They come by car and park in colour-coded garages set along the perimeter of a cluster-model mall — stores arranged in Stepford neighbourhood groupings: Niagara, Hudson Valley, Saratoga. The shops face inward around a series of walkways leading to open-air commons, framed by the pastoral backdrop of low wooded hills, just over an hour outside New York City.
They come by the millions, from most continents and dozens of countries and on daily buses from Canada or from Port Authority in Manhattan. That is where I set out on the ShortLine, boarding behind a clutch of millennial shoppers whose excitement about the trip ahead was unconstrained.
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"We're going to Woodbury Common!" one announced in a hyperventilated tone you may associate with an 8-year-old headed for Disney World. Settling into seats near the rear of the bus, the small group excitedly shared their retail dreams.
"Can I tell you what I'm looking for in case any of you see it on your travels?" one woman asked. "I'm looking for pearl statement earrings. I need a suede jacket with a fringe, either brown or black. I want a bathing suit-slash-cover-up for a bachelorette weekend, a tweed jacket I can wear with jeans and a bra."
How I managed to miss this place, which has been around for nearly 35 years, is anyone's guess. Let me revise that. I had ardently avoided Woodbury Common because the oxymoron of bargain goods made for premium outlets made me queasy. I was not eager to suck hours out of my life just to browse through fashion missteps, clothes of uncommercial proportions or the mustard yellow sweaters that are a universal emblem of designer fail.
That was then. Now I know better. I know, for instance, that clothes do not go to Woodbury Common to die — not really. Rather, after a period of warehouse retirement, they come here to be gently reborn at one of 250 stores spread across a 84,727-square-metre complex of peak-roofed buildings in a style of architecture somewhere between a Friendly's restaurant chain and a Sunglass Hut.
It was early on a warm Saturday morning when my bus pulled up to the mall, and the place seemed unsettlingly calm. That would all change by noon, when the lots filled up and the hordes descended, lines forming behind stanchions at Prada and Gucci, and posses of shoppers wheeled around enormous empty suitcases (available at mall kiosks).
Perhaps because there were as many different languages heard on the streets of Woodbury Common that day as at a United Nations conclave, I became preoccupied with the absurdity of squandering a precious day of Big Apple tourism on the hunt for a North Face T-shirt at 50 per cent off. Then I fell into the flow.
Because of course I did. Shopping as a form of entertainment is the next frontier. How else can one account for plans announced this spring by the Simon Company Group in Indianapolis, the largest shopping mall owner in the United States, to expand Woodbury Common to the size of a mini-city, adding another 15,329 square metres of retail space, 2140 parking spaces, two 120-room hotels, a spa, 3437 metres of restaurant space and a helipad? (At US$2350 ($3750) for a helicopter ride, you might as well stick to Bergdorf.)
My first stop of the day was at Valentino, where the menswear stock seemed scant and I was put off by an encounter with a camo sweater that, although reduced from US$1695 to US$699, had a slackened neck and the sad aura of shopworn goods.
I did take note of a fantastically pretty pink wool coat covered all over in appliqué roses. Originally priced at US$14,500, it had been reduced to US$5250 and was subject, a sales clerk told me, to a flash sale reduction of 75 per cent. Though at US$1576, the coat was a steal, I had to remind myself that I am neither a woman nor a petite.
High-tailing it out of there, I headed for Dior's brand-new men's store, as glossy on its opening day as a Madison Avenue boutique. The goods looked duly crisp and fresh, and plenty of black suits with slick details and patent leather shoes with insect embellishments presented themselves.
The designs all bore the distinct imprint of Kris Van Assche, who, as any fashion archaeologist could tell you, exited the label last year to assume the creative helm at Berluti. He was replaced by Kim Jones, who immediately revamped the Dior silhouette. Unless you have a stake in looking ironically dated, it helps to keep up with this level of trivia.
At the Givenchy shop, for instance, the standing racks near the front were hung with an array of oversize shirts and tailored pieces from Clare Waight Keller's debut menswear collection ("Perverse posh" was the phrase she coined for the look), while farther back were the forlorn leftovers from the tenure of her predecessor, Riccardo Tisci (now at Burberry).
Sometimes vintage goods may be exactly what you're after. I say this because at Saint Laurent, among the ratted-up hoodies suspended from ceiling-mounted chrome racks, I stumbled upon a wear-once black velvet varsity jacket embroidered with beaded butterflies (a hard pass at US$6799, down from US$17,000) and a snap-button plaid flannel Western shirt that were clearly designed by Hedi Slimane.
Slimane has not been at Saint Laurent since 2016, and so much the better by this consumer's lights because, even on the rare occasion when I buy a designer garment in season, I rest it a while in my closet until the novelty wears off.
The shirt was a find, and also a steal at US$169 — especially when, as I did, you rationalise your decision by compulsively checking the comparable ones on Grailed.
Amped by the purchase, I darted into Dolce & Gabbana, and was all but bodily ejected by a force field of vulgarity. I skipped the humongous Nike and Tommy Hilfiger stores that are the real reason many shoppers come here and dipped into Fendi. There I happened upon an overscale checkered woolen trench (US$1999, reduced from US$4000), rendered shiny with waterproof urethane resin. It was a handsome thing though too pervy to consider seriously.
At Gucci I joined a growing mob of shoppers pawing through dense florals and fur-lined Crocs and strenuously distressed jeans with snarling cats embroidered on the backside, and was bemused by the delirious excess of it all.
A spell of mental instability overtook me when I spotted a pair of summer shorts in a riotous Garden of Eden pattern. I got as far as the dressing room before recognising that well-known pitfall of bargain shopping, deluding yourself into thinking you are somebody else.
I quickly took refuge in Prada, and it was there that I came upon the find of the day. Whatever the gimmickry of any given season, Prada can be relied on for certain constants: stores painted a very Milanese shade of pistachio green, a sales staff crisply uniformed in black and white, and solidly reliable accessories.
And yet it can happen that even small alterations in certain classics spoil them for finicky consumers. Such was the case with a perfect textured leather billfold I bought at Prada a decade ago and, naturally, lost.
In all the years since then, I've scoured Prada stores in various cities attempting to find its replacement. And, while there were similar ones, the shape had invariably been modified, the logo added in raised metallic letters. By Goldilocks millimetres, they were too slim or too fat.
How the precise match to my wallet found its way to Central Valley, New York, like a lost pooch that fetches up in a distant state, I will likely never know. Yet there on a display shelf was the model I'd been seeking.
Actually, there were three, each priced at US$125. Reader, I bought them all.
Written by: Guy Trebay
Photographs by: Jeenah Moon
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES