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.
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.
“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.”
“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…”
“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