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Welcome back to the Retail Diaries, in which an anonymous sales associate at a high-end Manhattan department store reveals what it's like on the other side of the cash register. Note: Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the innocent.
Photo by Bairachnyi Dmitry/Shutterstock
"Are you good? I only want you to help me if you're good," she said, examining every inch of my outfit with a critical eye. "I know what I like, I'm quick, and I will spend money. But you have to help me put it together."
"I'm very good," I replied, and smiled. "I'll take good care of you."
Warily, she handed over the clothes in her hand and let me start a fitting room. "I'm Rachel," she said. "Walk with me."
I followed closely behind her, advising her emphatically on the items she picked from the racks: an Alice + Olivia floral print top with billowy sleeves (no, too overwhelming for her petite frame), a cropped pant from Helmut Lang (yes, very current and she wouldn't require a hem), denim from Rag + Bone (also a yes), a lime green long-sleeve blouse by DVF (put it down now, no exceptions).
It was retail romance: our chemistry was instant, our taste was similar. There was just one thing—
"My husband just filed for a divorce," she said in the fitting room, and examined my eyes for pity. By now, I had learned better than to flinch. Instead, I smiled.
"His loss," I said, and helped her into a Sacai coat.
"This is perfect," she said, and clapped her hands together. And just like that, the topic was dropped.
But one day, while walking into work, I got an SOS text from Rachel. "Meet me on shoes, 911," she said. Her petite frame eclipsed by boxes of Jimmy Choos and Manolos, she looked at me with desperation. "Bar Mitzvah tomorrow night. My first appearance since the divorce announcement. I need a dress. And I need to look hot, but not inappropriate. I have kids, you know? Why are there NO shoes?"
I smiled at the shoe salesman and assured her she was in good hands. "We will figure it out. We always do," I said, and rushed to the elevator. This situation called for the big time: the designer floor.
In twenty minutes, I managed to edit down a selection of eight dresses, picked both for their modesty (this was a religious event, after all) and their sex appeal (she' single with a bunch of eligible Jewish bachelors in the room, hello!). The options dangled on their hangers proudly: Yigal, Proenza, Valentino, Moschino, Pucci, Dolce, Cacharel, and Chloé. One of them would have to work.
When she arrived to the fitting room, Rachel breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank God," she said, and picked a tight-fitting Proenza shift dress as her first try. The result was dreadful. The drop-waist doesn't translate well off the runway, we learned. Dismayed, she wrestled into a Pucci cocktail number. The hem barely covered her underwear. Predictably, the same thing happened with a Dolce & Gabbana lace number. My faith in myself was failing. I undid her zipper in frustration and waited for her to step out of the dress.
But instead, she had walked up to the mirror so close that her nose was touching the glass. I observed silently as she confronted her reflection. She took the elastic off her wrist slowly, without averting her gaze, and pulled her hair back in a tight ponytail. When her hands came down, they fell not at her sides, but on her face. She poked and prodded her skin, her cheeks, and her undereyes.
"I'm old," she admitted to the woman in the mirror, who was stuffed into the too-sexy Dolce & Gabbana dress that her salesperson had stupidly convinced her to try on. She pulled back the skin from her cheekbones, so it was taut and smooth, maybe as it once was a decade ago. The skin slid from beneath her fingers, morphing back into its familiar creases.
"How the hell did this happen to me?" she asked herself. Then, she stepped back from the mirror, and looked at me in the reflection. "Seriously, how the hell did this happen to me?"
In sales, the associate is conditioned to never stop talking. If you keep the client's mind occupied, they will stop thinking about how much money they're spending and focus on having a good time. It is our job to entertain.
But sometimes in the service industry, there are those rare moments when it's better to just say absolutely nothing at all.
I looked back at Rachel in the mirror, my eyes revealing how truly sorry I was. For her, her children, the life she knew, and even the bastard who was stupid enough to let her go. After a moment, she finally smiled.
"Maybe I'll just wear the Zac Posen I have in my closet," she said. "Can't go wrong with a little black dress, right?"
But what we were doing in our appointments was building a new wardrobe—a new image, a new ego, and a new woman. We were redefining the housewife, helping her recapture her vitality and industry, the very things she lost in her comfortable marriage. No, the little black dress wouldn't do. It wasn't enough.
Instead, I picked a pale pink silk chiffon Moschino dress with a Sicilian lace print. "Try this one," I demanded.
Reluctantly, she stepped into the dress, and I zipped the back. After I fluffed the chiffon and straightened out the skirt, I backed away and let Rachel reexamine herself in the mirror. The cowl neckline emphasized her bust, and the darts in the back cinched at the small of her waist. The slight A-line camouflaged the thighs she earned from motherhood, and the skirt had enough flounce to suggest the slightest amount of whimsy.
She stood on her tiptoes and twirled around, watching her reflection dance in a trail of pink silk. She straightened her back, let her hair out from the mighty grasp of its elastic, and let out a deep breath. "This is it," she said with a huge smile. "You did it again!"
The next night as I prepared to close my register, I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. When I retrieved it, I was ecstatic to receive a picture of Rachel in the dress, with gorgeous gold Jimmy Choo heels, and a fabulous red manicure. She looked spectacular.
"So happy you made me try it and buy it. It was the best and it makes me happy and will always have a place in my closet. Have a great weekend."
It was probably the nicest thing a client has ever said to me. It made me feel, for once, that there was purpose to my work. That somehow, after the clothes were put away, the numbers were added up, and the doors were locked, there was, perhaps, a hint of something more meaningful to my job. A reason, maybe, for being happy to work here.
And for this small epiphany, I have Moschino (and Rachel) to thank.
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