Buying at Wholesale in the Garment Center of New York

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Here's how to get up to 80% off pricey fashions!

Many years ago, I was the laughingstock of my family when I bought a new coat (however divine) in a New York City department store at retail! There I was, paying full price, smack in the middle of the garment capital of the world, where people with an ounce of sense bought only at wholesale (from the hundreds of small apparel factories which then existed in midtown Manhattan). It was a major fashion faux pas that you don't have to make. Although those factories have long since decamped to North and South Carolina (and from there to Asia), their showrooms - there are still hundreds of them - have scads of samples, closeouts, discontinued lines, leftovers, and seconds that they sell periodically, at drastic cuts, to the nation's sharpest shoppers. Let me assure you that the "wholesale" tradition is alive and well in New York, and waiting for you.

The semipermanent showrooms

The garment industry/fashion district is mainly found on the west side of midtown Manhattan from Fifth to Tenth Avenues between 32nd and 42nd Streets, where entire buildings house one showroom after another. On a daily basis, these are not open to the public, but on a good weekday (most are closed on weekends) you can walk up Broadway or Seventh Avenue and be handed at least ten fliers inviting you to "showroom sales." Recently, I followed the paper trail to a warren of rooms in the basement of 1410 Broadway and found a pair of Easy Spirit shoes in just my size for $19.99 (they are usually priced around $60).

Better than this hit-or-miss approach is a knowledge of the permanent and always-open venues (displaying manufacturers' discontinued lines and seconds) that almost always have high-quality fashions at rock-bottom prices. One such warehouse/showroom is A Nice Price/SSS Sample Sale (261 W. 36th Street, 2nd floor, fax 212/947-8748, clothingline.com), a quirky loft that's been running stock and sample sales for over ten years and can be a genuine gold mine if you're lucky. Its most recent highlights: Betsey Johnson's latest dresses and skirts, plus remainders from the rest of her line, all 60 percent off retail; White + Warren cashmere sweaters for $50; the hot Essendi line greatly reduced, with tanks that retail at $130 now $27 and turtlenecks that retail for as much as $160 now just $40; and Maxou velvet skirts retailing at $170 and up, now $5. They also occasionally have some bargains for men.

Staley/Gretzinger (270 West 38th Street, 5th floor, tel. 212/764-3982) is another permanent showroom that's open on the first Friday of every month and by appointment at all other times. Funky, hand-painted, appliqu,, and one-of-a-kind items suited for the bohemians among us are available at 50 percent off retail; samples are discounted up to 70 percent. This entire line, from sportswear to relaxed evening wear, is manufactured in the United States at factories on 38th Street and in Wappingers Falls, New York. Labels include Bread, MadLab, and Staley/Gretzinger.

The Find Outlet, a little off the beaten track at 361 West 17th Street at Ninth Avenue (212/243-3177), is the crown jewel of discount outlets, offering perfect gems of this season's special items including Martine Sitbon, Anna Sui, Daryl K, Tocca, and Stephane Kelian shoes, all 50 to 80 percent less than retail. Recently, I nabbed a cashmere sweater at 60 percent off its price at Barneys where I had seen it that same day. It's true that Find features top-quality items that start out on the expensive side and are not cheap even at half off. But if you are fashion conscious and into elegant things, this refined version of a warehouse is the place for you. It's open Thursday through Sunday, from noon to 7 p.m.

For guys and brides

The gents will be interested in places like Prato (28 West 34th Street, 212/629-4730), packed to the rafters with heavily discounted designer shirts, suits, coats, and casual wear. Yves Saint Laurent shirts, once $48, are now $19.99, while $38 Pierre Cardin shirts are $15. You can find a Bill Blass sweater for as little as $19. Perry Ellis sweats were $50, now $19. And I once saw a Bill Blass microfiber trench coat originally marked $300 for $129 and leather jackets for as low as $49.

Considering a trip down the aisle? Check out the rather overwhelming Bridal Building at 1385 Broadway (between 37th and 38th Streets, 212/764-5769); it houses showroom after showroom of wedding gowns plus mother-of-the-bride and bridesmaid dresses; some places also have shoes and accessories. However, unless you're just browsing for ideas, it is important to know what you want and what the items are worth: prices are usually about 30 percent off retail but aren't absolutely guaranteed to be lower than in traditional bridal shops. The Bridal Building is open to the public only on Saturday mornings. One more thing: skip the people in the lobby who ask for your name and address for a "drawing" - they're not officials, and they'll only inundate you with junk mail and phone calls.

Samples and a giant samples showroom

Another top option for the committed shopper is to go to those exciting Manhattan sample sales, where you rub shoulders with New York's best-informed skinflints. Customarily, sample sales are a rock-bottom sell-off of whatever inventory the manufacturer has left after all the ordered merchandise has been shipped to the stores for the season. Big designers will usually have a sale dedicated to their line alone, while some smaller names will do a group show.

One of Manhattan's largest sale showrooms is at 560 Seventh Avenue. You can get on a mailing list for their events if you e-mail debra209@aol.com or write to Collective Elite, P.O. Box 1631, New York, NY 10150. During the course of a year there are between 30 and 40 sales at this location, and for the most part the goods are still packed in big brown boxes or jammed on freestanding metal clothing racks. Get down on your hands and knees and rummage with the best of them. Keep in mind that if the sale is running for three days, the prices will be lowest on the third day, as the aim is to clear the house. In any event, you're sure to save at least 60 percent off retail.

And the shopping is fierce. Blink, and that vivid blue je ne sais quoi is most likely gone forever. But if you buy it, it's yours forever. I once bought a $380 Johnny Farrah backpack for $45 and nearly expired from the joy of it.

Getting on a mailing list

But 560 Seventh Avenue is merely one sale location; there are many others (none, however, so consistent a venue). Sometimes sales take place in the designer's showroom; often they are in a rented loft instead. You can easily find out what is happening in the way of sample sales when you are in town if you have access to the Internet. On a weekly basis, simply check: newyorkpost.com (click on "savvy shopper"); lazarshopping.com; or newyorkmag.com (click on "Sales and Bargains"). The webless can purchase current issues of New York magazine or TimeOut, or phone Sarah Gardner's "Fashion Update Hotline" every Monday for late breaking sales (888/44SAVINGS). A typical scene in the fashion district - let the shopping begin.

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