On a recent Saturday afternoon, my friend Francesca and I enjoyed a fairy-tale shopping day. We were at Jeffrey, of course, moseying though the shoe department, pausing to opine on the merits of the Prada mule. We passed the dreadlocked D.J. spinning old Barbra and entered the women’s salon, where a Lacoste-shirted salesman, channeling Jeffrey himself, picked up our scent. He lavished us with flattery. He got me to spend a lot for a dress I didn’t need. But while I was under his spell, it seemed so wonderful. I’d go back and do it again if I could afford to.
So when I read that Nordstrom bought part of Jeffrey and has named its owner, Jeffrey Kalinsky, as the director of designer merchandising, I was disturbed deep in my shopping bones. I fear this Felix-and-Oscar pairing will upset Jeffrey’s little temple of cool on West 14th street.
With only one other store (in Atlanta), it’s an endangered species—a non-globalized retailer with personality. Meanwhile, Nordstrom is so far off a Manhattanite’s main floor, it barely registers in our Steinbergian view of retail destinations. With its tepid image and midrange labels, it hopes to co-opt the mystique of Jeffrey’s that I adore, but which may not play in Paramus.
Odd couples are cropping up across the retail landscape. H&M’s hot liaison with Karl Lagerfeld, and now Stella McCartney, makes others long for such high-low mojo. Thomas O’Brien, downscaled for Target, joins Isaac Mizrahi. Jo Malone, once of London, is now all over New York thanks to Estée Lauder, new stepmother to Tom Ford. Tommy Hilfiger takes over Lagerfeld Gallery and narrowly avoids selling out to Kmart.
I confess the only Nordstrom (or “Nerdstorm,” as my 12-year-old son calls it) I ever visited is in the Corte Madera shopping center in Marin County, Calif., and that was to use the bathroom during holiday shopping while visiting my mother-in-law.
My view of the department store—considered upscale in some parts of the country—was also clouded by the experience of staying in my husband’s childhood home, a 1950’s ranch built to last 50 years. Despite Marin’s reputation as a bellwether zone with mountainsides full of hot-tubbing granola munchers, my mother-in-law exists in a Reaganesque time warp. After two martinis, she’ll tell you how she didn’t vote for Arnold because he married a Kennedy.
In this red state of mind, I went to the Nordstrom-anchored mall to try and find some stocking stuffers. My children were thrilled. Two tweens who walk to school up Madison Avenue every day, they see “The Mall” as an exotic archetype, somewhere Lizzie McGuire goes to buy bras and drink smoothies. For me, shopping there was joyless. The too-bright main floor’s Escher-like aisles, brimming with vast quantities of familiar products, left me numb. In New York, shopping is recreation. In Marin, they have mountain biking.
At Jeffrey, shopping transcends recreation. When Francesca and I showed up that magical Saturday, she was strangely not in the mood to try anything on, so she made me do it. Francesca, a sales-help magnet in a sparkly Marc Jacobs jacket and gamine haircut, works a selling floor like Bloomberg runs the city. Our salesman in the too-tight Lacoste shirt fought off colleagues for the chance to escort us to the fitting room. He followed in our wake squiring Tuleh suits, Dsquared skirts and Michael Kors dresses. Francesca splayed herself on the white armchair, pronouncing a Tuleh suit I tried on “excellent,” and a skirt festooned with razor-sharp discs that cut into my waist “perfect.” Lacoste Boy popped by to zip me into a slate-blue Michael Kors dress.
“Amazing!” he declared. “Don’t move!” Seconds later, he arrived with a buzzed-bald sidekick balancing shoeboxes. “Try these!” He slipped a python Dolce & Gabbana stiletto sling-back on my foot. It fit perfectly.
He fluttered around me like my fairy godmother. With a wave of his hand, he produced a tailor whose foam inserts magically filled out the bust of the princess-seamed dress. I was ready to nail a prince, even though what I needed was something to wear to a bat mitzvah in Westport. He whisked away my MasterCard.
“The dress will be ready next weekend,” he said when he returned. “We can deliver, but you should come in for a fitting.” I hadn’t had one of those since my wedding, but it was included.
The next weekend, I returned with my husband to try the dress on before dinner in the meatpacking district. On the way to the women’s department, we detoured through men’s. A jock turned investment banker, my husband has no sense of humor when it comes to clothing: He would rather have a colonoscopy than go to Prada to buy me a birthday present. We flipped though the racks of acid-striped shirts and distressed leather jackets that cost a weekend in Paris, without seeing a garment we could imagine him wearing.
I found Lacoste Boy. My husband chatted with the D.J. I tried on the dress. (The boobs were just right.) My husband looked at me and asked if we could eat.
“Let me just show you how it looks with the shoes,” I begged, trying to rekindle the magic. He wasn’t interested.
I got dressed and grabbed the glossy white shopping bag the size of a boogie board with “JEFFREY” spelled out in huge black letters. I passed it to my husband, who shifted uncomfortably beneath the burdensome status symbol.
“That is the most ridiculous place,” he said once we were outside. “Don’t make me go in there again.”
I promised not to, though with Nordstrom coming into the picture, the place may change into somewhere that guys like my husband won’t feel intimidated. Maybe he’ll even want to shop with me someday, I thought.
I missed the old Jeffrey already.