Fashionably Snubbed

A requirement of my classes is that students visit a high end department store to inspect the garments of the designer they most admire. It is the project that receives the most groans and sighs. I might as well be asking them to have their teeth pulled. They squirm and object but I stand firm; it’s part of their final grade.

They must put a presentation together which includes a selfie capturing their visit for me to actually believe they went. “You want us to take photos?” they cry, even more anxious.

“Indeed,” I reply. “Pretend you’re texting your friend and snap.”

I also require notes, observations, ask them to study branding, displays, demographic, lighting. Then I encourage them to try stuff on. They whip their heads back so that their chins merge with their necks and raise their eyebrows so that they disappear into their hairlines. It’s a unique expression that I have come to understand means: “Okay, wait up there, lady. Now you’ve gone too far.”

It was exactly the same when I was a fashion student. Budding designers just learning to walk the walk are petrified of the retail staff in luxury stores. That humble 9 to 5-er whose feet just need a rub and whose prospects of promotion are slim now that Tammy’s back from maternity leave becomes the bouncer at the coolest new club, the perky blond leader of the popular school clique, and Fluffy, the vicious three-headed dog in Harry Potter that guards the trapdoor leading to the Philosopher’s Stone.

Fluffy

Fluffy

More often than not, the students pay their tuition by working in retail. But they consider the employees at Barneys to be of an entirely different calibre than those at H&M. They’re better than them. There’s a class system and if what you’re selling contains lots of zeros in the price tag you are entitled to look down on those doing the same job, for possibly the same salary, but who deal in merchandise with less zeros.

They all worry they’re going to have a Pretty Woman experience…Unknownimages-1“But these toffee-nosed snoots could one day be selling your work, think of it like that,” I say.

Skepticism.

“In a sense they’ll almost be working for you. You have more fashion knowledge in your right ear than they do on their entire resumes.”

Blank stares.

“Okay, then, just wear black. Make sure it’s not covered in dog hair or dandruff and they won’t know if it’s Prada or JC Penney. All black. It’s like camouflage print for soldiers, you’ll blend in with the luxury customer, especially here in NYC. Their hawk eyes will descend on the European tourist in the hazard-hued orange jeans and you’ll glide by undetected.”

Then I send them off with a horn blow, my little fashion cadets, and hope they make it back.

The following week, the presentations are impressive but the reactions are mixed. One girl filed a complaint against “the creepy guy in the grey tuxedo.” She used words like “uncomfortable,” complained of him “following” her and “staring.”

Others were giddy with relief. “Everybody was really nice, just chatting away. One offered me a glass of water. The bathrooms were beautiful…”

There’s nothing like feeling accepted:Unknown-1One girl turned the exercise into her own mini victory:

“I thought, Hmmm, I’ve worked in retail, I know how to deal with you. So I tried on five different garments, asked for new sizes to be brought, was in there for ages, then handed everything back and said they’re all too big. ‘But 36 is our smallest size,’ said the woman. 36? Oh no, I’m only a 32.”

And off she trotted.

Fair enough. I recommend that fashion students take their mini victories where they can get them. It’ll only get tougher.

Worst culprit for pissy sales assistants: Bergdorf Goodman.

Most welcoming to students, tourists and big spenders alike: Dover St Market.

So let me say on behalf of my students and fashion students everywhere: Oi, you, Bergdorf , it’s not the 80s any more! Remember these words: Big mistake. Big. Huge.

 

My novel set in the international fashion industry is now available. You can buy Silk for the Feed Dogs here

 

 

28 comments

  1. Ha I love the Pretty Woman references. I always think of that movie when I am window shopping in NYC! Or anywhere else I can’t afford πŸ™‚

    • I think that scene sticks in our mind because one time or another we’ve all been glared at by a snooty sales assistant. Where do they learn that? Is there a handbook? A memo from head office? πŸ™‚

  2. Oh Jackie, I love this post! When I first moved to NYC, I wandered into BG because I wanted to purchase a Pucci scarf. I was overwhelmed and a younger salesperson came over and quietly said, “I think you will find Barneys more comfortable.” and off I trotted.
    Since then, I have a better relationship with BG due to desiring something only they sold and purchasing it at full price. This opened up visiting the shoe sales and 5F. You just have to ignore the snots and be exceedingly polite to view (and try on) what you want. I’ve even returned to the store (and lived to tell).
    Your students are so much better for the experience – good or bad. They will be more willing to try again after already going through the pain once.
    XO

    • Oh, Dievca, I would have had such a response for young MIss Helpful in BG. In the tone of Julia Roberts, “I didn’t ask if this would fit me, I asked what price it was,” I’d have responded “I didn’t ask you if I would be comfortable in Barneys, now did I? Now, get me one of these in every color!”
      To be honest, the students’ presentations made me want to lollygag in fancy stores and nibble an overpriced salad admiring the scenic ladies who lunch. I used to do it much more than I do now.
      XO

      • Nah — I was really uncomfortable and wasn’t going to spend my $ somewhere unhappy. The Girl was being sincere – not smart and she was well aware they lost a sale to Barneys — I still have an wear the scarf. It actually made me willing to go back to BG.

  3. petermcl2013

    Barney’s is a serial offender too!

  4. You should send this to BG.

    • You know, there are some statistics that indicate a level of snobbery keeps a certain aspirational customer interested in shopping there. Maybe they have a strategy but I prefer the democratic vision of Dover St Market.

  5. I always felt so terrible during that scene in Pretty Woman! I think your class exercise is a very valuable one- I still feel that way in Barney’s- even though everyone is nice, I feel completely out of place!!

    • Oh you’d fit right in, dear!
      I was talking over lunch with a friend who worked in retail in Harvey Nichols during his fashion studies years ago and he cites that experience as the reason why he lost all awe of posh stores. They couldn’t intimidate him anymore because he knew how tedious the work was. The view from the other side: He claimed that customers with no money were a pleasure to serve, and customers with gazillions of dollars also. The nightmare customer was the in-betweener, the wannabe with some money who wants to show it off by humiliating sales staff, snapping their fingers and the like.

  6. Good to know so that I can prepare my snooty face ahead (I can do a very good snooty). It would be so much more pleasant if more employees could take the example of the rather wonderful Mr Wilberforce Clayborne Humpries! (Are You Being Served, 1972-1985)

  7. I love that you knew him by his full name, Lia. Not fashionably snubbed, but fashionably connected πŸ™‚

  8. Dover St Market..they even told me where I could buy it cheaper out of pure niceness! Fab cafe here in London too xxx

  9. It’s so wrong to judge a book by it’s cover! I worked in clothes shops in Belfast (Wallis and Gap) and on a few occasions, those who didn’t look like they had much money to spend made huge purchases. One day I served a very polite and well-heeled lady who asked to return a jacket as it was faulty. I looked at the patch under the arm where the stitching was loose. I could tell, the stitches had been tugged deliberately, but said nothing other than I’d have to ask the manager to take a look. While my back was turned, she’d grabbed the jacket and scarpered!

    • Oh, how funny. The wonderful ways of the high street shopper. My husband, a diehard GAP shopper, often experiences buyer’s remorse. He weirdly buys something then gets a similar kick out of returning it unworn for a full refund. Double satisfaction! Would never work for me! πŸ™‚

  10. I just love how you tell a thing. GREAT post!! πŸ˜‰ It also reminds me – good heavens, I need to go shopping. Big love!

  11. Who hasn’t been intimidated in big, fancy and stuffy department stores … and often with a reason. I can definitely identify with the Pretty Woman scene, only wish I had been able to execute such a revenge hehe. Great post. Wishing you a fabulous weekend.

    XOXO Nensi

  12. Dover St Market in London is a joy and the only place to get up close and personal with fabulous creations….that’s staff as well as stock. As a fashion/textile student we had to do a similar exercise and of all the designer stores we visited Armani was the only place where the staff looked at me like I was a pile of poo they had stepped in. Luckily I have no need to return as it’s not to my taste or pocket! There’s a great Ab Fab scene where she barks at the snooty gallery employee….”you’re only a shop assistant you know”!!
    Great post Jackie!

  13. Thanks Lovely. Wasn’t it the Armani store in Pretty Woman too? Sure looked like it. Well, I’ll be heading to Dover St on Monday with another class of young cadets. Looking forward to it myself! Happy weekend to you xo

  14. Hung Tran

    I relate so hard. Often when I feel like fashion becomes too much and snobbish sales assistants are pushing me over the edge, I begin to interrogate them about every single aspect of the brand. Some of them can’t even name the creative directors of the brands they stock. I’m not usually so elitist with the whole name-dropping thing, but there are times when people just need to be humiliated. I love this little gem: “In a sense they’ll almost be working for you. You have more fashion knowledge in your right ear than they do on their entire resumes.”

    • It’s funny because I remember working in retail when I was a student and it was so mind numbingly boring sometimes. This can bring out the worst in people, make them toy with other people’s feelings, engage in bored power plays. Shut it down, whatever way you can. It’s about enjoying looking at the lovely clothes and not the hatchet-faced shop assistants πŸ™‚

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