilt Groupe or Haute Look may offer a couple of designers on any given day, a Michael’s or Designer Resale customer might encounter Chanel, Marni, Etro, Hermes, Dolce & Gabbana, Marc Jacobs and Jimmy Choo wares, all basically new, most at J. Crew prices.
“Some of these woman have so many clothes,” said Ms. Fluhr of her consignors. “They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. We’re fortunate to have some of the wealthiest women … the formerly wealthiest women. And that’s what they do—they shop.” Ms. Fluhr said she has seen new consignors and new customers as the Upper East Side continues to feel the pinch.
“We’ve seen more of the crocodile Birkins, the crocodile Kellys,” piped in Tamara Fluhr-Gates, Ms. Fluhr’s daughter and the store’s director of business development, who was also on the phone.