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Resistance seems futile at Barneys sale

Pent-up consumerism is released as shoppers flock to the half-yearly event at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica.

February 06, 2009|Carla Hall

Roxie Villicana, who works as a nanny, reluctantly told her tax attorney husband Thursday morning that she was off to the Barneys New York Warehouse Sale at the Santa Monica Airport.

"We're supposed to be cutting back," she remembered him lecturing as she headed out.

"But I want to see if the sales are better," she replied, hopeful that the national recession would yield better buys during a cherished Westside ritual -- the Barneys winter half-year sale. By then her husband gave in. " 'Get me some shirts,' he told me."

She had plenty of company. About 1,500 had made the trek to the Barker Hangar by 11 a.m.

If the economic downturn has crimped the habits of some of Southern California's most sophisticated and dedicated of shoppers, it wasn't obvious Thursday. After all, many are shoppers whose idea of mixing high and low fashion is buying a Balenciaga bag at high retail and Prada at low discount.

At 8 a.m., "We had nearly 250 people lined up to get in," said Lynn Williams, event manager for the sale. "We open the doors and they run in."

The venerable twice-yearly sale draws men and women who don't mind bad mirrors and stripping to their underwear in public (no dressing rooms) as they pursue Manolo Blahnik shoes selling for south of $300 and Armani men's suits for $700.

Most of the merchandise offered is culled from the racks of Barneys New York stores across the country. (Only New York also has a twice-yearly warehouse sale.) Of course, everyone at the sale lamented the recession. And many freely confessed to being jolted by it. Williams insisted she had plenty of pieces under $100, pointing out $30 jeans and $69 Marc Jacobs jackets, for example.

"Recession or not, I come to the sale," said Mark Sargent, 53, who sells investments and insurance and was looking for suits. "I go to my size, I pull Armani and Brioni. I'm usually in and out in less than an hour."

Whether or not its customers are jostled by the recession, the Barneys New York chain itself may be. The company was acquired in 2007 by an investment arm of the Dubai government. But the owners, now saddled with debt from the 2007 purchase and a downgraded credit rating, are reportedly considering selling the chain. "That's purely media speculation at this point," Williams said.

The Barneys Warehouse Sale is, foremost, the turf of fashion enthusiasts, the men and women who love clothes and love the hunt.

For them, shopping, if not sport, is certainly an art. This is the genre of shoppers who flocked to the first day of the Neiman Marcus Last Call sale, jamming parking garages along Wilshire Boulevard.

On Thursday, shoppers said they were simply exercising more caution.

"I'm not here to splurge," said Lisa Ruschioni, 28, a writer and graphic designer for commercials who said her earnings were down from last year.

Nancy Altshule, a retired jewelry designer, said she felt the sting of the recession and avoided the stores last fall. "And I'm a shopper," said Altshule, a lithe 65. But she returned to the warehouse sale, a yearly tradition for her. If anything, the economy "made me want to come more -- for the bargains."

Her take on the scene was different from the event manager's. "Actually there's less merchandise than last year, less crowds. But I managed to find my Manolos."

She triumphantly held up strappy high heels ($269, reduced from $698). "Do you think these are shrimpy colored?" she asked.

A lot of the merchandise arrived the first day of the sale at 75% off, Williams said.

"The initial markdowns are deeper than they historically would be," she said of the event.

During the 12 days of the sale -- which runs through Feb. 16 -- prices are progressively marked down. "Things were selling lower in the stores before they got here," Williams said. "People are looking more to value than ever before. Like any retailer, we're forced to be competitive."

Still, some customers agonized over their purchases -- decrying the consumerism as they swooned over the clothes they donned.

Laurie Foster, 48, pulled on a Versace tweed dress marked down from $1,680 to $400 -- "It seems like a no-brainer" -- to wear to her daughter's bat mitzvah. At her feet was a plastic bag of her finds.

"Five times I put this bag down and said, 'I don't need it.' I haven't been shopping at all because my husband is in the finance business. . . . The stock market's crashing. . . . And people around us are losing jobs. We're really aware of it."

She scanned the warehouse. "I looked at the line to pay and I thought, where is the recession? People are here shopping for things they don't need. Why is that?" she mused as she shimmied into a print skirt reduced to $319 -- a fire-sale price for a Balenciaga.

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carla.hall@latimes.com

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