Security guards direct traffic into parking lots off the narrow roadway that leads into Santa Monica Airport. Inside the Barker Hangar, black-T-shirted women and men, some with tape measures around their necks, huddle soberly and listen to last-minute instructions. Suddenly, a blast of rock music fills the hangar and a door slides open. Bright sunlight streams through. And then, like pilgrims to the temple, they burst in -- women, men, their gazes intent, their steps quick, some just a tad breathless.
It is 8 a.m. and time for the return of an August ritual: the Barneys Warehouse Sale. Within seconds Thursday, customers are pawing with cold precision through racks of high-end designs, stationed just feet from the entrance.
"Half the fun is just getting here when they open," Diane Kelly says, a few Lanvin dresses and a Marc Jacobs gray sweater slung over her forearm. "This airplane hangar opens, and you see these beautiful clothes."
She rifles through some more items. "Now, I can't talk to you because I just have to shop," Kelly says. She is six minutes into the sale.
For 35 years, Barneys New York has staged its twice yearly warehouse sale in New York and Los Angeles. The department store, which has a flagship branch in Beverly Hills and a co-op at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, is known for its pricey designer wear. The store culls the clothes from the past season as well as merchandise that "didn't make it to the stores -- and things made for the warehouse sale," according to Dawn Brown, vice president of publicity.
There was a time when the sale was unique. But these days, so many designers, merchants and organizations put on giant sales in cavernous venues that even Brown acknowledges the sale doesn't have the "gravitas" it once did.
Nonetheless, the event still beckons the fashion-forward and the neophytes, the frugal and the profligate.
"I'm a shopaholic -- you name it, I shop it," says Kathy Rudoy, 30. But she turns from cheerful to crestfallen when informed that a handful of Balenciaga bags, selling at a fraction of the usual price, has already been snapped up.
Here there is none of the in-store shopping experience that can be had in the Beverly Hills store -- the curving staircase, the moneyed minimalism, the shiny black bags. Instead there are industrial overhead lights, utilitarian clothes racks and distorted narrow mirrors hung from the ends of the racks. Shoppers drag their wares around in plastic garbage bags that Barneys provides.
Nor are there dressing rooms. The menswear racks are on one side of the hangar and the women's on the other. Customers strip in the middle of their rows and ignore each other's varied states of undress. (At this point, people are so accustomed to the quirks of the sale that women -- seeking more space -- retreat to the men's side, which is a little more calm.)
What the warehouse sale does offer is the dream of owning a $2,575 Rochas jacket for $639 or a pair of $600 shoes marked down to $200.
Laura Ostrom and Dan Ciarelli -- who don't know each other -- take turns appraising themselves in one mirror. Not five feet from each other, she is slipping a top over her white bra and he is pulling on jeans over his white briefs.
Ciarelli, 28, who designs flooring and lives in Newport Beach, has collected a box of Paul Smith shirts and jackets and designer jeans. His budget for the sale is $2,000.
"You've got a lot of stuff," says Ostrom, 24, a restaurant manager, as she eyes Ciarelli's box. He laughs.
Many of the men are just as avid shoppers as the women.
"No one bothers you, no one's looking over your shoulder, and the prices aren't inflated," Ciarelli says. "The only thing that bothers me are the mirrors."
Despite the fact that the women have started making beachheads for their belongings on the men's side, Ciarelli doesn't see this as a meet and greet.
"No one seems to want to have a meaningful conversation," he says. "They just want to look at the clothes."
Shoppers come with friends, partners, cellphones, children. Austin Lee is at his second Barneys Warehouse Sale. He is 9 months old, and his mother, Alice Lee, 33, took him to the February sale when he was 3 months old. He sleeps in his stroller.
"I've got to really shop quickly," she says, knowing that when he wakes, he will not be pleased.
Writer Nancy Griffin, 54, shopping with her stepdaughter, thinks you should always bring someone to the sale for critiques.
"Otherwise you'll get into that fugue state -- 'I have to have it,' " she observes as she tries on the above-mentioned Rochas jacket.
Griffin, a veteran of the sale, once took off her clothes to try something on and had them snapped up by a shopper who thought they were for sale. "I lost my pants one year," she says. "I had to buy a pair of pants to walk out." (She returned later and found that the pants had been turned in to the lost and found.)
Some people will visit the sale more than once.
"Over the course of the week, I'll spend $2,000," says Suzanne Sergile, 40, a doctor who plans to return in the next several days. Different people have different strategies for working the sale, which runs through Aug. 20. The stock is replenished daily, and prices continue to go down as the days go on.
Linda du Plooy, the Barneys executive who runs the sale, has an army of 200 temps, 20 managers from around the country, and security personnel outside. "We kind of have a drill," she says.
There is one line for shoppers ready to purchase. At the front of a line, a woman greets you and tells you which of the dozen or so registers to go to. Walk 30 feet down and another woman is directing traffic -- except she looks exactly like the woman you just passed, down to the same haircut and dress.
You blink quizzically, looking back behind. Is it possible to go mad from the shopping?
The second woman chuckles. "We're twins," she explains.