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Consigning the Upper East Side

Posted: 12/02/10 04:06 PM ET

When you say the word "consignment," Park Avenue isn't exactly what pops into your mind. However, there they are, scattered little sanctuaries buried deep in the concrete jungle of the East 70's where bushels of divorcees and divas give up their precious couture, and often times walk away with new pieces. For the last year I've worked at a contemporary consignment shop on 74th St. where women can come in with their used shoes, clothes and jewelry, sell them for less‐exorbitant prices than they bought it all for, and make a profit. We aren't talking "thrift" or "army‐navy" here... we're talking a Giorgio Armani dinner jacket worn once; three pairs of Giuseppe Zanotti sandals bought at a Saks sale a year ago but stuffed in the back of the closet; three Diane Von Furstenberg dresses with tags still on them bought for a spoiled daughter who hates them. It's a drop‐off center for the wealthy.

Make no mistake: it's the women who are running this Sutton Place scene. Sure, the husbands who are doctors, lawyers and bankers (it's one of the three or none; you live in the East 60s or 70s or you don't) who finance the lifestyle. It's the women, however, who decide what's in or what's out, who's invited or who isn't. There are a good majority of women who do in fact work in PR or fashion, or they might be dentists, doctors or lawyers themselves. There are a larger fraction of women who work on other things: yoga, dance class, shuttling their kids to and from private schools, their hair, their nails, and then puddle‐jumping between what I like to call the "3 B's"... Bergdorf's, Barney's and Bloomingdales. Shopping up here isn't extracurricular, or a fun thing to do on Saturdays - you are dealing with a Master's Degree level. There aren't any Tupperware parties, there are Hermes Birkin Bag Swap Parties. On the way to pick up their dry cleaning, they'll pop in with the nanny and drop $500 on a navy Marni raincoat they have in black, but love it so much they'll take it in navy, too. They know exactly how much it is to repair thumbnail‐size hole in a cashmere sweater. They know that Searle just put their summer dresses on sale early two days ago, so we should put the one we have in the window at half price.

Of course, the day can be peppered with a few too‐tanned, too‐many‐times‐blonde, uber‐injected visitors, with what I like to call "deep‐fried highlights" and the Something-About-Mary‐tan one can only get from, well, hours of golf and margaritas in Palm Beach. Overly‐plumped lips, stretched‐out botoxed foreheads, and saggy skin left to hang after routine liposuctions ("Sweetie, can you help me get out of this dress?") can easily make your wince‐reflex work overtime. And of course there are the emotionally‐botoxed women -- on their way to therapy, or just out of a "spa center," or going through their second divorce, or ten years divorced and never on a date since. It tends to become a group therapy session served chilled over Prada and Vuitton. Once the flood gates of intimate conversation have opened, the dialogue knows no boundaries. Hardly ever does a man walk into a female consignment shop, so it's pretty safe to say that everything from heiresses faking pregnancies to high‐profile infidelities can be overheard in the store.

The conversational intimacy makes for great sales and the trust translates to more Chanel bags handed over to us. The women may not want to be seen with the store's shopping bag, but they sure do pass in on almost a daily basis. And I'll tell you why. To these women, the clothing they bring in is almost equivocal to dropping their children off at an adoption auction.

As a woman in a hierarchy like the Upper East, every label on your scarf goes noticed, every thread of fabric is scrutinized for quality, every bag is your calling card... these articles of clothing are absolute precious gemstones. They are the suit of armor that prepares them to deal with the world they've been thrust into, and must pay attention to this world in order to maintain a respect level. They are giving us their perfectly tailored babies, and we put a price tag on them and throw them on our shelves for the general public. It's not so much the money these women are after, but it's the respect that they want the garments to have on their way out of our store and into someone else's hands.

Think of your wedding dress. You can't wear it again but someone else might be able to. Think of how emotional it would be to give it away. While the rest of us do our shopping at The Gap and Club Monaco, these women have spent hours tailoring Yves Saint Laurent jackets, Dolce and Gabbana skirts and spent thousands on Badgley Mischka gowns at benefits they spent hours getting ready for. The reality of giving them to a store to turn over and sell is actually quite personal, and to a
husband or to an outsider, it might not even be properly understood.

It took us a little time to understand it, too. In the beginning my colleague and I were overwhelmed by the entitlement that many of the women have sewn into the cores of their personalities like shiny, gold emblems with purple ribbons. In order to actually maintain sanity, what I believe has happened organically with us is recognizing that this attitude that commonly comes across as arrogance, is in fact merely a protection mechanism easily worn down. You wear it down two ways: you listen and you share. We already have the common bond that we are women -- and if you are in this specific store it means you probably love couture. We've all been heartbroken, cheated on, cried in a dressing room when the lights hit our thighs, stuffed ourselves with muffins to buy another pair of Manolos, wonder if the girl who works with our husband dresses a little too provocatively around him, and most of us know that you can always use one more perfect Little Black Dress. And if you live in this neighborhood, you know what a pair of Jil Sander trousers cost.

If you want to settle into this booming little business it only pays if you do your homework, meaning you cruise Madison Avenue on your day off, run into Daffy's on your lunch break and trade in your auto‐pilot online browsing time spent on Facebook for Shopstyle and GiltGroup. It's a culture all its own, but in this economy it might be here to stay. Most dips in the Dow affect middle America, but this time the lows on the graphs have taken a large chunk out of some of this country's wealthiest who call the Upper East their home. Does dropping off three cashmere sweaters on their way to yoga make a difference in their nine‐figure bank accounts? Not really. But maybe there is a reason they have skin that sparkles while we cake on the make‐up to hide the fatigue. While the average person gives their clothes to goodwill or to a relative, the women up here know better.

So don't let the blasé demeanor fool you as they pay for their coffee with their black Amex as you fish for change in your purse -- it's not an accident; they know how to turn a dollar around to make another. Why shouldn't that kind of cunning include couture?