In college, I spent a semester in New York City interning at a magazine. I rented an apartment in Manhattan and walked through the financial district every day to get to the E subway line at the World Trade Center. Each day I took note of the charging bull, the black suit automaton and the shiny white shopping bags from the discount department store on Cortlandt Street, Century 21.
The enormous store, void of any charm, did not immediately draw my attention. But one day, as things seem to go in that city, I wandered in. Floor after floor, racks and shelves were crammed with uninspired merchandise. I hopped from escalator to escalator and passed several levels of women’s clothing, children’s apparel and home goods. I had planned to begin my descent when I saw a sign: “Prada 85% off.” I hopped off.
From the designer discount wonderland, I came away with an asymmetric canvas skirt by Alessandro Dell’Acqua, a black, off-shoulder jersey top by Moschino and a funnel neck Jil Sander sweater that I have kept to this day. Although my finds were surprising and thrilling and wonderful, I couldn’t help but feel that they somehow chipped away at the experience of fashion on the whole.
Perhaps I felt that I bypassed the expensive, unattainable part of fashion that made it so desirable. Or maybe finding goods on demand somehow interrupted the momentum and anticipation of the fashion seasons. And possibly, it was a feeling of loneliness, as if fashion had moved on and I was in a wasteland of pretty but unwanted goods. I went back once more and walked away empty-handed.
Fast-forward 20 years, and designer goods can be had at anytime, anywhere and for pennies on the dollar. The retail landscape is dotted with internet sites and brick-and-mortar stores dedicated to peddling wares of past seasons. It has certainly changed the traditional format and introduced some questions: Has the constant discounting and exposure affected fashion, which capitalizes on excess and exclusivity?
Certainly, there is truth to the idea that offering a permanent discount can affect consumer behavior negatively, training people to resist paying and become suspicious of a full retail price tag. To that, designers like Celine keep a rein on their image and distribution by prohibiting their goods from being sold online or even at a discount. Others go the opposite way, like Balmain, who is always producing clothing collaborations with mainstream brands and sending clothes to celebrities to gain maximum exposure. The methods, albeit polarized, aim to do the same thing: control and promote an identity of choice.
Because of the unlimited access the internet provides, complete control over distribution channels and discounting is not just difficult, it is virtually impossible. It’s wonderful that a wider demographic can enjoy goods once reserved for the intersection of people who both had a taste for designer fashion and the means to support it. But there is also a loss of specialness, timing and aspiration in fashion that cannot be replicated wading in the sea of the discount designer floor at Century 21.
Seeing Gucci’s mesh and leather cut-out dress from the spring ’98 collection sitting in a clear plastic garment bag under fluorescent lights does not inspire the same response as when Carolyn Murphy marched down the runway in Milan. But at the time, that was the closest I would get to Gucci or to supermodels or to Italy, and that experience became priceless to me.