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    Washington Post - 2/13/2000

    Chanel Surfing By Carol X. Vinzant
    Special to The Washington Post
    Sunday, February 13, 2000; Page E01

    Shopping in New York City can be intimidating and expensive. You always have the feeling that you're being cheated or, at the very least, that some insider somewhere is getting a better deal than you.
    And usually you're right. When it comes to getting designer clothing cheap, New Yorkers in the know don't just wait for a sale at Saks. And they certainly don't read the ads in those loser tourist giveaway magazines in your hotel room. They head to the Upper East Side, where they buy their designer clothes at a cluster of high-end used-clothing stores known mostly to people who live in New York.   

    New York, of course, has a restaurant-supply district, a garment district, a Korean restaurant district, an Orthodox Jewish district and even a neighborhood that sells lighting. The Upper East Side, in addition to its claim to fame as home to serious museums and legions of residents who appear to have been the inspiration for pre-Tina Brown New Yorker cartoons, has become the neighborhood of consignment shops.

    Sure, other neighborhoods may have a few, but the Upper East Side has an advantage. It's where, to digress into business argot, the "suppliers" live. It's the neighborhood of choice of women (and a few men) wealthy enough and foolish enough to buy really expensive clothes and then tire of them when they are still in really good shape. They drop the goods off at a consignment shop, and a thriving marketplace is born.

    (Rumor has it that Jackie Kennedy Onassis used to unload her treasures here. No one is sure if that's true, but it's certainly consistent with her affection for resale that was later revealed in the posthumous auction of her belongings at Sotheby's. Unfortunately for consignment shoppers, the provenance of the merchandise remains a mystery.) 

    If Jackie was a seller, she would have received the usual 50 percent of the ticket price that all sellers get after an item sells. To keep the merchandise moving, the stores continually mark down items the longer they sit on the rack. 

    Mixed in with the consignment shops, which take only high-end merchandise, are competing thrift stores. They have the same suppliers, but since the proceeds go to charity they tend to get the stuff that isn't as desirable.

    The consignment shops are small and usually hard to find, tucked away on the second floor to save rent and, maybe, hide from tourists like you. Shopping in some is an athletic event: There's a communal dressing room, which sometimes has a special sales rack from which women can pick out even more things to try on under harsh fluorescent light in front of strangers. That's why wise women wear nylons, slip-on shoes and loose clothing for fast disrobing. 

    Other stores are more gentle to their customers. La Boutique Resale lets customers put in special requests and calls them if the coveted item arrives. Didn't bring a friend with you? That's okay; manager Bobbie Lessner will tell you honestly whether your butt looks big. "I have a great time with my ladies," she says. Some come in regularly just to chat. "We have millionaires, doctors, lawyers. All types shop here," says owner Jonathan Tse. 

    "I don't shop retail anymore. Why should I?" says veteran shopper Eve Seligson, who could easily afford to shop anywhere but is such a firm believer in the consignment shops that she bought her wedding dress at one. She recently showed two friends the ropes. "It took me a long time to get used to the idea of buying somebody else's shoes," she admits. "But a lot of them have never even been worn. You can tell by looking at the sole."
    Every store devotes a small section to Chanel, as if every woman in America aspires to own the dainty, often bejeweled suits, which sell at retail for $2,400 to $4,000. The Chanels (chained to the rack) here sell in the $400-to-$800 range. So Seligson's friend and future sister-in-law, Sherri Ben-Morits, has achieved a shopping triumph when she bags an attractive peach Chanel suit for only $200. 

    "If I had gone in there looking for a Chanel suit, I'm sure I wouldn't have found it," Ben-Morits says, absorbing the wisdom of the consignment shopper. "You have to learn to be more . . . flexible."
    Carol X. Vinzant, a writer for Fortune magazine, lives in New York City. 

    New York Consignment shops 

    A selection of used-clothing stores on the Upper East Side and other areas
    La Boutique Resale, 1045 Madison Ave. (near 80th Street), Second Floor, 212-517-8099

    © 2000 The Washington Post Company

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