We interrupt this bedbug miniseries to bring you a report from a recent Barney’s Warehouse Sale. The next semiannual sale begins this Thursday August 19th in Manhattan.
The Barney’s Warehouse Sale reminds me of what the Galapagos Islands would be if the Galapagos Islands were a giant high-end discount sale: harshly lit, unwelcoming, and teeming with specimens that the pressures of survival in the fashion industry have distorted into style dead-ends, grotesque mutants that now lie listlessly around the barren landscape, encrusted with bad ideas.
But even mutants can be appealing when they come from Parisian ateliers, and so the sale serves, like those tours that allow you to mingle with the blue-footed boobies, as a kind of sartorial petting zoo, a chance to get up close and personal with the exotica one has only glimpsed through a shop window, darkly.
The sale is held semiannually in Chelsea, in an echoing concrete cavern staffed with a small army of attendants who are kind but suspicious, like nurses in a locked ward. To get to the women’s clothes it is necessary to go through the men’s section in the basement, a twilit acre of suitcoats stretching into the windowless distance like those rows of terracotta soldiers unearthed at Xi’an. “They are fighting for the shoes up there,” a tiny, dapper man warned me as I headed up the stairs to women’s. He sounded sorry to be missing it.
There was no fighting that morning, just a library hush and the crickety sounds of hangers sliding across metal racks. But the shoe section had definitely been the epicenter of something recently, perhaps a dirty bomb stuffed with a thousand variations on the gladiator sandal. Like a disappearing species desperate to mate, some of the shoes were burdened with so many features that they were inappropriate for any occasion, like the Givenchy high-heeled ankle-wrap sandals, done in zebra-striped horse-hair and sprinkled with crystals and silver studs because why not? Some retained the vestigial features of former lives, in which they had actually been functional. Good news: You have found a pair of Louboutins in your size, originally $1195, now $289.04. Bad news: They are styled like traditional boating deck shoes, down to the leather lacing. They are platform peep-toe high-heeled deck shoes, in peach suede, and slightly smudged.
The sale, which lasts for two weeks, has styles that stretch back several seasons and are discounted in increasing percentages, from 25% to 75%. A few items seemed immune to this marketing strategy, like the pairs of pink tie-dyed roper boots that would probably have to be donated somewhere. But for some items the psychology of the plummeting price point worked wonders, like the Costume National orthopedic-chic white leather t-strap wedges with perforated strap, Band-Aid style, a mistake at the original price of $625, but at $227.40 a witty comment on the seductive power of bedside care. And here and there a shoe that remained maddeningly just out of reach, like the vertiginously high Alaia gold platform sandals, which at a stroke turned me into the kind of leggy, unscrupulous girl my grandmother called a hotskova, and which at $2330 reduced to $937.33 and 40% off, were still too much.
I skipped the mass-market racks, all earth-toned cotton knits already going nubby, and headed to the designers, where an ill-advised union between Lanvin and Acne denim had produced an inky glut of jeans with a buzz-killing wide grosgrain waistband, like maternity jeans, and a version of Elbaz’s long-sleeve tunic dress with its hypertrophic ruched shoulders, which had been electrifying in red silk but which in denim was just thuggish.
I found a pin-straight black leather mini-skirt made out of something called plonge cow, with an attached wool underbust corset, from the Row, the Olsen twins’ line, or so I believe it said on the label, a gold charm the size of a filling. I also found a relatively recent Marc Jacobs charcoal gray jacket with blue pinstripes and knobby little shoulders, and a Comme Des Garcons item that appeared to be from Fall 2008, half tulle gown, half velvet pantsuit, lashed together with straps of black elastic.
The changing area, a communal strip-fest where I first discovered that in Manhattan, there are women my grandmother’s age wearing thong underwear, is lined with cheap mirrors, which are something like viewing your reflection in a chrome bumper. The Row skirt was too small, and anyways at $288 too expensive, with a stripe of what looked like white paint on the front. But the Marc Jacobs jacket silhouette was surprising, and still relevant: Lanky, sly, aggressive without being irritating, it managed to capitalize on the things that I generally consider liabilities, like split ends, and make them look tough and intentional.
The Comme Des Garcons—I turned it around twice and the label was still in front, and the left leg was reachable only by tunneling up through the skirt on the right side, emerging from the Victorian collar at the top and then cantilevering my left leg up over the crotch from inside. The final effect was as though I was poised at the intersection of two parties, one at which I was a balloon seller in turn-of-the-century Paris and the other at which I was a barmaid in the Old West who had fallen into a spiderweb. But I did look remarkably like the runway models from this collection, which I count as a triumph of artistic vision. Like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, I did not look beautiful, or even recognizable, but I did look exactly as Rei Kawakubo had intended me to.
Still, it was strange—most people were trying on floral-print jersey maxi dresses, and flat white sandals, and other items for which I would be reluctant to pay full price at Target. The more fantastic creatures were left untouched, like the Azzedine Alaias, an entire rack of riffs on the square-dancing skirt, beginning with a fuzzy peach number and working up to a piece in a grayish leather that the label identified as stag, whose intricate gores made it resemble the underside of an enormous mushroom, which had started life at $10,000 and deserved, at least, to be fondled.
Perhaps, like me, shoppers were waiting for the sale’s final days, when mass-market and ready-to-wear would lie down together and the meek could afford avant-garde. As I wandered out I passed a girl in the shoe section, trying to sell her mother on the garment she was clutching in her lap, which looked like it was made of monkey hair and dryer lint. “I think I might get this jacket,” she said. “Will you touch this jacket?” Her mother, studying her feet, pretended not to hear.