Change Room

A tale of great customer service—or a SPIRITUAL AWAKENING?

As a plus-sized woman, clothes shopping is the bane of my existence. I can spend over an hour eyeing the racks at the stores looking for Whitney-friendly wear (loose-fitting or oversized tops, stretchy sweaters, princess-cut dresses, and nothing that can be described as “form-fitting”), only to meet my match in the fitting room. The worst is when the mirrors are outside the change room, forcing me to walk the plank and parade around in front of everyone in the store. This almost always comes with prying eyes from the skinny salesgirls and customers, whose main concerns are if a colour looks good on them and not that they’d look like a stuffed sausage. It’s the same story, repeated again and again—I’ll leave the store with only a broken spirit.

Until one fateful evening in Montreal, that is. After hours of trying on baggy tunics in a bunch of outlet stores, I noticed a brightly lit Betsey Johnson store, appearing as a beacon in an otherwise gloom-filled day. Frilly frou-frou dresses, bedazzled cardigans and sky-high heels hung from racks, sat on shelves and burst from display cases. Wall to wall were rock-chic tutus, gloves, arm warmers, and berets shimmering with decals; purses in leopard prints, shiny metallic silvers, blues, reds, and purples; and bold, sparkling belts and jewelry. I stared longingly at all the clothes that I wished would fit my plus-size physique; this was, in every other way, “Whitney’s Wonderful Emporium.” It was the intersection of so many fun and wonderful places, containing the glamour of a rock show, the whimsy of Willy Wonka’s factory, and the meticulous curating of a museum. And like a real museum, I dared not touch anything. I took one wistful look around me, then turned around to leave.

I didn’t get far before a sales associate stopped me, asking if she could help. Normally, I would have politely said “no thank you,” but I couldn’t abandon those clothes without giving them a fair chance (Did I mention the tutu?). In a small voice I explained that while I loved every single thing in the store, I bore no delusions of petiteness and knew nothing would fit. But the sales girl wouldn’t take no for an answer.

She plunked me in the change room and set out to navigate the wild rapids of frothy dresses, bringing me lacy and delicate garments I would have never dared pick out myself—one wrong move and I would split these in half like the Hulk. But she encouraged me to give them a try.

After building my confidence with a few sunnily-patterned sheath dresses, I found myself worming into a tight black pencil skirt with a jaunty peplum. I was attracted to that skirt, but in the same way I might be attracted to Leonardo DiCaprio—that is to say, from a distance. Actually trying it on could be enough to end a love affair; if this one didn’t fit, that would be the end of this little pretense. With a loose white cashmere poncho on top and a pair of electric blue heels that felt alien on my feet, I was ready for my usual disappointment.

As I emerged, the customer in the change room next to me said “Whoa.” I looked in the mirror and was shocked; I had legs. The skirt fit perfectly and clung to my body in all the right places. I looked tall and polished and felt flat out sexy. For the first time ever, I felt great in a fitting room.

I purchased the outfit and sincerely thanked the sales associate. I wish I could remember the name of the woman who guided me through this intimate awakening. I never go shopping with girlfriends, mostly ’cause we can’t shop in the same stores, so I could never relate to other women who spoke of shopping as some female bonding experience—until now. What was probably a regular work day for this woman helped me overcome some pretty deep personal insecurities. I walked out of the store grinning and high off my epiphany into a twilit evening. Suddenly all these possibilities were in front of me, and I couldn’t stop putting outfits together in my head. Was it an artificial high brought on by consumerism? That’s one way to interpret it, but I finally felt like I could fit in with these cultural arbiters so often relegated to femininity (after all, it’s a lot easier to think about subverting convention when the rules automatically apply to you). I finally knew how Becky Bloomwood felt after a particularly erotic session of shopping at Prada, or the cult of Carrie Bradshaw that swept the nation in the late ’90s.

This was going to change everything.

photography // Brianne Burnell

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys

In the fall of 2010, I attended a party at the Barneys on Madison Avenue in New York City. Simon Doonan was signing flip-flops on the main floor and the Olsen twins were about to cause a riot upstairs. Tavi Gevinson posed for pictures, while Anna Wintour hid in a corner with her Blackberry. The normally sedate department store was reduced to a well-groomed circus. Not exactly the store its eponymous patriarch Barney Pressman envisioned in 1923.

In his critical history, Joshua Levine recounts the story of three generations of Pressman men and Barneys, beginning with the store’s original incarnation, a bargain basement with a huge surplus of merchandise and deals to spare. The tagline was “Calling All Men!” And did they ever—Barneys was a jumble of a place, always stocked with every size, no matter how obscure. It’s clear that Levine delights in this original incarnation, as well as Pressman’s determination and hard-luck beginning.

In addition to the facts, Levine relays anecdotes from supporters and detractors of the store. Some are charming, some sad, some shocking: like when Barney Pressman sponsored the radio broadcast coverage of the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann who was convicted of kidnapping and murdering Charles Lindbergh’s two year old son. Levine explains: “Think of a small local haberdasher you had never heard of using the murder trial of Timothy McVeigh to hawk cheap suits, and you get an idea of the exhilarating tastelessness of the whole thing.” He pairs these secondhand stories with the cold hard numbers that took Barneys from an extremely profitable and powerful family business into its eventual bankruptcy. Even with all the figures, Levine keeps a fast pace and had me turning the pages nonstop to find out how it all ends.

After serving in World War II, Barney’s son Fred took control of the store. He worked steadily to acquire higher end merchandise and broaden their customer base. Now you could get Christian Dior and affordable suits in the same place. However, it was the third generation who brought about the family’s undoing. Gene Pressman and his appetite for excess (wild nights at Studio 54, lavish clothing for himself and his wife, homes photographed for prestigious interior design magazines), paired with his brother Bob’s “creative accounting” led the entire company to ruin. The Pressmans filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in 1996, relinquishing all but two per cent of their stock (which they sold to the Jones Apparel Group in 2007). And Levine convincingly argues that this is best for the store and for its patrons.

Since the publication of this book, Barneys has gone through a wide range of CEOs and primary shareholders. I happen to be extremely interested in the cutthroat nature of designer fashion retail, so this book was perfect for me. Levine is subtle but insistent in his belief that the Pressmans failed because they stopped catering to “all men” and fell into the trap of serving a very particular customer, foregoing profits for their own brand of elitism. Photo-ops with celebrities are all well and good, but affordable merchandise that people actually want to buy? That’s priceless.

The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys: A Family Tale of Chutzpah, Glory, and Greed By Joshua Levine (William Morrow/Harper Collins, 1999)

review by Haley Mlotek
photography by Samantha Walton

Shoe Blues

I’m big on lists. I write them in my planner, on scraps of paper (when said planner is unavailable), and when things get really desperate, in smudgy scribbles on my hands. My favorite type is of the “to buy” assortment, although mine always seems to grow and can never be completed, creating one giant, ongoing list. Almost every time I head to a shop, be it alone or with friends, for large pieces of furniture or just groceries, I will secretly be clutching a list detailing exactly what I’d like to buy. There’s just one problem: no matter what I have on my list, I somehow always end up bringing home the same thing. Shoes.

Last weekend, I went out looking for a vintage trunk to use as a coffee table in my new place. What did I come home with? Vintage suede slippers with a delicately embroidered toe in a delicious olive green. A few weeks earlier, it was black patent vintage Ferragamos with a fabric bow and gold detailing, a pair so precious they managed to trump my basic food needs for the week. No matter how final my lists are on paper, my mind always seems to have a subconscious agenda that constantly pulls me to the footwear department, distracting me from the things I actually need.

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Starting with the Girl in the Mirror

Walking into a fitting room and seeing a lack of mirrors often sends me into a cold sweat. I dread leaving the comforts of my rectangular chute to appraise my garment in front of a stand of jurors (or rather, annoyed consumers waiting in line). I get achy wondering if my underwear might be showing, or that the fitted silhouette of my skirt really hugs the wrong curves. Why should I be forced to make these (self-esteem punching) discoveries in public?

There have been a handful of occasions where I have tried something on, noticed there were no mirrors, taken the item off and left it behind, all because I was too shy to wander around looking for a reflective surface in an overcrowded store. On a side note, does anyone else hate having to try on accessories in an open store environment? Many a beautiful hat I have walked away from because I was alone and too wimpy to try it on in front of other shoppers. What if it doesn’t fit right? Or messes up my hair? Or makes me look like I’m attending church in 1923 — in a bad way? I guess what it all comes down to is an aversion to looking at myself in the mirror in public in general. No one wants to be the vanity-case caught giving their best Zoolander in H&M. So I try to keep my moments looking in mirrors outside the fitting room brief, and often don’t buy anything that I haven’t been afforded the luxury of examining in private for at least three minutes.

I must admit, my place of work is guilty of the public mirror. In a men’s suit store, mirrors outside the fitting room become more necessity then hindrance. A suit is worn multiple times a week, and is a foundational garment to a man’s wardrobe, so professional opinion and tailoring is often expected as part of the shopping process. While I have experienced the tremors and consequent pitfalls of being forced to come outside the fitting room to assess a garment, working in this type of environment has also led me to see some benefits. When I, as the salesperson, am able to actually see the garment on you, I can help in more efficient ways. If you show me the best and worst qualities of the piece you are trying on, it’s easier for me to pick out a designer or brand to suit your needs. I’ve stopped counting the times that I have been left at close to put away 26 pairs of pants left in one fitting room, all because the customer didn’t want to come out to take a look at where the problem was. Instead I heard him lament over and over “it just didn’t feel right.” Rather than confining yourself to defeat in the fitting room, remember that coming out in the garment is beneficial to both yourself and the attendant. I’m not getting paid to stand around and make fun of you.

It seems to me that in most cases when the mirror is outside the fitting room, the store wants to foster a relationship between salesperson and consumer. Though daunting at first, I actually think this relationship can have its upsides, even in an environment outside of men’s suits. Though some may sit with a snarl suited to Sid Vicious, fitting room attendants ultimately should make your shopping experience less stressful (even if they are just grabbing a different size or color). As for the customer with the 26 pairs of pants, in the end we were able to find one pair of trousers that he liked, but if he had come out to look in the mirror wearing the first pair he tried, maybe I wouldn’t have been restocking pants until my fingernails bled. So it seems I am lucky enough to see both sides of the looking glass, and in light of it all I am urging myself to start a (small) revolution. Take a deep breath, draw the curtain, and come out of the fitting room.

- Casie Brown