Going, Going, Gone

Buddy Hickerson

By Sunday afternoon, the merchandise remaining at NorthPark's Lord & Taylor included the following: one red mink coat, smooth as sunshine; three Hi-Ho Santa cookie jars; one lonely silver chain, missing a pendant; a children's floral swimsuit bottom; a dozen decorative pink balls emblazoned with "Christmas 2001" in silver glitter.

Once an anchor of affluence at NorthPark mall, Lord & Taylor was closing its doors. The announcement came in December, when St.Louis-based May Department Stores Co. decided to shutter 32 under-performing locations (including the Plano store, although that date is not yet set) in an effort to reposition the department store as an "upscale retailer." But wait: Wasn't Lord & Taylor already an upscale retailer? Well, it was, back in the '80s, when Dallas socialites wore the L&T label as proudly as a Chanel suit. But in the ensuing years, Lord & Taylor has grappled with an identity crisis it hopes is only "midlife." In a New Yorker piece last September, Adam Gopnik described the trifecta of once-venerated Manhattan department stores--Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's and Lord & Taylor--as "luxury liners becalmed in a lagoon, big ships in shallow water." No longer able to compete with hip, proliferating chains like Gap and Banana Republic, outclassed by Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. Lord & Taylor was too square for the fashion forward, too expensive for anyone else.

Since December, Lord & Taylor has held a massive clearance sale, with discounts soaring higher each week. Glass cases emptied and went on sale ($50 a square foot). By the afternoon of the final Sunday--with everything 80 percent off--all the merchandise fit into a few clusters on the second floor.

"You can really tell what didn't sell," said one woman, leafing through hundreds of polyblend low-rise thongs monogrammed with words like "martini" and "cosmopolitan" and "straight up." Indeed, the store had become an odd monument to fashion failure, displaying the awkward, miscalculated items that refused to budge: black velvet genie pants by Kate Hill (and who is that?), sheepskin engineer caps, mottled black-and-red mink coats ugly as a wart and slashed from $8,495 to $400 ("Final Price!").

In the women's dressing room, customers hauled in stacks of clothes and could be heard engaging in what can only be described as "giant-sale rationalization."

"It's the wrong size, but it's so cheap," one woman told her friend. Items once undesirable became tempting: purple suede skirts, bras with broken straps, dresses missing a lining, evening wear for unknown events.

"Where are the men's shoes?" asked a young boy.

"What men's shoes?" asked the cashier, laughing. The men's section was wiped out the week before, reduced to empty Nautica boxes and torn plastic wrap. In its place, the downstairs level housed clunky wooden cabinets, metal-and-glass light fixtures and hundreds of metal racks stacked in the corner. An army of bare-chested mannequins swallowed one showroom, at only $60 apiece.

"I'll give you $75 for this," said one woman, hovering over an oval table.

"You got cash?" asked the man, weaving through the cluttered room.

"I've got $72 in cash," she said, holding out a wad of bills.

"Aaah, you're breakin' my heart," he said, taking the money anyway.

But if you weren't in the market for grotesque furniture, women's clothes or Christmas ornaments, Lord & Taylor didn't hold much for you by closing day. Instead, the real bargain hunters came out the weekend before, scouring the stuffed, exhausting racks of off-brands and bizarre sizes for the few remaining deals, discounted by 60 percent. Customers wheeled carts of clothing across the floor, stood in the corner with calculators, totaling their bills. The crowd was a far cry from the well-heeled clientele Lord & Taylor had hoped to court.

"How come that sweater is $40 and this one's $100?" one woman asked loudly, eyeing two cardigans (one was cashmere). "These prices must be wrong. That's too expensive."

In the lingerie department, two cashiers got into an argument with a woman who refused to pay the correct amount. "We're trying our best," the cashier said later. "It's not like we have jobs after this."

Some employees will be relocated, however, and though attempts were made to reach New York management for details, the number provided by store management was disconnected.

On the final afternoon, employees could be seen hugging goodbye and taking pictures of each other. "I'll miss you," a young woman said to an older, white-haired lady. Many of the employees admitted to spending their final paychecks on a new wardrobe or a mink coat. One woman said her daughter was enjoying Christmas every day. They stayed in good spirits, laughing and chatting with customers still nosing around the racks for a steal.

"How long will you be here today?" one cashier was asked.

"We'll be here till you clear out the place," she said, looking around at the decimated store. "Better get busy. I wanna go home."

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