From Midtown's massive department stores to downtown’s impeccably edited boutiques, shopping in a city known for shopping can seem a bit overwhelming—and that's without mentioning pop-up shops, private showrooms and fleeting sample sales. But even New York City's most seasoned shoppers can gain valuable tips, significant discounts and exclusive access to special spots (special enough that we cannot name names) from a Shop Gotham tour. And while the tour venues and relevant facts may change (holidays are particularly heavy with sample sales), here are some highlights from our experience taking Shop Gotham's Garment Center “Insider” Tour.
We meet guides Kristal Mallookis and Marla Hander (Shop Gotham’s owner) at M&J Trimming—a superstore of spiky studs, buttons, ostrich plumes and sequins—then quickly move on to a sample sale of an Italian brand of accessories in cashmere and leather (held in a classroom-type space on the second floor of a nondescript building), before visiting our first private showroom. (Showroom access is typically reserved for store buyers, who meet with the brand's designers or sales reps to select pieces for their stores to buy at wholesale.)
The dark-suited man at the front desk recognizes Marla as we pass through the marble hallway to the gilded elevator that takes us to the fifth floor. A long hallway with glass windows and locked doors houses a handful of showrooms. We enter one that’s full of jackets in furs and wool—like the white wool-angora coat with a waist tie and high-stand collar, once on the Oprah's Favorite Things list, as the designer herself points out, her assistant holding the tabbed O, The Oprah Magazine. Marla refers to the items here as “treats”—not cheap, but a great investment. One example is a well-cut coat, available at a fraction of the price you'd pay for the same item in a boutique across town.
The second showroom, in a building a few blocks over, belongs to Elizabeth Gillett (one of the few names we are able to mention) and her line of airy scarves and delicate shawls. Gillett says she started her line when she lost a special velvet scarf she wore constantly. She drapes one gauzy piece around a teenage tour-goer and discusses an Impressionistic print she designed for another one, in forest green and fuchsia. One particular piece, she says, is sold at one of the aforementioned department stores for more than three times the price offered at the showroom that day. We notice the designer's inspiration board as we exit for the teeny elevator.
We then visit the showroom of a German designer, who produces in New York and whom Marla defines as “edgy,” before popping into a Stetson sample sale across the street. The CEO of the heritage brand advises me to uncurl the front brim of a gray-felt fedora. “Don't want to look like a dork,” she says, half-jokingly.
Next, we see a supersecret showroom that does private-label costume jewelry production (which means it makes accessories at a brand's request to use on the runway and sell under that name). While we can't mention current designers, we can offer one tidbit: Elizabeth Taylor once ordered Japanese glass pearls here.
At our final stop, a big personality fills a small showroom. The designer of what Marla calls “a more mature” women's line wears a fitted ruffle-front black sweater and professes her love for everything tight. “I'll keep squishing, until it stops squishing,” she says with a grin, before getting a 16-year-old New Jersey girl and a 60-something woman from Ohio to try on that same sweater. After financial transactions and good-byes, a soft-spoken Canadian woman says, “I'm so happy. I came to New York to get a bag,” showing off her brand-new black leather purse as she exits.
• Wear comfortable shoes (it is a walking tour) and an outfit convenient for trying things on (some sales and showrooms lack fitting rooms).
• Come with cash and credit; some sample sales do not take cards.
• Things move along quickly, so be ready to make decisions, and remember, given the nature of the tour, all sales are final.