Critical Shopper A Big Discount Store Moves Uptown – Critical Shopper
Two years later, I wore my mothballed Wang to the wedding whose expense and excess (miniature lamb chops?) I’d rationalized in the spirit that prevailed after 9/11. Carpe diem. Secure the domestic front. Tend a victory garden. No, wait. Shop.
(Noting the gown’s unfortunate translucency under flashbulbs, one sharp-eyed guest ventured that I might have bought not a slip dress but an actual slip. Whatever.)
The marriage has endured; not so my relationship with Century 21, which suffered not only because of the fallen towers, but also the rise of the Web, which proved a powerful narcotic for the wild-eyed breed of bargain hunters. Yoox, Bluefly, eBay, Gilt Groupe — suddenly elbowing through racks stuffed with garments under placards coyly promising “famous names” seemed so … 20th century.
But the store, whose prospects appeared dire after the terrorist attacks, has thrived, not only fortifying the downtown bulwark but also opening locations in Rego Park, Queens, and now Lincoln Square, wresting the lease from a Barnes & Noble. It would feel hypocritical to mourn the big chain that muscled out the little bookshop around the corner, and anyway, the local nannies stroller-napping their charges and operagoers awaiting curtain time across the street have had little trouble switching from literature to Lanvin.
Civilized it’s not. The line for the 11 dressing rooms on the women’s floor often lurches back to lingerie (Hanky Panky thongs, $12.97, valued at $28). “I’m so mad,” one saleswoman said with a sigh. “They said they were going to do more.”
“Raise hell!” bellowed a shopper, pumping her fist in the air. “I will fight with you.” (Who says the Upper West Side has lost its radicalism?)
But the mayhem makes sense: Century 21 simply offers better brands than its closest competitors in New York: Daffy’s, a fine place to visit for Italian knitwear; and Loehmann’s, whose once-legendary Back Room has lost considerable luster after a national expansion. You’ll never find the runway treasures there that you will, with a little elbow grease, find here.
Take the black wool militaristic Viktor & Rolf coat one woman tried to snatch from me. Please! (It was $698.97, valued at $1,595). Nearby, a studded, zippered mustard-colored cardigan ($229.97, valued at $540) by John Galliano, disgraced for his anti-Semitic remarks, stood studiously ignored by a gaggle of Orthodox Jewish women. Meanwhile, two neighborhood biddies were palpating the crevices of a Martin Margiela tan tunic ($259.97, valued at $870). “This is exactly what I need,” one croaked sincerely.
The dramatic markdowns and bazaarlike atmosphere (nothing’s chained for security, yet) can encourage foolish fashion risks. I waited 15 minutes to try on a D & G circle skirt in heavy black-and-white spotted calf that made me look like Betty Draper after a collision with a package of Hydrox. But at $999.97, down from $7,020, it was a thrill even to be permitted to touch it.
There are also plenty of approachable basics. In the lobby, amid watches, handbags and tourists muttering, “trop cher pour moi”: a plexiglass case stuffed with cashmere-lined leather gloves ($22.97, down from $60), ready to join the long trail of those left on subways or nibbled by moths and including a cubby devoted to my hard-to-find size, 8 1/2, like the Fellini movie — or the Man Hands episode on “Seinfeld.”
I descended to hell, a k a the fluorescent-lighted basement footwear department, where Franken-shoes like Jessica Simpson’s toeless lace-up wedge booties ($59.97, valued at $98) share space with brocade Manolos in the $250 range. For these you are not permitted to have Man Feet.
Speaking of men, they have two floors of their own, dismissed quickly by my husband, who met me at the store on his birthday. “Too shiny,” he said, glissando-ing over a row of Brioni and Versace suits.
“Downtown, there’s always that feeling that you might discover something,” he added. “Here, you don’t have that feeling.”
I reminded him it has been a long time — one cross-country loop, two children, too many costume changes to count — since either of us made a pilgrimage to the Cortlandt Street store. We’ve changed.
But Century 21, reassuringly, marches on.
1972 Broadway (66th Street), (212) 518-2121; century21.com.
PAST A beloved mini-chain of department stores, with a tradition of deep discounts on designer goods and a flagship at ground zero, expands to an uptown site formerly occupied by Barnes & Noble.
PRESENT What the branch lacks in ambience (brace for cheap carpets, garish cylindrical light fixtures and droning soft rock) it makes up for in tireless staff members tending the ravaged racks.
FUTURE Stock turns over at warp speed; a pair of wood-heeled Céline boots available one day was gone the next. If you like an item, leap: the store has a 30-day return policy.
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