In the sumptuously carpeted, air-conditioned room on the upper level, my client was assessing leather bracelets. One was a trendy-looking piece at $350, the other more classically detailed at over $500. His eyes shifted back and forth with all the care of a surgeon, carefully analyzing how best to spend his hard-earned or inherited money.
In the Madison Ave. store where I worked, the retail on those bracelets was less than the average tax on most of the other items we carried. Needless to say as a commission-based shop boy, I was trying very hard not to roll my eyes at his indecision. Every minute wasted was a dollar I could be earning with someone else.
He was a regular client—that is to say he was snooty, white, and lived within walking distance. He wore a pressed shirt, pastel cashmere sweater, lightweight blazer, slacks, and polished designer loafers with no discernible logo and definitely no socks. His ensemble alone, discreetly monogrammed here and there, probably cost more than I made in a month. He lived uptown and dropped by every so often to pick out a small gift for his wife or a colleague, rarely racking up more than $1,000 at a time. Yet he had shopped in our store for years. Salespeople helped him partly out of habit and partly as it was a guaranteed sale—albeit a small one.
During this particular eternity of a decision, a Chinese tourist rushed past our counter. He was dressed in a loud T-shirt, khaki shorts, and a backpack—none of which were particularly expensive. He was barking on a cellphone, no doubt to the person he was shopping for back home overseas. His salesperson, my co-worker, skipped behind him excitedly and I seethed with envy.
A loud conversation in broken English and Mandarin followed. My client all but tuned out this disruption until he overheard the price quote of $15,700 for a leather jacket. He proceeded to watch the rest of the interaction.
When the tourist and salesperson left the room, jacket ready to be wrapped, my Upper East Side gentleman sighed.
Choosing the more expensive of the two bracelets, he said to me, “I thought those people were supposed to be poor!”
I worked in some of New York City’s finest boutiques in SoHo and on Madison Avenue for the better part of a decade. I’ve sold everything from expensive clothes, bags, shoes, jewelry, and watches (excuse me, “timepieces”) to overpriced chandeliers, flatware, champagne flutes, cashmere blankets, and pens (excuse me, “writing instruments”).
My regular clientele was the actual true one percent. When deliveries were made to their addresses we would Google Map them. Some lived in townhouses; others had mansions outside the city. A few lived permanently in hotels like the Plaza or Palace. Their names were featured in the New York Times, Town and Country, and Vanity Fair. I overheard assistants and personal shoppers arranging dinner plans for them in 5-star restaurants and orchestra seats to musical premieres.
If there was an actual job they held, it was keeping up appearances. That’s what my client with the bracelet was doing. These people were not shy about dropping a dizzying amount of money on any shiny new trinket we had to offer. In exchange, they expected the kind of reverence reserved for the pope. We were supposed to remember their names and personal details, although they did not remember ours. They were loyal to a fault with certain salespeople but not enough to respect their scheduled days off. They enjoyed spending ridiculous amounts of time in the shop, treating it like an extension of their penthouses. We would hang around and fawn over the details of their lives they let slip.
Hey, it’s a living.
Then came two major shocks to the system: the stock market crash of 2008 and the Madoff scandal. Almost overnight these Upper East- and West-siders slowed down their spending habits. It didn’t matter whether they were affected financially or not—in this climate the whole country had a tightly belted budget. Every aspect of New York City’s retail market suffered. Empty showrooms and dreary commission checks became a common gripe during zero-dollar days. Several people I knew in the industry quit. Others had breakdowns.
Silly as it may sound, those locals and their spending kept many parts of the city alive. Stores opened second locations, galleries renovated wings, eateries flourished, hotels were overbooked, Broadway shows recouped faster. Now it was a deserted playground. Construction was placed on hold, indefinitely. So were new hires.
At my store there were meetings about ‘driving business’ and ‘reaching out to lapsed clients.’ Angry messages flooded in from the corporate office in Europe, asking why we weren’t doing our job. It was our fault. We tried everything. Calling, emailing, and even writing notes by hand on company stationary. A few customers made excuses like a family drama or impending travel. Others lied, saying they had already shopped for the season at a different brand. We knew they lied because we called our friends at those other shops to confirm. Retail is a small world.
When clients didn’t show up, heads rolled down the avenue. It didn’t matter if you were a temp or the CEO. The only businesses thriving were the bars near Midtown. On any given weeknight you’d find a cluster of salespeople trying to catch the last few minutes of happy hour. Our black uniforms fit our mood. We discussed what would we do when (not if) we got fired. Go back to school? Work in an office? Move home? So much for the ‘glamour’ of selling pretty things to pretty people.
Barely a year after the financial crisis, new clients from Asia showed up at our doors. We greeted them with skepticism until the registers began to hum. Sometimes they practically performed an aria. They were from Korea, Hong Kong, and mainland China. We were told, by translators, that some of them became overnight millionaires. We weren’t particularly interested how. As long as they spent their money with us.
Our new clients expected fast service and discounts in stores that never went on sale. Some dressed like Disney vacationers: visors, fanny packs, socks with sandals. Others overdosed on logos, their loud designer monograms clashing from head to toe. Some shouted. Some snapped their fingers. All we had to calm ourselves was the fact that decent paychecks would be dropping soon. My income bordered six figures. I had never earned that kind of money before.
Some years after the influx of Asian customers, our old locals began to emerge from their gilded cages, eager to shop again. We greeted them with a friendly “Hello, long time no see!” and then instantly ignored them in favor of the new consumers.
Poor things. The city had changed. The animosity was palpable.
One time a client I hadn’t seen in ages was babbling on to me about her recent trip to Florida. Whether she was going to buy anything was not the point; this was a social call. I let my eyes wander to a group of Asian tourists crowding the entryway. My client noticed and actually glared at me. Probably not the first time this had happened to her recently. It was like cheating on a faithful wife with a flashy new mistress. I apologized for the distraction without a drip of sincerity. I wanted currency, not courtesy.
“It’s so unpleasant to shop now,” one of my regulars moaned. She was considered one the last grand dames of 5th Avenue: hair perfectly coiffed, Chanel studs on old ears, and a mink wrap regardless of the weather—since the air conditioning in her town car was always too strong. “I can’t go anywhere without all these Orientals running all over the place.” The very people she spoke of stood a mere ten feet away, but they didn’t seem to notice. Nor did my client seem to care that she could be heard.
One time I was assisting two of my gentlemen clients, both real estate agents. They were being fitted for $2,500 suits. Behind them, a Chinese tourist laden with designer shopping bags was waiting for the tailor to hem his new $1,600 leather-trimmed pants. A Mandarin-speaking salesperson was entertaining him.
“You wouldn’t believe it!” said one of my clients to the other. “All these properties in Mamaroneck, just swept up!”
“I know. All the good places are being devoured by these chinks!”
They saw me bristle. Following my eyes, they slowly turned around to the two Asians in the room. My colleague looked tense. The tourist did not react.
“Oh, whatever,” my client scoffed. “He doesn’t have a fucking clue!”
After they left, the tourist said something briefly to the salesperson in Mandarin and she burst out laughing. I asked what it was.
“He said something like, ‘Those poor white men. They probably can’t afford more than two houses.’ Can you imagine?”
We could not imagine. Their wealth was endless and epic. In the face of outright racism, our Asian clients simply spent more. It was their trump card. It was bulk buying at uptown prices. We sent crates of products to Teterboro airport for their waiting jets. By contrast the American clients seemed restrained, as if flashy displays of income were suddenly considered gauche.
“What do you mean it’s sold out?” was a familiar cry from our locals. We would apologize.
“Then order one from another store!” We couldn’t—they were sold out, too.
“Then make one!” Nope—they were backordered.
“This is unbelievable!”
We agreed, although we were still smiling.
Catering to the Asian luxury market changed the industry. They were our new deities. We stole as many phrases we could from our Mandarin-speaking co-workers. In January we had large signs wishing a ‘Happy Lunar New Year’ in Chinese characters.
“What is all this red?” one lady asked me, referring to the streamers and lanterns in our display window.
“It’s for Chinese New Year, ma’am.” I replied.
“But I’m not Chinese!”
A few more years went by. Our Asian clients were no longer coming out in droves. Store directors blamed the Chinese stock market in their reports. Others blamed our own greed. Brands had opened multiple locations in Asian markets, ruining the novelty of American flagships. There was no point traveling for something they could get at home. Sales declined again. When they did come by their attitude had changed. They seemed disinterested and pickier. The color or size was wrong. They already had several. It was no longer in fashion. A want, not a need.
After the initial bewilderment, we reluctantly cracked open our dusty sales books to look up the roster of regulars. It took work, but eventually someone from the past—a stockbroker or a trust fund baby—would come by. So delighted to be contacted after all this time and happy show off their wealth again.
On a particularly slow Friday afternoon, the gentleman with the bracelets came back. I was not unhappy to see him. It would be my first sale that day.
“Quiet, isn’t it?” His mocking tone suggested he had noticed the lack of international shoppers.
“Oh, you know,” I said, “the calm before another storm.”
While he browsed, a Chinese family of five passed through my section, all dressed in matching sun hats and Mets T-shirts with no shopping bags. They asked me the price on a number of watches in the oak-finished display cases. I rattled them off from memory.
“$2,500, $5,700, $6,200, $12,500.”
The youngest of the three children translated. After a short discussion they thanked me and shook their heads before continuing to browse.
“May I see that?” asked my old client. He was pointing at the most expensive piece—18 karat gold, alligator strap, full of complications. I complied. He tried it on. The clasp barely closed around his wrist.
“I’ll take it!” he said loudly. The family turned around. The daughter whispered to her father, and they watched me wrap the watch (excuse me, “timepiece”) in its silk-lined box and escort my client to the register downstairs. He was smirking the whole time.
“Congrats,” said one of my colleagues after my client left.
I thanked him.
“Not to be a dick, but you know he’s just gonna return it, right? He’s showing off.”
I did know. Old habits die hard on the Upper East Side.
Climbing the steps back to my floor, I passed the family from before. They were followed by another salesperson with five watch boxes.