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{SHOPPING} / THE BIG DEAL

Too Good To Be True?

It's a fashion junkie's fantasy: Hot deals on the best clothes, in season! Can T.J. Maxx deliver the goods?

September 16, 2007|Emili Vesilind | Times Staff Writer

FRUGAL designer junkies have been wading through racks of ill-fitting overstock at discount chains for years, hoping to chance upon a classic Burberry peacoat or pristine Stella McCartney sweater. Find one of those marked down to wholesale, and it's the thrill of stumbling upon a lost continent.

Now T.J. Maxx is promising to make that kind of discovery routine. Last year, the company launched Runway, an in-store boutique advertised to stock exclusively high-end designer apparel. "Over 50% of the merchandise is from the current season" and culled directly from designers and manufacturers, a company spokeswoman said. Could this mean the end of wading through the Z. Cavaricci to get to the Zac Posen?

We put the newest outpost, in Westlake Village, to the test. (There are 45 Runway boutiques inside T.J. Maxx stores; the only other Southern California location is in La CaƱada Flintridge. More may be on the way.)

Inside the flesh-colored stucco building, things appeared to be business-as-usual T.J. Maxx -- retail mayhem under glaring fluorescents. Only when I glanced upward did I noticed a sign emblazoned with the Runway logo. I was practically standing in the "boutique," a messy, Starbucks-sized area sandwiched in between the shoe and accessories departments.

I soldiered into the matrix of metal racks, my eyes trained on a clutch of signature squiggle-striped Missoni knit tops. At $199 each, they were marked down to less than half of their $500 retail price, and sizes and styles were plentiful. Not current season, but a promising start. Hung haphazardly on the same rack were a few Corey Lynn Calter sundresses -- again, a steal at $125 down from $491, but still off-season.

Next up was a large circular rack of skinny- and boot-cut jeans from premium denim companies including Joe's Jeans, True Religion and Rock & Republic. Denim? Whatever happened to "straight off the runways?" But the price was right, with most styles half off retail.

Beyond the denim was a sea of nondesigner labels including Theory, Chaiken, Cole Haan and Jak & Rae. The number of pieces per style varied from one to 10. A black cashmere cardigan resembling a lab coat from Vince -- half-off at $129 -- was tempting. So was a glossy chocolate brown puffer vest from Alice + Olivia marked down from $300 to $129.

But the shoes and handbags were downright dour. Sad little scratched-up pumps from Joan & David and Stuart Weitzman mingled with handbags from Adrienne Vittadini and Dooney & Bourke in bottom-of-the-barrel colors such as lime green and hot pink.

As I ventured into the larger store to peruse the aisles, I felt slightly duped, like someone had offered a cupcake only to snatch it away. Yes, there was some designer apparel, but most of the merch was high-end sportswear, and none of it was current season.

Still, a deal is a deal. Even when it's not such a big deal.

--

emili.vesilind@latimes.com

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