In Retail’s Slump, Saks Looks to Woo Guys with DJs, Putt-Putt Golf
Until recently, the phrase “DJ at Saks” conjured visions of a smartly suited man attending to the mix at a bar mitzvah. Now we must expand our understanding to include a person who creates the soundtrack for making a purchase.
Let me explain. Saks Fifth Avenue’s new men’s store at Brookfield Place opened last week, and Saturday-afternoon visitors could be forgiven for thinking that the launch party was still in progress. Just past the entrance was a man in headphones—his bald head gleaming hiply, his pot belly pulling at his designer T-shirt—peering over his sunglasses to work two turntables.
The mood? The music was chill, and a geezer dares not guess exactly what tunes were being spun. In any case, the very presence of a DJ was the spin, in marketing terms. In this period of department-store decline, Saks is asking shoppers to rethink our notion of the venerable institution. The new venue is properly known as Saks Men’s Downtown, and it plunges below 14th Street not just geographically but culturally and emotionally.
The first thing to notice—past the DJ—was an expansive temple to footwear. On the left, a museum-like arrangement of high-end sneakers from nearly 30 brands (Maison Margiela, Giuseppe Zanotti, Sutor Mantellassi) mounted on transparent plastic pedestals. Dead ahead: the first of several oval tables featuring more shoes yet. This one was adorned with a potted white orchid and a dozen minimalist court shoes from Alexander McQueen, Thom Browne, and others.
Lettering stuck to the table declared that Saks was still “in love with a cool white sneaker” this spring. Indeed, it was besotted and, accordingly, had set up a place to determine whether it is more insane to pay $495 for a pair of Givenchy sneakers that look almost identical to Adidas’s ubiquitous $75 Stan Smiths or to pay $495 for a pair of Saint Laurent sneakers that look almost identical to the Givenchys.
Slightly further in is the centerpiece of the shoe section, a multitiered circular display perhaps 8 feet in diameter, serving up oxfords, derbies, loafers, sandals, chukkas, opera slippers—you name it. In an interview, Saks President Marc Metrick called it a “powerful and broad category-killing assortment,” and he wasn’t exaggerating. “In an older store, the men’s shoe store is tucked away against wall,” Metrick continued. “Here, it’s the center of universe.”
“You doin’ alright?” asked a sales person, a hip lady of a certain age. She carried off a puffball-pigtail sort of hairdo with great aplomb.
The you-doin’-alright was in the same key as whatever the DJ was playing, another sign of where the store seeks to place itself. It was not “How are you today, sir?” yet also certainly not disrespectful. This was on the level of those greetings you get on a certain floor of Barneys, where they inspire a nano-second's fantasy that, if you buy the right things, the salesperson will become your cool new friend.
While trying to decide whether a pair of cognac calfskin Chelsea boots from To Boot New York ($395) were cool enough to impress the saleslady, I turned, looked deeper into the store, and admired its curation of youthful clothing. The mix made sense and seemed smart, tilting more high-fashion than affluent-fashion victim. The selection reminded me of the third floor of Bergdorf Goodman's men's store, but without the rich-man's-midlife-crisis vibe.
I paused before a reversible vest that looked not just military-inspired but SWAT team-issued. I was checking the tag to see if the vest ($386) was in fact made of Kevlar when a sales woman approached. “That vest? Sick, sick, sick.” It was from the Italian brand Letasca and unavailable at any other Saks store.
Although I am not in the market for a Saint Laurent camo jacket ($1,890), I appreciate that some people are. Whether they are haute-bohemian TriBeCa dads or Seoul hipsters in town on vacation, the store serves them well, offering up the established hip brands (Dries Van Noten, Helmut Lang) and the new streetwear classics (Off-White, Public School) without repelling or confusing anyone headed for something less adventurous.
I meandered toward the denim corner. Something about the particular selection of brands—Rag & Bone, Paige, J Brand, AG—gave it the flavor of a place exclusively shopped by men who did not buy jeans without obtaining the express consent of their wives or girlfriends. At that moment, all the wives and girlfriends in sight were wearing army jackets colored the same shade of green and long hair colored the same shade of yellow.
The customer, as Metrick said, is not just “the guy who lives in Tribeca or who lives in Brooklyn” but also “the guy who works at Goldman, works at American Express.” For those guys, there were sumptuous arrays of Charvet pocket squares and Ferragamo neckties to ponder while loitering near the suiting department, where laid-back ready-to-wear from Canali and Boglioli hung. The store is most eager to usher suit shoppers into a made-to-measure department where prices begin at a very fair $875. Nearby was a wall decorated with images of pipes, cigars, umbrellas, magnifying glasses, and monocles with dangling chains, for the benefit of anyone needing reassurance that fondling a Brunello Cucinelli jacket was a masculine activity.
Then, just as the DJ spun a trance-like remix of Bob Marley, I happened on a little putting green right there by the suits. Aha: Here, like the golf simulator on the third floor of the Brooks Brothers flagship, was at last a reassuring gesture toward men’s stores of the old school.
My short game is not good, and the staff member standing at attention nearby did not help it along. Finally I sunk a putt. “Thanks for playing,” the staff member said.