Among fashion insiders, New York's sample sales are closely guarded secrets, traded like stock tips. Here's our list of the best—pass it on with discretion
In New York, no news travels faster than news of a deal. Still, a point of pride on this shopping-crazed island is knowing something others don't. So to have the addresses and dates of the city's best sample sales—slightly misnamed events where prototype designs and leftovers are offered at rock-bottom prices—is to be at the zenith. Some designers are so secretive that they insisted on being left out of this story. The following list is a good start, but take it with a word of warning: you'll have to sleuth out most of the vitals on your own. Be circumspect when calling any of the numbers here. Once you find the entrance, act as if you're supposed to be there (with or without your embossed invite), bring lots of cash, and consider wearing a body stocking: dressing rooms are rare.
Chaiken & Capone (November) www.chaikenandcapone.com. Who said black and khaki are boring?Certainly not the faithful followers who flock to Chaiken & Capone for chic urban basics. Women load up on slim-fitting pants ($200 at Barneys, $85 here), knee-skimming skirts, and Liberty of London shirts. In the back is the "dressing area," where mirrors are taped to columns.
Dolce & Gabbana (call for dates) 532 Broadway; 212/750-0055. Sample sale or nightclub?The bouncer-like figure guarding the door makes you wonder. At last May's event, cotton hats were reduced to $39 from $215 and Dopp kits were $69. There were also great shoes, such as Birkenstock-inspired fur slides (sizes, like the path to heaven, tend toward the narrow), boiled-wool handbags, and clothes aplenty.
Donna Karan (December, June) Parsons Auditorium, 560 Seventh Ave.; 212/768-5800. This is the archetypal New York City sample sale, attended by throngs of uptown fashion mavens on cell phones. A woman with a Motorola at one of last year's events was overheard describing a shawl to her therapist. Fight the crowds for both Donna Karan and DKNY--or go on the last day, when prices drop.
Dosa (February, August) address changes for each sale; 212/431-1733. It was here that one two-year-old, shopping with her mother (our own senior features editor), learned to say "mob scene." Dosa, which has a cultish following, is by Christina Kim, who was in the vanguard of the lingerie look and encourages layering--Chinese jackets, skirts worn over matching pants. Her rumpled-silk skirts (great for tiny people, mind you) go for less than half price.
Fendi (October, spring) 37 W. 57th St.; 212/319-2222. Two years ago, Fendi's roomful of low-priced "baguette" bags were snapped up in record time by fashion critics and editors. Baguette-laden, the women globe-trotted to the fashion shows and unwittingly created an accessory sensation. Some might call it a marketing ploy, but it bodes well for Fendi's future sample sales.
Nanette Lepore (call for dates) 225 W. 35th St., fifth floor; 212/594-0012. Raincoats of plastic that resembles rubberized silk voile plummet to $90 from $260, and signature Nanette Lepore tank dresses with old-fashioned boning sewn into the bodice go for as little as $70. The three-day sales take place four times a year in Lepore's design studio, complete with (could it be?) a dressing room. Hint: There are plenty of sizes; avoid the masses by waiting until the second day.
Norma Kamali (call for dates) 11 W. 56th St., third floor; 800/852-6254. Norma Kamali's events are full of surprises: denim pants and tops, ripstop nylon pants, ultrasuede riding jackets. You'll also find trench coats, slit skirts, and tunics in Kamali's poly jersey, very flattering and ideal for travel. And if you came for her sexy string bikinis, you will not be disappointed.
Onward Kashiyama (call for dates) 1 E. 27th St.; 212/629-6100. Don't expect the same relaxing experience you get at Onward's Paris store. Dilapidated stairs lead to a dreary room where outrageous Alexander McQueen suits hang next to floral Paul Smith dresses and Martine Sitbon knits. Rack upon rack of Tocca, Michael Kors, and ICB fill a back room where aggressive shoppers try to intimidate.
SSS Sample Sales 134 W. 37th St., second floor; 212/947-8748. At this permanent sample-sale warehouse, the products change weekly. Labels such as Betsey Johnson, Darryl K., and Diesel drop off truckloads of samples and leftovers on a regular basis. The curtained dressing area resembles a junior-high girls' locker room: frenetic, vain, tearful, and giggly all at the same time. But hey, if you walk out with a sari-fabric Tocca dress for $50, who's complaining?
Trussardi (December, May) 745 Fifth Ave., sixth floor; 212/906-9133. Come to this biannual sale and you'll discover that you really can use a crocodile blazer or a new set of luggage in the softest leather. Men's and women's ready-to-wear collections and accessories, presented in a stunningly tranquil showroom, are marked 20 percent below wholesale. If you dare feel guilty, remind yourself that Trussardi donates part of its sample-sale proceeds to the New York Make-A-Wish Foundation.
TSE (December, spring) address changes for each sale; 800/522-2276. The mounds of cashmere up for grabs go as low as $75 for a thick fisherman's-style pullover, which normally retails for a few bazillion. But these big deals (including items for children) take work; the sale has faithful pilgrims who wouldn't miss it, and the atmosphere can be maniacal. Veterans know to come early (it's not unheard-of to line up at 6 a.m. for the 10 a.m. opening).
Vera Wang (October) Hotel Pennsylvania, 401 Seventh Ave., 18th floor; 212/575-6400. First, congratulate yourself on finding the dates of this very secret, very sought-out sale. Then make a mad dash for wedding gowns, bridesmaid dresses, and evening gowns by this former Vogue fashion editor who is credited with bringing style to the bridal world. Be warned: Calls to the studio are most unwelcome. Your best bet is to contact the hotel.
Meg Cohen (December, March) 920 Broadway, suite 905; 212/473-4002. Hosted by the exceedingly gracious designer in her studio, this biannual sale features Cohen's English cashmere scarves, throws, and blankets in inspired color combinations (lichen green and pale blue, red and pink, sage and yellow). Cohen's 71/2-foot-long Hugh scarves (named after her boyfriend) are $145.
Miriam Haskell (December) 49 W. 37th St.; 212/764-3332. Jewelry aficionados rummage through garage sales looking for Haskell's vintage 1940's and 50's designs. Her company still makes many of those classics, which appear on these sample-sale tables. Newer items, such as baroque pearl necklaces, go for as little as $10.
Portolano (October, November, December, January) 32 W. 39th St., fifth floor; 212/719-4403. Veer right for shearling and fur-trimmed gloves by Portolano for Fendi and Moschino. If it's cashmere you seek, go left, where piles of colorful scarves, gloves, and hats practically spill off the tables.
Archipelago (December, May) 525 Broadway, eighth floor; 212/334-9460. Former set designer Nina Ramsey (Married to the Mob, Parenthood) launched her own line of bed, bath, and table linens eight years ago. Cocktail parties have never been the same--her napkins are embroidered with words such as snockered and looped. Usually $62 for a set of six, they go here for $18 to $30.
Area (November, March) 180 Varick St., ninth floor; 212/924-7084. Snap up Swedish designer Anki Spets's linens--from napkins and curtains to duvet covers and sheets--in a range of cool shades like sea green, pale blue, charcoal. This is a well-known and well-worth-the-trouble event.
Metropolitan Design Group (November or December) 80 W. 40th St., eighth floor; 212/944-6110. The sale takes place just in time for Christmas shopping, but your friends will think you devoted the year to finding the perfect gift. In a lovely showroom, you can pick through clever tabletop items such as beaded place mats. There are also exquisite cotton pajamas and sheets by Angel Zimick, plus silk scarves (from $4), bags, and hats, hats, hats.
Nan Swid Design (call for dates; usually in spring) 55 W. 13th St.; 212/633-6699. Grab and run. That's the approach most shoppers take at this annual sale of Swid's housewares collection, as well as her frames, vases, flatware, and glasses for Calvin Klein. You'll hear people fighting over the perfect fork or a single candlestick. Buyer beware.
Additional reporting by Catherine Doyle.
six tips for girls
This defines the sample-sale mentality: I step off the elevator for TSE, the cashmere mecca, walk up to a couple who are whispering intently to each other, and announce that I'm researching sample-sale tips (beyond the basics of "arrive early" and "wear good underwear"). "Don't tell her, don't tell her," the woman hisses to the man. "I'm not kidding," she threatens. Sample sales are addictive, inconvenient, and often humiliating. I love them.
Tip one: Expect nothing. Every man for himself and God against all. The only time people will give you information about a sale is when they are staggering away with a garbage bag full of bargains.
Tip two: Never let them see you want it. If someone is about to drop a perfect pink sweater and sees your look of glee--dollars to doughnuts they'll change their mind. Instead, appear vaguely interested in another item. Once the sweater has been decisively abandoned, move in.
Tip three: A moment of reconnoitering can save precious time as prime pieces vanish. At the last Dosa sale everyone rushed in and started pawing the tables in the front of the room. I took a second to look around and spotted a rack in the corner with the very silk skirts I was after.
Tip four: Don't hesitate. Just take stuff and move on. Speed and reflexes are key. I operate on a color/fabric radar: I don't care if it's a shirt, a skirt, or hot pants in a size 4. Later, hunched in a corner like a wolf defending my litter, I'll look at my finds and decide what to purchase.
Tip five: Don't be afraid to buy in bulk, especially if an item combines style and utility. Luxury versions of ordinary things--cashmere socks, black T-shirts--last longer and look and feel better.
Tip six: Sometimes what seems like worthless frivolity is the best investment: the gossamer silver evening bag, the long gray suede gloves, the pastel silk mousseline scarf. If they are things of beauty (and the price is right) you may use them with great satisfaction, as they are elegant idiosyncrasies.
Good shopping, and keep me in mind if you spot any fabulous shoes out there. I'm a 6 1/2.
steals 'r' us: the sale sources
• S&B Report 877/579-0222; www.lazarshopping.com; one-year subscription $59. The most complete monthly guide to New York sample sales. Devoted shoppers can sign up for the black-belt subscription ($124), which provides weekly updates. If you can't make it to the city, S&B conducts two or three sales a week on its Web site. Visitors to New York can order a single issue for $9.95.
• www.salesandbargains.com The site is known for crashing computers, but it's a good source for sales in cities across the country.
• The Bargain Hotline 212/540-0123; $1.95 per minute, 75 cents each additional minute. Available only to callers in the New York area.
• Media Check the shopping columns of Time Out New York, New York magazine, and the New York Post for regular scoops.