I hate department stores. They remind me of being a chubby 12-year-old with braces being dragged around by her mother to try on bat-mitzvah dresses at the Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s located in the heart of Delaware’s Christiana Mall. (We eventually decided on an electric blue sleeveless number, and suffice to say I have vowed to burn the photobook of evidence the first chance I get.)
So sartorially misinformed was I that for many years I associated most department stores with the cheap and gawdy—obviously, I reasoned, most cool clothes come from stores that sold only their own brand, places like Ann Taylor, or Hot Topic. Up until embarrassingly recently, I didn’t understand what my so-called friends were driving at when they offered to take me shopping at Macy’s, Nordstrom’s or Bloomie’s. I just flashed back to Delaware and that blue dress and assumed that they were making some sort of ironic commentary on prom season.
But a girl can’t live in blissful ignorance forever, and by the time I was, oh, say, 28, I found out that, far from being tacky, New York’s haute couture was synonymous with, yes, Madison Avenue designer flagships, but also: Bergdorf’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys. I had never stepped into these hallowed halls of fashion. I had to take a Valium just to step into a Century 21, with its maze-like layouts, dressing room item limits and panic-inducing number of choices.
But I couldn’t wear jeans and sweaters with cat faces on them forever, and no matter how well that kitschy-cute skunk hat I had purchased last summer in South Dakota went over at a recent Broadway after party, I realized that eventually I would have to make peace with the luxury department store.
To face the minotaur, I turned to one of the world’s most knowledgeable sources: Terron Schaefer, the executive vice president and chief creative officer of Saks Fifth Avenue. Recognizable as the “Simon Cowell” (his words) of the design competition Fashion Star, where he plays the role of a Saks’ “buyer” (their words), the impeccably dressed and terrifyingly well-mannered Mr. Schaefer has spent most of his life as a Willy Wonka of haute couture retail.
Working at the marketing division of Doyle Dane Bernbach, he was in charge of clients like Harrods (where Mohamed Al-Fayed had once suggested building an indoor roller coaster to attract boys looking for school clothes), Polaroid and Bloomingdales. After a brief respite working in Cambodia for Doctors without Borders—“I needed to get as far away from that world as humanly possible,” he sighed—Mr. Schaefer landed the premiere gig at Saks, only three blocks away from his first offices at DDB.
Meeting at his office across the street from Saks Fifth Avenue where, in 1923, Adam Gimbel famously began his upscale rival to Macy’s, I admitted that I had never been to the store. I knew enough about the company to know I couldn’t afford a bangle, let alone a whole outfit.
But this was about the experience. Walking into Saks for the first time was like going through the looking glass of a regular department store. Here—as they say in Cabaret–—everything is beeeuuuuutiful! As I stood gawking at the giant, colorful fish that swam in a window-sized tank across from Coach bags, Mr. Schaefer guided me up to the third floor: the designer floor, which is where I learned how it is that people found themselves in deep, deep credit debt.
I had always assumed that clothes were clothes, and anyone who spent more than a couple hundred dollars on an entire outfit was a sucker. But that was before I walked among the theatrical Oscar de la Renta and Alexander McQueen gowns, the lace and paisley of Erdem, the deceptively simple lines of Akris. At each, Mr. Schaefer pointed out the intricate detail and attention paid to both the clothes and the surrounding environment: in a room showcasing Japanese and Belgian advanced designers—Comme des Garcons, Junya Watanabe, Anne Demeulemeester, etc.—there was a black “aqua” table by Zaha Hadid that seemed to defy the laws of gravity; a bronzed willow tree chandelier by Michele Oka lit the hallway; the blown-up photo of a Japanese basket that was photo-transferred onto the floor design for the Ralph Rucci/Chado boutique.
We spent three hours going through each designer. Halfway through an explanation of why a certain designer’s lack of buttons was so important, I could feel myself slipping into a catatonic state of information overload. What was I doing here? I didn’t know my Valentino from Versace … hell, I didn’t even know if those names corresponded with real people. And the looks I did like were so completely out of my universe, money-wise, it was like being on a clothing safari.
True, I was learning some fashion trends for this season: mesh is in (you could find the sporty material in ready-to-wear Commes des Garçons, Jil Sander and, yes, even Burberry, not to mention all those mesh-encased booties from Chanel to Reed Krakoff), tight bandage dresses are in (woe be to anyone with a BMI higher than .02%), and so is a tony punk aesthetic, as realized by the infamous Christian Louboutin spikes as well as the prevalence of “takes” on the motorcycle jacket. It was unclear if these seasonal items were inspired by the upcoming Met Costume Institute Gala, “Punk: From Chaos to Couture,” or the other way around.
The color “guava” was also thrown around as a high seller this season.
Still, I doubted it would help with my larger problem: my complete inability to dress myself. I wanted someone to tell me what I needed to wear in order to look fabulous, how to accessorize without clashing and then, preferably, hand it to me in my size at no cost.
“Does this store have a layaway plan?” I attempted to joke at the hour-and-a-half mark, after fingering a gorgeous Michael Kors black and white gown. Mr. Schaefer gave a half-cough/half-laugh and mercifully treated the question as rhetorical.
Even more devastating was the fact that I couldn’t just buy whatever the model was wearing and call it fashionable.
“No one buys a whole look,” he had told me when we arrived on the floor. “I mean, you can, but you’ll hardly see anyone do it. It’s much more of a mix and match.”
I tried to explain that my version of matching was wearing two different shades of black, but we gamely kept going. On and on and on. Fendi, Zoran, Missoni—each designer like a new constellation that needed to be memorized in the fashion universe. This wasn’t fun. It was work!
And then something strange happened. Though Mr. Schaefer was gently guiding me by the arm through the first hesitant hour, by the second I was darting away to look at pieces I liked. I stopped doubting that all my choices were ridiculous: After all, if it was being sold at Saks, it couldn’t be a faux pas, right?
Mr. Schaefer knew that I was ready to fly on my own. “I think it’s time you saw your new favorite designer,” he said, with a mischievous smile. “I think you’re going to be a big fan. It’s Stephanie Seymour’s favorite too!” I honestly wasn’t sure if I saw the connection. All doubts vanished from my mind, however, as we reached the realm of Azzedine Alaïa.
Like a moth called to the flame of the Tunisian-born, France-residing designer, a moment after I walked into the alcove I was banging down the dressing room doors to try on the eggshell-blue Calypso skater dress, the matching, metallic bolero, the pink and black Papier vitrail cut-out dress with its tulle skirt. The Entrelacs dress in its muted pearl, which originally looked so staid, paired so perfectly with the greige textured cotton Alvéole biker jacket that it attracted a small crowd of bystanders when I stepped out of the changing room to show it to Mr. Schaefer.
“May I ask … are you a model?” one of the women asked.
This lady could have been a plant for all I knew; in that moment, I would have willingly forked over … jeez, the $8,145 that the ensemble would have cost me.
“Consider it an investment piece,” Mr. Schaefer said, before noting that the ALAIA was the preferred brand of Peter Brant’s wife, Stephanie Seymour.
We barely had time to rush to the Saks shoe floor before the three-hour mark, a place so overwhelmingly glamorous and gargantuan that Mr. Schaefer had gone to D.C. to petition the postmaster general to give it its own zip code—a brilliant piece of marketing savvy that has led to branding of the department as “10022 Shoe.”
It was there I tried on Kanye West’s Mercury-inspired Giuseppe Zanotti heels (complete with golden wings) and a collection that featured the heel in the middle, instead of the back of the shoe. I marveled at (but didn’t even think of trying) Sergio Rossi’s razor-thin, 4-1/2-inch bootie heels. Even more terrifying was Mr. Zanotti’s 6-1/2-inch wedge with no heel whatsoever, letting the wearer’s soles dangle precariously off the ground, like a high-wire act with no safety net.
Anyway, after conquering the socialite soldier’s baptême de feu that is shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue, I figured, the shoes could wait for another day.