Letting the shoppers win

A luxury-goods department store in lower Manhattan took a beating on Sept. 11. Months later, Maine residents find themselves in Gazzarini Uomo.

Published January 28, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

In late September, Harold "Ham" Marden, 43, president of Marden's, a Maine-based surplus and salvage chain, got a call from an insurer representing Century 21, the fabled off-price luxury-goods department store on Cortlandt Street in Lower Manhattan. With requisite discretion, would Marden's be interested in buying about $10 million worth of fabulous designer clothing and accessories declared a loss due to building damage ensuing from the nearby collapse of the World Trade Center towers? The terms would be very attractive, and cash raised from the liquidation would help the company get back in business, the insurance company said.

"I'm like a bargain hunter on steroids. But this offer gave me pause. After some discussions with people around me, I decided that not only could we do the deal, but that we ought to. In a sense, we're the cleanup crew," said Marden.

Founded in 1964 by former letter carrier Harold "Mickey" Marden, the family-operated company obtains about one-third of its inventory through the purchase of insurance claims. The rest is largely surplus, closeouts and overstocks, Marden said. The company had record 2001 sales of about $80 million.

Unpredictable and unpretentious, Marden's is a much-loved Maine shopping institution and a cultural crossroads. Weekly outings to Marden's dimly lit, often rundown, haphazardly merchandised nine stores across the state are a churchlike ritual for rich and poor alike, as human delight in a bargain crosses all social boundaries. Even in circles where "summer" is used as a verb, the shared confidence of a Marden's find has long been a subject as democratically safe -- and yet endlessly mutable -- as the weather.

The blown-out department store was another genre of consumerist icon. With over 200,000 square feet, lower Manhattan's Century 21 was an open secret among artistic types, Mafia wives, Japanese tourists, United Nations workers and camp followers for its steeply reduced prices of the planet's finest au courant clothing and accessories. All is not lost, however: Century 21 continues to operate in a Brooklyn location, and vows to reopen its damaged store soon.

The WTC-linked salvage is unparalleled in the annals of off-price history. Century 21's Manhattan location housed literally tons of eccentric and exclusive merchandise. Furthermore, given the long, warm summer, New Yorkers had had little impetus to ponder fall shopping before the attacks, so the bumper assortment wasn't even cherry-picked. So, alongside its $1 citronella pail candles, $3 golf umbrellas and $7 grills, Marden's would be selling cream-of-the-crop designer clothing for 90 to 95 percent off the original suggested retail price.

It took Marden's several weeks to get the WTC losses cleaned, sorted and priced. Roughly 15 percent had to be discarded, the company said. Onlookers surmise that one of the reasons Century 21's insurer sold the claim to Marden's (it was also split with an unnamed New England-based competitor) was to avoid undercutting the Brooklyn location. Also, dumping such tempting -- if psychologically tattered -- merchandise near New York would have been cruel and unusual punishment. Why further beleaguer retailers already reeling from the triple whammies of terror, a contracting economy and the virtual collapse of tourism?

It can therefore be safely said that until just a few weeks ago, the names Jurgi Persoons, Atsuro Tayama, Viktor Rolfe and John Galliano were neither on the lips nor on the backs of most women living in southern and midcoast Maine. Indeed, it was a rare Maine male who recognized the sumptuous Italian leather jackets of Gazzarini Uomo. Yet today, walking around Portland, Maine's biggest and most cosmopolitan city, one sees people of all ages and means proudly sporting the more utilitarian styles by the aforementioned Vogue-canonized practitioners of sartorial chic.

In short, much of the city has had a fashion makeover right out of the movies. Look, see the deckhand in his trim navy Donna Karan windbreaker! The cashier at the greengrocer looks lovely today in her new Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti blouson! Why, the cheese lady should always wear Gianfranco Ferre!

As a relative newcomer to Maine, yet with a veteran's eye for fashion, I haven't witnessed such widespread throwaway chic since my days as a debutante in Houston in the flashy 1980s. Yet in a peculiar ethnographic twist, it's the wizened fishermen who never shop anywhere else who are today's foremost experts on the cheerful story of the New York clothes at Marden's.

According to terms of the salvage contract, Marden's was not allowed to advertise the source of the designer duds. It could, however, identify some of the clothing's makers.

"We also thought it was in poor taste to highlight the association with the tragedy," Marden said, adding that neither he nor any of his 425 full-time and 265 part-time employees are at liberty to officially confirm that the designer apparel actually came from Century 21. (Hold up the tags to the light, however, and you can sometimes discern the blacked-out Century 21 logo.) Anyway, secrets of this scale are hard to keep in Maine, where people know their neighbors even better than the warmth rating of L.L. Bean snow boots. And that's how a firestorm of ritzy fall 2001 fashions, including hundreds of winter coats, blew into Marden's in December, just in time for Holiday giving. And another shipment arrived in mid-January.

Many Marden's devotees -- myself included -- initially balked at benefiting in a material way, however honestly and indirectly, from the Trade Center tragedy. But in the end, Yankee practicality prevailed. Wear the garments mindfully, some have suggested, and until they fall apart -- which is, after all, the Maine way in most things. And so the karma boomerangs. Grateful for our blessings, we who shop at Marden's send healing wishes back to New York.

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News that suicide hijackers Mohammed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari spent their last night alive at a South Portland motel forever stripped Mainers of the illusion that the Pine Tree State's northern isolation outdistances the threat of terror. Yet who could have guessed that four months later, this unprecedented fashion windfall inextricably linked to the Sept. 11 attacks would so pep up morales and enliven polite conversation this war- and recession-challenged winter?

Oh, here and there one could find dusty gravel in the well of a cuff, or a smudged sweater smelling strongly of smoke. But the bulk of Marden's capture was in decent shape, at prices that seemed truly decadent. The Century 21 logo was carefully blacked out on the hangtags, but most of the items bore bar codes and price-reduction history. Marden's return policy for the items was liberal. It was almost like a dream.

For example, there was a quantity of heavyweight hand-knit Italian-made cashmere sweaters by Brunello Cucinelli, initially retailing for $600, now marked $60. At Marden's Portland store alone, there were at least 40 Helmut Lang denim jackets, a technically rigorous interpretation of the ubiquitous $50 Levi's version, whacked from $450 to $33. Somewhat less plunging deals characterized garments by acclaimed prophets of posh such as Versace, Pucci, Gucci and Ungaro.

How fortunate for Maine, then, that tweedy plaids, felt kilts, chunky knit pullovers and weatherproof outerwear with zip-out linings ruled the fall 2001 season on the distant runways of Milan and Paris last spring! Puffy nylon coats resembling sleeping bags were everywhere, as was cuddly -- and practical -- lined denim, here with artistic buttons and architectural buckles. In a lightning bolt of prescience, the successor to the late costume satirist Moschino had wildly embraced peace signs in that brand's logo hardware! Hoods were essential. Olive green was huge. In short, a witty and well-made wardrobe for the active life in Maine, at prices to beat the fabled outlets of Freeport.

The more exceptional styles are a source of vast, escalating amusement. People gossip benignly about the strange padded tunics by Jil Sander that seem right for fencing. Oddly narrow black gabardine skirts with homespun-looking red patches, attributed to the esoteric deconstructionist Jurgi Persoon, bring to mind disastrous high school sewing-class projects from years ago. A daring backless mirror-decorated Irish fisherman's sweater by Jean-Paul Gaultier taunts with the false promise of actual warmth. Here, one sees the unvarnished reality of supply vs. demand.

As of this writing, a platoon of $30 (a bad joke at $300) Dolce & Gabbana sheer mesh leopard-print turtleneck "sweatshirts" with Confederate red-and-gray very aggressive ribbing guards rod space with surreal, if doomed, tenacity. Luring romantic gazes like a castaway rose, a tulle-skirted corset gown by the Irish idealist John Galliano ($120, from $2,500) never gets plucked. Rack after rack of exquisite men's business suits lose only electrons, so infinitesimal is the turnover in a city where khakis suffice for most "dressy" occasions.

"Some of the prices, as well as the styles, are just ridiculous," said Kim O'Reilly, 35, the owner of TKO, an upscale consignment shop on Portland's historic Munjoy Hill. "I mean, $270 for a tie-dye cotton T-shirt by someone I've never heard of named Richmond? It was overpriced at $29. But if I'd had, say, $3,000 to spend on just myself, I could have easily done so ... it really is the sale of a lifetime," O'Reilly added, smiling. "Especially if you're thin enough to easily fit into those Italian size 42s, and have nice long legs like me."

Sallie Clarke, 33, a preschool teacher who has lived on Peaks Island, a close-knit offshore suburb of Portland, for eight years, said the Marden's sale is ethically sound by virtue of recycling.

"There's so much waste in our society, and so many lives snuffed out by the terrorists, that in a way it would be even worse if this great stuff had just been destroyed, instead of being resold in a faraway market," Clarke said. "Besides, it's really given us all something harmless and fun to talk about."

By Jennifer Farley

Jennifer Farley is a writer living in Maine.

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