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.
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.
“It’s not like we’re getting in 10 a week, either,” qualified Ms. Fluhr.
“But maybe a couple years ago we would get—”
“One a year,” said Ms. Fluhr.
“And then one week, we got two or three,” Ms. Fluhr-Gates said, marveling. “In one week!”
(Consignment retailers inevitably mention the revered Birkin, and its equally iconic sister, the Kelly, in discussing their star products. Ms. Skoller once sold a Birkin for $17,500).
And while not all resale shops report the consistent quarterly growth throughout 2008 that Ms. Skoller claimed, they all agree that they are, as Ms. Fluhr of Michael’s put it, “much better off than [the retail stores] are.”
At Encore, the oldest consignment shop in the city and Michael’s Madison Avenue neighbor, manager Peter Kabcenell was sifting late last week through a recent haul of consigned shoes, among them a pair of Yves Saint Laurent black patent-leather “cage” boots, which retail for $1,590. “That’s this year’s shoe,” he said admiringly. They were brand-new, never worn. He motioned toward a shopping bag containing three large boxes of brand-new Jimmy Choo boots in three different colors, also unworn. “They buy a bunch of stuff, and they wear what they want, and if they don’t get around to wearing it, then it’s out of style or out of season, and it comes to us,” he said with a shrug. “It’s always been that way.”
Christos Garkinos, co-owner of L.A.’s aforementioned Decades and DecadesTwo—which resells more recent designer wares—was flying back to the West Coast last week after spending a few days in the lucratively overstuffed closets of a few New York clients whose castoffs he will offer at his May 15-17 pop-up shop at Kiki de Montparnasse in Soho. (Mr. Garkinos is considering a more permanent New York store but is still scouting the right space; in the meantime, he’ll be bringing “darker colors” east, he said, and special finds like a spangly Burberry coin dress: “I think Kate Moss had one and my client had the other one.”) He said he has been “inundated” with stock and that his consignors “are understanding, ‘Maybe I have over-consumed in the past few years, and it could be a good time to clean things out, to really see what’s in my closet.’”
But though his business is thriving, he was quick to point out that overconsumption is not always about money. “[Women] often have relationships with their personal sales associates at Barneys or Neiman’s, and they want to keep those relationships going. … It’s a little bit of fashion extortion,” he said, partially explaining his high volume of never-worn merchandise.
Mr. Kabcenell of Encore, meanwhile, was wearing jeans, sneakers and a white T-shirt; he had shoulder-length brown hair that made him look more like a trainer at an expensive gym than like a man who peddles (gently, if at all) worn Manolos for a living. He said that his top consignors, among them “very famous celebrities,” were not doing it for the money. “You get phone calls from people who are really hurt by the recession, and they want to sell their clothing to make money, and it’s generally not what we’re looking for,” he said.
He surmised that the glut of desirable merchandise at consignment emporiums such as Encore owed more to the general downswing in consumer spending. More people are consigning, after all, but fewer are willing to spend even $7,500—standard rate for a used Birkin—on just one item, even if they would have paid three times that at retail last year.
Still: “If I could do anything, I would do only accessories,” he said, wistfully referencing Henri Bendel. “The bag will be the thing that lasts the longest.”
Of course, it could be that the socialites and former finance wives and magazine editors who own the bags will begin taking them elsewhere, as online luxury auction sites like Portero.com proliferate, allowing them to fetch higher prices for their loot or to cut out the middleman altogether, as is possible on eBay—which, after becoming “stale” for a while, said Ms. Charlton Fascitelli, is now “booming again, because there’s so much inventory of resale items out there.”
“I’ve done it through established places, and it’s fine, it’s great, but they always take 50 percent,” said socialite Fabiola Beracasa the other night at an event at the Bowery Hotel, clad in a vintage Ungaro gown she’d shortened herself. “Which is kind of annoying, because you’re like, ‘I get it, but I could sell this on eBay. I don’t live in the 18th century!’” (That said, eBay is kind of a “hassle,” she pointed out, and accessories tend to do better than dresses, which people like to touch and try on before committing to.)
She may soon take things into her own hands, she hinted. “I am in the process of trying to figure out a space where I could have a New York yard sale!” she said. “I’m trying to get girlfriends together to, like, get all their crap and put it in a place that would be the equivalent of a yard sale, but our stuff. And maybe donate some portion. Whether you need the money or you don’t need the money, you need the space. You just can’t have all this stuff around all the time”
Consignment is a necessary restorative process, after all, explained Ms. Charlton Fascitelli: one that keeps money flowing through the retail ecosystem even in the worst of times.
“My clients on the high end, it frees up their mind to think, ‘I went through my closet, and I’m ready to shop again,’” she said.