In the boutiques along Madison Avenue, you can buy rare jewelry, one-of-a kind couture and alligator handbags for which the waiting list is years long. The one thing in ample supply on this luxury shopping street — other than multi-zero price tags — is empty storefronts.
As in middle-income America, hard times are making their way along this city's most fashionable shopping street.
The availability rate among the fancy stores is 12%, according to commercial real estate broker Cushman & Wakefield, double what it was two years ago. That's vacant stores plus stores that would happily move out if they got a good offer for the lease.
For tourists who stroll the street to window-shop or moneyed customers who actually come to buy, the vision is jarring. Empty stores sit next door to elaborate window displays.
For everyday New Yorkers, it's an uncomfortable reminder that this recession has crippled the source of the city's prosperity: Wall Street.
Missa Goehring, 27, a marketing manager for the career website Vault.com and Madison Avenue window-shopper, was so struck by the sight of shuttered shops that last weekend she snapped photos of each one during her regular walk up the avenue and posted all 28 of them on her blog.
"At first I was saddened that the neighborhood was changing," she says. "Then I was mad I missed all the going-out-of-business sales."
The fashion gods still have their temples: Chanel, where a silver sequin and nylon handbag goes for $3,325; Dior, selling blouses for $1,085 and up; Valentino, where a green silk dress with rhinestones appliqués is $9,990; and Giorgio Armani, purveyor of a $14,000 pair of earrings. Some are expanding: Hermes, the French leather goods company that turned a shade of orange into the color of money, is moving its menswear into a corner building that had housed the Italian clothier Luca Luca. A second locale for Ralph Lauren is underway across the street from his flagship.
But elsewhere on the street, the windows are empty, and "For Rent" signs loom large. Petrou, an evening-wear retailer, is gone from its shop next to Gucci. So are Allegra Hicks, a British designer, Italian clothier Alessandro dell'Acqua and Oilily, a Dutch children's clothing shop.
"Not only (do) we have signs, but we have retailers who are still running their businesses, but we know unofficially that if we could bring them some subtenants they would walk away," says Eric Le Goff of Cushman & Wakefield.
"It's a sad landscape," says former fashion journalist Hayley Corwick, who as Lila Delilah blogs on retailers and sales at Madison Avenue Spy (madisonavespy.com). Behind the glamorously decorated windows, "there are a lot of people standing around doing nothing."
Sales have been "disastrous" since fall, says Daniel Koren, owner of Framed on Madison, a gift shop that will move off Fifth in May for cheaper rent elsewhere.
The squeeze is sharper here than on other luxury shopping streets such as Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive and Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, Fla. One difference is scale: The luxury shopping strip of Madison stretches about a mile and a half, from 57th Street to 86th, compared with a quarter-mile for Worth Avenue. Madison Avenue also commands far higher rents: $1,000 per square foot annually compared with $100-$125 on Worth Avenue, according to real estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield.
But retailers there also feel the pinch. On Worth Avenue, designers Emanuel Ungaro and Christian Dior shuttered stores last winter.
"The line is, 'We're doing so well.' But it's hard to tell," says Sherry Frankel, president of the Worth Avenue Association, whose shop Melangerie stocks $59 silk pillows embroidered "Nouveau Poor."
"I cannot tell you how many I have sold," she says.
In January, Worth Avenue merchants received permission from the town to put up large "sale" signs in windows, normally forbidden until after Easter, when winter tourists go home.
Rodeo Drive merchants "are having a tough year just like everybody else," says Tom Blumenthal, owner of home furnishings store Gearys. Still, the store recently completed outfitting a yacht with 36 place settings of china and silverware.
"These yachts — they've been in the works for years before they get to the point where they have to outfit it with all the things that you need," Blumenthal says. "What are they going to do, after they've spent millions and millions already, are they going to cheap out?"