CHANGE IN ELEVATION The lower levels of Lord & Taylor have a renewed sense of vibrancy that dissipates in the airy upper levels of the department store. (Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times)
By ALEX KUCZYNSKI
NEW YORK - The time was dusk, the year 1990. I was in a taxi riding past B. Altman on Fifth Avenue, one of the department stores that, in an earlier location, once made up the famous Ladies Mile. The store had recently closed, its windows vacant eye sockets, and the look of mere disuse was about to turn into one of utter abandonment.
My companion in the taxi, a sentimental woman who believes all old things are good things, sighed.
“Ah,” she said. “Baltman’s. What a wonderful place that was. Too bad it’s closed — forever.” (Gloria Swansonesque italics hers.)
Of course, she had no idea what she was talking about. The store was B. Altman, not Baltman’s, and she had simply misread the fading inscription on the front of the building. She had never set foot in the place. But the fact was B. Altman represented a sweet, highly sentimentalized time in New York history.
Whenever I stroll past — and occasionally into — Lord & Taylor, I often think back to my sentimental friend. For 88 years, the company’s flagship has stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 38th Street, an 11-story limestone and gray-brick palazzo that occupies nearly an entire block with its 600,000 square feet. It is so huge that, today, walking through some of the less populated floors, I shut my eyes and imagine a livelier scenario: wouldn’t this vast space make a great roller-skating rink?
In its early days, Lord & Taylor was one of the grande dames of the Ladies Mile district, which also included B. Altman and Stern’s. There were dining rooms decorated as Italian loggias or Chinese pagodas, a mahogany-paneled library and a gymnasium.
By the 1950’s, the Lord & Taylor department stores — in New York, Philadelphia and Washington — were considered among the most chic in the country, stocking Dior, Chanel, Givenchy, Balmain and Balenciaga.
Lord & Taylor was whimsical and stylish, in the way Simon Doonan is today at Barneys: In the 1940’s, during an exceptionally warm autumn, a marketing executive devised a scheme to put New Yorkers in a holiday shopping mood by staging a continuous snowstorm in all the store’s vitirines using fans and painted cornflakes.
And now, what to make of Lord & Taylor, with nary an Hermès handbag in sight? In June, the retail chain was sold to a private equity group in Purchase, N.Y. For the last three years, under the aegis of a new chief executive, Lord & Taylor has tried to spiff up its image by adding Lauren by Ralph Lauren and Ellen Tracy, and also by vamping up its juniors floor, which stocks Sanctuary, Rebecca Beeson, The Wrights, Anna Sui and many young, new designers. The new owners have promised that the flagship will remain on Fifth Avenue, but have hinted that they may reduce its size.
In three recent visits, on both weekdays and weekends, I have concluded that is not a bad idea. There’s just too much space. The first floor is not wasted; it is a fantastic jamboree of handbags and makeup, silk ties and Burberryish scarves, gloves and jewelry: real and faux, diamond-link chains next to Moissanite rings next to Betsey Johnson hoops next to Kenneth Jay Lane faux coral necklaces.
If you’re down in the dumps and don’t want to spend a lot on retail therapy, hit the jewelry sale rack, where you will always find some fantastic bauble that with the right attitude at the right party will look like the real thing.
The second floor is fabulous: in the middle of a weekday, the shoe section was swarmed with women carousing at what was advertised as the season’s only boot sale. (Come on. Really?) I tried on a pair of Sean John bronze faux-python open-toe pumps ($89) and marveled at why anyone would spend $800 at Christian Louboutin for something similar. The clothes are well chosen and chic: Trina Turk, Iisli, Max & Cleo. Prices can range from $587 or more for an Anna Sui dress, or $926 for a cut-out leather jacket by The Wrights, to $98 for a Max & Cleo pin-tuck sheath dress, and less.
But the higher your ascent, the more lightheaded you feel. This is not Everest you are climbing, but a department store, and the air and the merchandise become thinner and less interesting as you rise to the top. Lauren by Ralph Lauren is, frankly, snoozeville. Ellen Tracy, Kay Unger, Jones New York, Lafayette 148: we’ve seen it all before. Yes, there was a beautiful Ellen Tracy chocolate shearling coat ($1,998) on the third floor, and a black wool evening gown with mirrored panels around the neck by Donna Karan for $3,200, but there was also a cheap-looking imitation of a Tory Burch dress for $128 on the same floor.
The farther you rise, through coats and lingerie, through the cashmere department (nice quality and priced well) and Petites, the more you feel starved for oxygen and attitude. I had to stop at Larry Forgione’s Signature Cafe on the sixth floor for a Caesar salad ($13.95) before I could continue.
Past the winter coats, escalating up the narrow escalator even farther, I finally made it to the men’s floor on 10. The 11th floor is a private theater, reserved for special events, the kind of glittering Champagne parties one imagines might have been held a long time ago. This is the place I would revive and put to use again.