Monday, December 08, 2008

Lifestyle: FT Manhattan Swap Shops

Weekend FT

By Julie Earle-Levine

December 6, 2008

As winter beckons, temperatures plunge and the sky turns inky black at 5pm, New Yorkers shuffle their closets to accommodate their bulky puffa jackets. But while the clear-out used to be space related, this year it has been driven by the economy too.

“Women, and we are talking wealthy women, who would normally buy what they want, are instead swapping their few-seasons-old Missoni and Prada for more recent pieces,” says Irene Albright, a former fashion stylist and owner of a new store, Mina’s on Cooper Square, that opened in November to sell secondhand designer clothing.

Indeed, more people than ever before are offloading items from their closets and opting to shop in luxury consignment stores, or secondhand designer clothes shops, to fill the gaps, according to several store owners. An ad-hoc survey of Manhattan’s vintage shops produced a chorus reporting an increase in “prized possessions” being handed over.

“I have a $10,000 dress that Jennifer Lopez wore once that will be for sale,” says Albright, who is enhancing the stock at Mina’s with overflow from another of her ventures, the Albright Fashion Library, where stylists, costume designers and celebrities hire clothing. Mina’s also plans to sell last season’s unsold designer clothing, as well as redesigned items. “I am taking designer pieces and reworking the design to make it fresher,” says Albright.

Lucyann Barry, whose namesake showroom on the Upper West Side has been stocking secondhand clothes, shoes, bags and jewellery from Chanel, Chloé, Gucci and Hermès at 50 to 90 per cent below retail since it opened in January, reports that one Texas man tried to sell his wife’s Louis Vuitton shoe collection. Barry says she has seen a 10 per cent increase in consignment clients in the past two months, among them a new demographic made up of wealthy women motivated by philanthropy.

“They can continue giving, without actually writing a cheque,” explains Barry. By selling “a Birkin”, they can turn their hardly used handbag into “a handsome donation for their favourite charity”.

Other women have been obliged to explore a new strain of retail: “People are telling me their husbands are freaking out because of big financial losses,” says Barry. Many of her clients are attracted by the quality of the items, although they are shopping carefully. “Even though they are getting great deals, they are more reserved.”

Kristjansen Villanueva, manager of Roundabout ReSale Couture, which opened on Manhattan’s Upper East Side four months ago and is targeted at buyers from the fashion industry, Wall Street and the local residents (Roundabout also has three stores in Connecticut), says one woman brought in an $8,000 bag last week that will sell for $2,900. “If she can make money by selling it, she can use money to buy another piece here,” says Villanueva, noting the barter-like dimension to the consignment trend.

One of his customers, a lawyer, was warned by her husband who lost his job at Lehman Bros: “No more Barneys. No more Bergdorf. You have to watch your wallet.”

“It was kind of sad,” says Villanueva. “But she sold her things and then ended up buying a never-worn Giorgio Armani suit, so she was happy. Instead of going to Saks or Barneys or a big retail store and paying $2,500, she got it for $499.”

Indeed, Villanueva says many clients are surprised by the choice and condition of most garments. Some are never worn and still have the tags on. “Most sellers don’t even think about the pieces they bought last season; they might even forget about them and don’t want to wear them now,” he says.

It is the more established fashion brands that are proving popular in the current climate. “We can’t stop selling Chanel and Hermès, because women feel good wearing it,” says Villaneuva.

Lucyann Barry, by contrast, says the vintage Chanel market seems to have slowed a little but those buying are diehard fans while new buyers will occasionally spend thousands on special pieces.

Meanwhile, Vintage Collections, an online store that sells high-end costume jewellery and accessories in Manhattan, is also seeing more sellers than usual. “It feels much busier,” says owner Vicki Haberman, whose items start at $1,000. “I’m getting a lot of enquiries. I definitely think more people are reaching in to the closet and selling their heirlooms.”

And not just women. Men, who traditionally hold on to their clothes a lot longer than seasonally driven women, are also trading them in. Gary Scheiner, owner of Gentlemen’s Resale, which has been in business on the Upper East Side for 14 years and sells men’s Burberry trenchcoats for less than $250, Tod’s loafers for $110 and Brioni suits for $495, also says business is brisk. “We are starting to see consignments of two or three items a week, instead of one,” he says.

“A lot of people are bringing in beautiful suits,” says Milo Bernstein, owner of Ina, another designer resale consignment store with five locations, the first of which opened in SoHo 16 years ago.

“One guy lost his job and had a lot of really good, not too conservative Thom Browne suits.” According to Bernstein, they were quickly snapped up by a savvy buyer who needed “new” suits for interviews.

Perhaps as a result, Bernstein says Ina’s five Manhattan stores are doing extremely well, in spite of the economy. More than half of Ina’s customers are from outside New York. “It just seems like a really good way to go,” he says. “You walk out the door with three things that would have cost $1,500 but you paid $400.” Of course, it may take a little work to find those items. “It’s not a store for people who do not like shopping.”

Gentlemen’s Resale, tel: +1: 212-734 2739
Roundabout Resale Couture, tel: +1 646-755 8009