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CHEAP TRICK

The average American buys 64 items of clothing a year, more than one item per week. But when boots and sweaters become as disposable and regularly circulated as the fashion magazines that tell us what to buy, it takes a real toll on the environment, the economy, and, ultimately, our sense of self-worth. Journalist and self-proclaimed “average” dresser Elizabeth Cline outlines it all in her new book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (Portfolio Hardcover). She pins trend-churning fast-fashion retailers such as Forever 21, H&M, and Target as the culprits behind this quantity-over-quality epidemic — and insatiable, rabid American gluttony, of course. Tonight, she’ll join FIT assistant dean Sass Brown to talk about her travels to Chinese sweatshops and more.

Thu., March 27, 6 p.m., 2014

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Best Of NYC: What $150 Can Get You in NYC

If you’ve never seen a haul video, you’re probably not a teenage girl who loves to shop. For those not in the know, a haul video is typically made by adolescent girls who go out to their local malls, buy as much clothing and makeup as their allowances afford them, and then show off all their neat stuff on YouTube. And given that stores like Forever 21 (a hauler favorite) are so cheap, the videos can be rather long because there’s so much to share.

A while back, Blair Fowler, a leader of the haulers, who lives in Kingsport, Tennessee, posted on her Facebook page that she was coming to New York City and wanted to know which stores to visit. The commenters chimed in:

“go to forever 21!! its HUGE there!!”

“cold stone creamery!!! Juicy Couture, Forever 21, abercrombie!!”

“go to h&M its huge i love!!!!!!!!! I can live their.. well mayb not haha”

“So Ho also has the BEST and most sheek shopping.”

Yes, a girl from Tennessee can feel right at home in a city that offers all her mall favorites. But it got me thinking: If I wanted to experience that exhilarating hauler rush of bragging about all my inexpensive clothes, but didn’t want to buy anything from a chain, did I have any alternatives in our “sheek” city? With $150 in my wallet, I decided to find out—but quickly learned that concessions have to be made. Lesson No. 1: Forget about organization.

When I first enter Kaufman’s Army & Navy (319 West 42nd Street, 212-757-5670, kaufmansarmynavy.com), my instincts tell me to turn around and leave. The city’s oldest surplus shop, it’s a musty, intimidating jumble of boxes and clothing piles. Feeling hopeless, I stumble down the shop’s one narrow path, past mounds of gear, and spot my first gem: an olive-green mesh jacket with a drawstring hood—the perfect light jacket for that transition period from summer to fall. As the shop’s owner, Jim Korn, tells me, it’s an insect-repellent jacket, intended for long days in the jungle. What about the concrete jungle? I bend down to pick up off the floor what appears to be . . . a fantastic long mesh camouflage scarf? “No, that’s a sniper veil,” he says. I take them both for $45.

With $105 left, I head to the ultimate cheap-goods neighborhood: Chinatown. Walking past store after tourist-trap store of I Heart New York mugs and souvenir T-shirts and paper fans, I finally come across the martial arts shop Bok Lei Po Trading (63 Mott Street, 212-233-0935, bokleipo.com). Lesson No. 2: Just because something is made for kung-fu fighting doesn’t mean it’s not fashionable. At the back, I find 100 percent raw-silk drawstring pants with elastic at the ankles. They’re not only designed to withstand heavy amounts of Bruce Lee–style abuse, but they have the potential to be very chic with heels and a silk top. And they’re only $25. Other gems include adorable sneakers by Feiyue for $18 and sturdy black split-toe “ninja socks” for $5. I take the pants and the socks, which puts me at $75.

I can hear New Yorkers saying, “Go to Century 21, already!” But there’s something about it that’s too close to Marshalls or T.J.Maxx for me. Apparently, what’s more my speed is the dingy cramped confines of East Village Shoe Repair (1 St. Marks Place, 212-529-8339). There’s something that’s so quintessentially New York about this shop. And this is where we arrive at Lesson No. 3: Don’t judge a store by its mutilated Barney doll out front or by the ZZ Top beard on the salesman. The man with the beard is Boris Zuborev, who has run the shop with Eugene Finkelberg for about 15 years. The shop is a favorite of local stylists who count on them to custom-make shoes for runway shows and high-fashion photo shoots (Kate Moss even wore a pair for a spread in W magazine). Piles of old Converse, heels, and boots are precariously stacked along either side of the shop, which is maybe six feet wide. I attempt to pull out a black heel and down comes a mini avalanche of shoes. None of this should be conducive to a successful shopping experience, and yet I end up with some antique-looking purple leather heels, black boots, and white sneakers with rawhide shoestrings—all for $30!

With $45 left, I head out to the Artists & Fleas (129 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, 917-541-5760, artistsandfleas.com) market in Williamsburg. Open only on the weekends, the indoor market is bustling with vintage dealers and indie designers. I stop at the stall of the Brooklyn Charm Shop, where people are hunched over little containers of charms and chains. Lesson No. 4: Sometimes you have to do some of the work yourself. I pick out a $10 chain and a $4 charm (it’s a little golden ruler, perfect in case I ever need to measure really tiny things), and the woman puts it on for me with a $1 clasp.
I’ve hunted everywhere for vintage shops that charge less than $20 and hit upon Urban Jungle (118 Knickerbocker Street, Brooklyn, 718-497-1331) in Bushwick, where the average price is $10. The only drawbacks: not as much women’s clothing as men’s (my male friend found almost-new Ferragamo shoes for $10) and a whole lot of polyester. Which takes us to Lesson No. 5: Sometimes it’s just best to go straight to the Salvation Army (436 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-834-1562, salvationarmy.org).

A lot of people will tell you that the thrift stores here are too picked over to be any good, but I firmly believe that they are actually the best in the world. I assure you that the thrift stores near Blair’s house in Tennessee are not stocked with wealthy people’s castoffs from Barneys or Bergdorf’s. It takes me about an hour of hunting, but finally I find a perfect-condition Marc Jacobs blue military shirt for $5. As Blair often says when she shows off a super-cheap purchase, “I feel like I’m stealing!” And I do. I also “steal” a classic plaid Pendleton skirt for $12, a cream cotton Brooks Brothers blouse for $6, and a long ’80s tweed coat for $17. I’m $10 over. But since rules were made to be broken, I get them all.

True, Blair, shopping at her neighborhood mall, might have brought home a bigger haul. But a better haul? Not for my money. And this is Lesson No. 6: Blair, next time you visit NYC, keep in mind, it’s HUGE here!!

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EN VOGUE

With Fashion Week coming up, every fashionista needs a few new looks to show off at Bryant Park. But we all know that the pages of Vogue and Elle don’t carry the most affordable options. So what’s the next best thing? Not Forever 21. This weekend, the Manhattan Vintage Clothing and Antique Textile Show and Sale will feature more than 80 of the country’s top vintage clothing and antique textile dealers, featuring garments that go all the way back to the 18th century. Shop from the likes of Amarcord, Metropolis, No. 6, and Another Man’s Treasure, and find beautiful pieces from high-end designers such as YSL, Chanel, and Oscar de la Renta. Bonus: We guarantee no one else will be wearing it.

Fri., Feb. 5, 1 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 6, 11 a.m., 2010

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Prepping for Fashion Week 2008

I know what you want. I read those two-ton fall fashion magazines, so I am well aware that at this very second, you are scrambling about furiously for a blouse with floppy sleeves and a pair of unattractively full pants, pencil skirts as stiff as those pants are limp, a gauzy peasant dress, and a pair of hideously high heels. And let’s not forget furry vests! And lace, lace, lace!

Hurry! Even as you read this, New York Fashion Week, debuting the spring 2009 collections, is unfurling on the Bryant Park runways, all but oblivious to the fact that most Americans are too busy choosing between food and fuel to worry about foulards versus fan pleats.

But back to the task at hand. Don’t bother visiting the expensive stores—not only can you not afford them (who are you kidding? Like you’re going to fork over $5,000 for a lace dress?), but in many cases, these much-lauded trends haven’t even arrived yet. Due to the miracle of modern technology, clothes are frequently knocked off with such head-spinning rapidity that the replicas hit the cheaper chains before they make their way to the glass-and-gilt confines of their snootier sisters.

So what’s on the racks at this very moment? At Anthropologie, whose airy-fairy confections I have always had a soft spot for, the only notable trend is an over-reliance on a curious shade of mustard, employed in a long sweater with a ruffly collar, a dirndl skirt, and a lot of other garments. Is this a trend at all? I only mention it because at my next stop, J. Crew, I see a lot of this hue—here more Gouldens than Grey Poupon, but everywhere apparent in cardies and Gossip Girl–ish blazers. J. Crew also has those new wide-legged pants, which have rarely looked good on anyone since Katharine Hepburn, and a plethora of pencil skirts—both of which are quite suitable if you’re going on a job interview but are otherwise kind of depressing, no matter what the magazines say. Far better to my eyes are the ersatz-Chanel jackets gobbed up with satin-beaded trim. (But bear in mind that given the choice, I always opt for Mary-Kate Olsen over Mary Tyler Moore, at least sartorially.)

Those horribly vertiginous heels that the mags are pushing—they make every step an agony! Your life is a living hell whenever you’re hobbling around in them!—are out in full force at Aldo, rendered in ombré-shaded pink patent leather, or with Mary Jane toes, or sporting multicolored straps, and all with shiny metallic heels treacherous enough to fell the most agile contortionist. (But at least at Aldo they’re $100, which is $900 less than their sadistic siblings with loftier provenances.) It comes as quite a relief to walk to the back of the store—or crawl, if you’re wearing those stilettos—and see flats in plaid (another putative trend of the season) for an appealing $40.

Just when you think you’ll have to settle for saggy mustard pants and a pair of nasty heels you’ll never wear, along comes Zara. Pay dirt! Right inside the door, there’s a slender dress made of lace, which Prada is pushing heavily this season. Go ahead and buy it, but be warned—I wore a lot of vintage lace at one time, and the line between cool and fusty-grandma (I personally love a fusty-grandma look, but that’s another story) is painfully thin. Maybe you just want to settle for a pair of lace-covered ballet flats, which Zara also has on hand.

As forgers of the highest order, Zara has done a magnificent job this autumn, especially in the arena of floaty paisley, which looks a lot like Gucci’s overindulged-hippie ensembles, but also has more than a whiff of Dries Van Noten, who thinks you should spend the winter in pale, weightless silk chiffon. (To hell with global warming—turn up the thermostat!) Or don one of those weird furry vests, which make you look like the love child of the Abominable Snowman and Sonny Bono (don’t know who that is? He’s on YouTube), that are also apparently having a moment—only at Zara, they’re not fur. Hairy and creepy they may be, but they’re made out of some sort of synthetic stuff, so no worries that your p.c. friends will spit at you when you wear this thing. I could swear that a Marni-ish smocked coat has a collar made out of dog, which was actually the scandalous case with some Burlington Coat Factory parkas a few seasons ago, but according to the label, no animals were harmed in the making of this particular garment.

After all the excitement at Zara, H&M is a little disappointing, offering only a pair of cream-colored lace leggings for $19. Still, how can you get mad at a place that is doing a collaboration with Comme des Garçons in November? (If they don’t let the press corps have first dibs, I am planning to camp outside at the crack of dawn and buy everything in sight the minute the doors open. The only problem with this strategy is that everyone I talk to says they are planning to do the same thing.)

I cross the street and visit Express, where I am never even vaguely tempted to buy anything. Here I find the first leather motorcycle jacket of the season, an item with a curiously circuitous recent history: Kate Moss, who is idolized as a fashion maverick for mixing couture pieces with thrift-shop finds, included one of these jackets in her Topshop collection last fall, and everyone loved it. As I recall, it was around $300. For fully 10 times as much, Balenciaga has a similar jacket (OK, so the leather is softer) hanging on the rack at Barneys this season. And now here it is again, at Express, for a perfectly serviceable $248.

Last but not least, I toddle over to Forever 21, another place where I’ve never purchased anything, namely because 1) if you like something in the window, you can never find it in the store, and 2) everything is very tiny. (Could this because I am 90 years older than the average Forever 21 shopper?) As ever, the geniuses behind this place manage to combine trends in an effortless fashion—a plaid pleated skirt has a swirl of black lace extending from its hem; a polka-dot peasant blouse is a ghostly cousin of Gucci and Dries.

Unlike the other stops on my brieftour, Forever 21 seems to have jumped on another fall trend, with red-white-and-blue tote bags that say “Vote,” a faux-faded T-shirt sporting the legend “Freedom Rocks,” and, for a highly affordable $10.80, a slender, silky purple tee decorated with a peace symbol that would go far in sexing up a pair of slack trousers or a skinny skirt on a certain Tuesday in November.

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Sui Generis?

Did the prisoners at Leavenworth consider suing Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel for ripping off the saggy belt-less trousers they wear in the prison yard? Did hundreds of anonymous graffiti artists sue Stephen Sprouse for printing tags on Louis Vuitton satchels?

OK, you’re not going to believe this—but you know Anthropologie, that place where you just bought that thick, knit, flared sweater exactly like the one Dries Van Noten showed on his runway last year? The store where you purchased all those puffy jolie-laide fake Marni dresses in charmingly hideous prints last spring? The shop that currently stocks those ersatz Marc Jacobs jackets with all the military bells and whistles that you’re trying to make up your mind about? Well, that very venue is currently pursuing a lawsuit against Forever 21 for—get this—knocking off Anthropologie clothes.

It’s the season, it seems, for such litigation. More than 20 other designers are also suing Forever 21, including Diane Von Furstenberg—she of the famous wrap dress—who claims that the 21’ers knocked off not just her styles but the very prints she employs: in one example, a rather overwrought pattern of blue-and-white triangles that she calls “scattered stone,” and which actually looks a lot like an old Marimekko design. And in her capacity as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the glamorous Diane has descended on
Washington, attempting to get federal legislation passed that would make clothes-copying clothes a criminal offence.

Anna Sui, who based an entire career on resuscitating, revamping, and rethinking the vintage fashions of the 1960s and ’70s, the decades when she was young, is also livid about Forever 21 ripping off her designs, and she’s suing as well. So incensed is she that for her spring ’08 show (a collection that style.com described in part as “pure Barbara Hulanicki,” citing the designer of the iconic 1970s label Biba), Sui stuffed each gift bag with a T-shirt depicting the owners of Forever 21 on a Wild West–style poster with the legends “Forever Wanted” and “Thou Shalt Not Steal.”

Asked to comment on her pending litigation, Sui’s spokesperson said, “Anna isn’t doing press on this (we gave one quote to the Times only). . . . The shirt is her statement.” (Actually, nobody is very anxious to get back to me about this—repeated calls to Anthropologie were not returned.) It’s easy to see why Sui is so mad—after all, Forever 21 did replicate her stripes-and-giant-roses print. Still, when it comes to fashion, who can claim to be original?

I took a spin recently around Sui’s Soho store to see if this could be a case of a very chic pot calling a fashion-forward kettle basic black. And here is what I found: many garments that appeared to be line-for-line copies of clothes from the ’70s that were clearly purchased from flea markets; a newspaper print that is startlingly similar to one touted by John Galliano a few seasons back; a ribbon-trimmed badge pinned to a sweater exactly like the ones employed by the Fake London brand on its sweaters.

But let’s be fair: Galliano wasn’t the first guy to do a newspaper print either, and lots of designers spend Sundays at the flea market. (They are, in fact, notorious for sweeping through the Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show-—the next one is October 12—and buying like wild animals.)

And just a few weeks ago, Marc Jacobs was furious with Suzy Menkes, the critic for the International Herald Tribune, who took apart his most recent runway collection, accusing Jacobs of borrowing rather too liberally from Comme des Garçons, Martin Margiela, and John Galliano. Jacobs fired back in the September 13 issue of Women’s Wear Daily:

“I’ve never denied how influenced I am by Margiela, by Rei Kawakubo, those are people that inspire my work; I don’t hide that. . . . Of course there are comparisons to other things. I’m a designer living in this world who loves fashion . . . I’m attentive to what’s going on in fashion, I’m influenced by fashion, that’s the way it is. I have never ever hidden it. I have never insisted on my own creativity, as Chanel would say. I have my interpretation of ideas I find very strong. Jil Sander is influenced by Comme des Garçons, Miuccia Prada is influenced by Comme des Garçons, everyone is influenced by Comme des Garçons, Martin Margiela. Anybody who’s aware of what life is in a contemporary world is influenced by those designers.”

Well, all right then! So it’s OK for Marc to rip off Comme, but somehow shady and vaguely reprehensible for Zara to do Prada or Bebe to do Versace or Forever 21 to do practically everybody? It’s telling that Jacobs should invoke the name of Coco Chanel, who had her own personal revelation about copying when she visited the S. Klein department store in Union Square in 1933. According to her biographer, Axel Madsen: “Chanel proclaimed that knockoffs were nothing more than ‘spontaneous publicity.’ It was at Klein’s that she decided that it was hopeless to try and fight it, that piracy was the flattering result of success.”

I hope Lanvin designer Alber Elbaz will be similarly flattered that I am sitting here in my fake Lanvin H&M black smock dress with its jaunty oversized zipper halfway up the back and its $59 price tag. I can assure him that it has generated plenty of spontaneous publicity. Not that owning it will stop me from purchasing an authentic Lanvin full price at Barneys any day now—just as soon as I have an extra $3,500 floating around.

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A Tale of Two Cities

A very tall, exceedingly slender
young woman with a platinum pompadour and an air of supreme self-confidence is gazing with interest at racks of white cotton bubble skirts, olive polka-dotted camisoles, and black jersey dresses that could pass for cut-rate Lanvins.
Though she would be right at home in Dolce & Gabbana on Madison Avenue or Prada in Soho, she is
in fact cruising the aisles at Forever 21 on East 14th Street. This statuesque shopper may not know it, but
she is participating in a decades-old Manhattan ritual: trolling the streets around Union Square in search of sartorial bargains.

Forever 21 (what a name! Could there be a bleaker fate than staying that uncertain age forever?)
not only offers extremely low prices—cheaper even than H&M, veering close to Old Navy territory— it is located in a bastion of the street’s former glory days, the old Mays department store building at
the south end of Union Square, which also currently hosts Filene’s Basement and a place called DSW, for Designer Shoe Warehouse.

Fifty years ago, scores of stores like these girdled the neighborhood, led by three bona fide leg
ends: Mays; Lane’s, where the New School is now located at Fifth and 14th; and S. Klein, where Zeckendorf Towers currently stands.

Now Union Square itself is no longer a rat-ridden needle park, but is full of baby carriages and greenmarket shoppers, and many of the
really grubby venues are in danger of fading away entirely, replaced by businesses like Tavalon, a tea salon that opened a few weeks ago (it actually employs someone called a tea sommelier) a few doors away from Taco Bell.

If all this makes the bargain shopper worry about what the future may hold, he or she has only to walk west to confirm these dark suspicions. Tread far enough, and you will encounter stores that not only are not cheap, they are not middle-class, or upper middle-class, or even haute bourgeois. They sell what can only be described as the most expensive clothes you can buy off the rack anywhere.

But before you are buzzed through those hallowed portals, why not spend a few hours on 14th between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, where the doors are unlocked and $100 can fund a spring wardrobe? On weekend afternoons the area fairly cackles with jejune joie de vivre: hordes of girls talking not to each other but babbling away on cell phones to still other girls; young guys on their way to or from the Virgin Megastore, trying desperately to look nonchalant. An air of gleeful, boisterous salaciousness bubbles just below the surface, at least if the T-shirts for sale are to be believed. Though the ones on the back wall of Forever 21 read, “I Love My Boyfriend,” right outside that store a guy is selling tank tops that say, “My Dick Would Make a Better President”; across University Place a shop called Foxy Lady has shirts printed with a stark “Kiss My Ass,” or alternatively, the plain “Eat Me,” albeit decorated with a picture of a hot dog. A few feet away two panhandlers, one wearing a clown nose, are holding up a sign that says, “Please spare change for hookers and condoms.”

At the corner of Fifth and 14th, where Lane’s used to be, a vendor offers a remarkable collection of ersatz designer handbags from a table on the street: Chloe Paddingtons complete with metal padlocks (real or fake, a lot of people crave a heavy leather bag further weighed down by a gargantuan brass lock) and stringy Balenciaga sacks, a style that has been eclipsed recently by the Fendi Spy bag, which is also here in a convincing replica.

“Ladies, feel free to try anything on!” greets shoppers as they enter Laila Rose, a chain that in the last several years has spread its thrifty tentacles all over town. Costume jewelry is the big draw here—and shouldn’t costume jewelry, which by definition is fake, be bought as cheaply as possible?—but there are other seductions, including a Marni-esque beach bag (it’s a big season for Marni, authentic or not) with multicolored dots like a Wonder Bread wrapper. Laila Rose is not without competition: At Cinderella Club you are met at the door by people imploring you to take a tray, meant for stacking up potential purchases but also making it easy for the staff to monitor your selections, which might include rhinestone dog tags, curious necklaces that mix beads and fur balls (better than it sounds), and a wristwatch set in a chunk of silvery metal, reminiscent of Hermés, for around $20. Yet a third accessories shop, Spoon, welcomes customers not with trays but with a barrage of signs that read like the admonitions of a fussy schoolmarm: “Do not smoke or stand in doorway,” “Do not try on earrings,” “Shoplifters will be prosecuted.” Though almost everything is reasonably priced—a faux Louis Vuitton Daumier check makeup case is $10 (stealing presumably only applies to shoplifters)—a large hobo bag covered in fishing mesh punctuated with stones and heavy beads, in the style of Oscar de la Renta, is a lofty $295.

[

Lest you think $300 purses are wrecking even the down-market section of 14th, a visit to Dee & Dee, one of the last of the old-fashioned rock-bottom dens on the street, restores optimism. Al Green is singing on the sound system, whole families are lined up at the cash registers, baby carriages and wheelchairs crash in the aisles, and the shelves are full of items like $1 bunny mugs (for that price you also get a stuffed rabbit toy). A sleeveless denim button-down dress is, believe it or not, not half bad for $4.99, and the long pastel Indian crinkle cotton skirts, as presentable as anything on Eighth Street, are $7.99. Both of these items could be modified by a creative fashion student with sufficient attitude and a pair of cleverly wielded scissors.

Or put the needle and thread away and go the vintage route: The odoriferous Rags-A-Gogo is jammed with possibilities. Before you run out gagging, elbow the college students out of the way and examine the dress rack, where everything is $28, including a never-worn sailor-style shirtwaist printed with seafaring symbols and still sporting an ancient ILGWU label.

As you continue west, the retail offerings thin out, giving no indication of what lies ahead, just across Ninth Avenue. The High Line, the rusting railway trestle soon to become a park, and the majestic river beyond become visible, but so do a group of people you have not encountered anywhere on your shopping trip thus far.

Can these folks have dropped into the meatpacking district from a hot-air balloon? Surely there is no one like them anywhere else on 14th: a tiny woman ensconced in a bubblegum-pink leather trouser suit, a man with a perfectly trimmed beard resplendent in a white cashmere zip-front pullover, and yet a third shopper, soignée as a Hitchcock blonde, in a sable-collared tweed ensemble and carrying a Prada train case. Legions of svelte women in super-tight jeans are walking little dogs. Some are eating (though one assumes not much) at Markt, the unpronounceable restaurant on the corner of Ninth and 14th.

Jeffrey is the big store on this strip, and it is an odd place—unpretentious and affable in atmosphere, welcoming to all those skinny hotties and their pooches, but strictly business when it comes to prices. Here at last is real Marni merchandise— gray silk beaded skirts for $4,050, a twill coat bargain priced at $1,295.

“Hi, I’m Raul,” says the puppyish salesperson, who has black patent leather hair and little square glasses, adding that it’s OK to quote him by name because “Jeffrey loves me! If you want vintage—how good is this?” he says, holding up a faux-vintage, pale-green silk-front Viktor & Rolf polo shirt printed with birds and priced at $720. Raul wings around the floor, fawning over the spiffy $2,500 Balenciaga skirts, the lavishly embroidered $2,000 Dries Van Noten dresses, the ragged $1,500 Libertine jackets with their faint goth prints, deliberately made to look like you fished them out of a recycling bin.

These are the most expensive clothes you can buy anywhere, the identical frocks and socks you will find on the Faubourg St. Honore in Paris, or Bond Street in London, or the Via Condotti in Rome. But unlike those streets, which have hosted elegant boutiques for centuries, there was nothing of this kind over here even a few years ago—only the slaughterhouses, and the tranny prostitutes, and the venerable nightclub Jackie 60, and the famous bagel store where night owls and meat cutters would meet at 5 a.m., some starting their day, some ending it.

Now Paul McCartney’s daughter has her New York flagship here, and as it happens, this season she is selling a bead-encrusted shirt for $1,295 that looks a lot like one in Forever 21’s window. A few yards away, Alexander McQueen has a nautical-themed dress, reminiscent of the one at Rags-A-Gogo, only here it is $5,537 more. (Maybe Rags-A-Gogo didn’t smell that bad after all.)

You can visit swanky venues up and down the street, but you will be hard put to find anyone, save the rambunctious Raul, who is willing to talk on or off the record. Finally one salesperson agrees to chat, after you swear you’ll disguise his (or her) identity in every possible way.

“These customers are so abusive, they treat you like a handmaiden,” reports the reluctant source. “But they’re paying to abuse you, unlike at the place where I used to work, further downtown. There they were mean and they didn’t even buy much.
The volume in sales here! I can’t explain the difference between this place and the store where I used to work—it’s a different world.”

[

But who are these pink-leather-draped, fur-collared characters with bursting wallets and pampered fidos? Where do they come from?

Deep Throat answers in a whisper. “Oh my God. They drive here. It’s really weird.”

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The Cheap Detective Takes on Forever 21 and Strawberry

Once upon a time, expensive clothes had a right to look down on their parvenu cousins. Back in the day, designer fashions featured, along with superior fabrics and sewing, a certain je ne sais quoi, a particular panache that at least partly justified their ridiculous price tags.

That was then. Now, one look at the charmingly tiered polka-dotted cotton skirt at Forever 21 on Union Square, dispels any doubts: Though this item is clearly a Marni knockoff, at $29.80 it is around $700 cheaper than the Marni original. The cotton is delightfully worn—just like at Marni! And the print is jaunty and just a little jolie laide—ditto!

Actually, we’ve been fascinated by Forever 21 ever since it opened last winter. First there’s that name, with its odd echo of Century 21. (But really, as we have pointed out previously in this space, could there be anything worse than being 21 forever? It certainly wasn’t such a thrill-packed, happy time for us, and we suspect we are hardly alone in this matter.) On a recent steamy afternoon, we decided to test our cheap-is-just-as-good thesis with a visit to Forever 21 and its even rattier next-door neighbor, the much maligned but in fact surprisingly worthwhile Strawberry. In particular, we wanted to see if either—or both—of these shops were selling that black and white ersatz-Mexican faux vintage skirt we’ve been seeing on every third person on the street this summer. (Actually we love this skirt, though we haven’t bought one, probably because we purchased the authentic version at a vintage clothing show a couple of years ago for $100 and have worn it exactly once. The reason we bought it was that another shopper was standing over us and insisting she really, really wanted it too. This led to an arousal of our killer instinct, an insane conviction that we had to win, and an aura of guilt and shame subsequently surrounding the beleagured item.)

A faux-Mexican skirt, perfectly OK if a bit skimpy, is indeed for sale at Forever 21 and it is only $24.80. (All the prices here end in 80 for some mysterious reason). Actually, it might even be cheaper than $24.80, since a sign at the door says “Buy 1 get 2 free, 2nd and 3rd item equal or lesser value.”

We’re not exactly sure how this works—it’s a little too much math for us—but we think it means we can get the metal mesh stars and stripes halter top—it’s made of the same stuff as those Whiting & Davis purses from the 1920s —for free (it would have been great to wear on the 4th) along with a lavender lace-trimmed tank complete with padded bra that we assume is meant for customers whose 21st birthday is still light years away.

Next door at Strawberry, where the air conditioning is broken (we suffer in this job!), the fake-Mexican skirt is actually far superior—it’s delightfully voluminous, sports a smattering of sequins, and is a mere $24.99. If that’s not enough, a Pucci-esque purse can be had for $9.99, and one of those metallic-knit wrap-and-tie ballet sweaters so popular this season is an inviting $19.99. Though it’s virtually identical to the metallic-knit ballet sweater we saw at Forever 21, it somehow feels slightly cheesier, which raises the question: Is it only the broken a/c and slothful atmosphere at Strawberry that makes this item seem declasse? When you’re shopping, how many times are you seduced more by the store’s atmosphere than by the intrinsic value of the item itself? If this sweater were at Bergdorf’s on a velvet hanger and with a $199.99 price tag, would it suddenly smell that much sweeter?

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Forever 21, and Other Nightmares

Is there a notion more pernicious than the idea that it would be glorious to be 21 forever? Sure, your bosom may be saucy, your rear at its perky best, but the rest of your life—and ask anyone who’s around that age if you doubt us—is invariably a huge mess.

At 21, you’re inordinately worried about how you look, a concern that you think will never go away but that oddly manages to dissipate almost completely over the next decade or so. Even if you can forget about your appearance for just a minute (yes, those pants do make you look fat! You weigh 100 pounds but, oh, you look so fat!), then you begin to fret about your professional prospects, since you’re probably just getting out of college and facing a mountain of debt and a daunting job market. Lucky enough to have found a job? In most cases, you’re at the lowest rung of a seemingly endless climb to a semi-decent salary. In short—this time of life, despite a few obvious compensations, is no picnic basket.

The above thoughts have apparently never occurred to the folks who just opened a huge emporium called Forever 21 in the building facing Union Square that also houses Filene’s Basement. Despite our horror at the store’s name, we peeked inside and were so taken with the merch—amazingly stylish and hovering happily, price-wise, in H&M territory—that we could almost forgive the name. We immediately fell in love with two delightful items: a gunmetal-silver, sequined tank top, whose spangles rest cleverly on a cotton-knit base, for a mere $17.80, and a silky pleated skirt in a jolie-laide brown and green print that owes a debt to Prada, for $22.80.

Speaking of being 21 forever—though in this case we mean 1921, or even 1821—the semi-annual Triple Pier Antiques and Collectibles Show (stellashows.com) is in town this weekend and next. This has long been our favorite antique show, though it is not at all cheap (you won’t find much beyond a hanky in the Forever 21 price range). Still, it features 600 immensely interesting dealers spread over three beautiful Hudson river piers, and there’s everything from poodle skirts and bakelite bracelets (pier 88) to tramp art picture frames and time-worn Raggedy Anns (pier 90) to Handel lamps and Cartier lavalieres (pier 88). For total freaks who just can’t wait, what is known in the trade as “early buying” is available on Friday afternoon (for a $35 admission fee), but we’re not planning to going until Saturday ($15 admission), since we prefer strolling the aisles at a leisurely pace to being run over by hysterical dealers.

If you don’t want to get out of bed at all this weekend, you can order an item that bills itself as a “great gift for the fashionista.” (Now, there is word we would love to never, ever hear again.) According to the press release, from a company called Vidcat (vidcat.com): “The one-hour program is a compilation of original vintage fashion newsreels from the 1950s-60s and documents fashion history as it happened. The DVD is specially formatted for easy navigation from a specific year to a favorite decade and back again to a vintage accessory.”

If it comes right away, you can spend next weekend seeing if any of those newsreel-featured fashions turn up on pier 88.