NEW YORK -- Ordinarily I'm a cheapskate shopper who frequents Kmart and Old Navy and thinks of Macy's as a splurge. But recently I decided to explore the secret world of New York sample sales, where leftover designer merchandise is sold at deep discounts.
After doing some research with the help of an editor from Lucky magazine and some fashionista friends on Facebook, I came up with a list of venues and set out on my quest. I was prepared for utter mayhem, snooty workers, high prices and tiny sizes designed for skinny models. Instead, while I did encounter crowds and long lines, I also found helpful salespeople and clothes in medium and large.
But the biggest surprise was the discounts and my reaction to them: It took all my willpower to refrain from buying one of everything at my very first sample sale, a Calvin Klein event where everything was marked down 90 percent: $1,300 buttery leather bags and jackets for $130, tailored $195 blouses at $19.50, and soft-as-kittens $325 men's sweaters, just $32.50.
In five minutes, I went from sample sale virgin to sample sale addict. The bargains were intoxicating. I didn't need these things, but I wanted them, just so I could say I bought something so expensive for so little.
I decided to check out a few more sales before giving in to my first impulse. Of course they were just as tempting: Norma Kamali jerseys, a mere $12, and $330 Helmut Lang jeans marked down to $32. In a self-preserving Freudian move, I managed to forget my wallet, so Norma and Helmut did not come home with me. But I returned to Calvin after mentioning the sale to my sons, ages 15 and 20. They begged for trophies.
I arrived 10 minutes before the weeklong event ended. There wasn't much left. My sons are about my size, so I squeezed on a medium gray-and-black checked sweater to check the fit. A salesman looked at me sympathetically and said, "Those runway models are tiny! Try a size up." The large fit well, so I grabbed one for each boy, then decided I'd feel sad if I didn't get myself something. Five minutes left, warned a loudspeaker. I jogged over to the $19.50 blouses and buttoned one over my top, then power-elbowed a man away from the nearest mirror for a look. Success! I joined the checkout line of 100 people with seconds to spare.
"I bought you a $325 sweater," I later told my teenager. "Nooooo," he said, his eyes growing huge. "Yesssss," I said, producing the sweater with original price tag. Both boys loved their souvenirs.
I have to admit: Finding the sales and feeling like I was part of an in-the-know crowd was fun. Whether you're an amateur like me, a tourist in Manhattan with a shopping itinerary, or a fashionista dying for the latest trends to emerge during New York's upcoming Feb. 7-14 Fashion Week, here are some tips for navigating the world of sample sales.
Finding the sales
Alexis Bryan Morgan, executive fashion director for Lucky, which specializes in shopping and deals, says finding sample sales takes a little digging: "Join those mailing lists. Read the blogs. If you love a brand, follow it on Facebook and Twitter." Loyal fans are often first to be notified.
Sometimes designers hold once-a-year sample sales in their retail stores, as Kamali did in January. But some showrooms partner with different designers to host them throughout the year. Venues include Soiffer Haskin at 317 W. 33rd St., Clothingline at 261 W. 36th St., and 260SampleSale at 260 Fifth Ave. near 28th Street. You can check schedules and sign up for emails on their websites.
Other sample sale info can be found at Racked.com, Mizhattan.com, MadisonAvenueSpy.com, DailyCandy.com, TheStylishCity.com, LazarShopping.com and SugarRockCatwalk.blogspot.com, as well as on the shopping calendars at TimeOut and New York magazines.
The best times of year for sample sales are late February through June and late September until before Christmas.