There was no sign of Taylor Swift amid the stiletto-heel display that Lauren Milstein was rearranging at Saks Fifth Avenue in Bala Cynwyd, where Milstein — a sales associate whose Instagram posts have a worldwide following — presides over Dior pumps and Chanel sandals.
Nor was Rihanna lurking around the sedate racks of dresses on the second floor of the store.
But, according to Milstein and her colleagues at Saks, music-world stars — and the social-media firmament they shine in — are the unseen players behind today’s multibillion-dollar fashion industry, their viral images proxy-selling everything from sneakers to cologne to, yes, erogenous zones.
“It used to be the designers who made the choices,” reflected Lisa Blank, Saks’ star personal shopper, recently back from the Paris Fashion Week shows. “The world wasn’t so connected.
“Now, increasingly, the people make the choices. They see something on the Internet and it immediately causes a craze, and the designers cash in on it.”
On a recent afternoon, Blank buzzed around her office with purposeful energy, talking while popping in and out of clients’ dressing rooms and her own private wardrobe. I had come to Saks, a venerable outpost of East Coast fashion, to explore the evolution of contemporary sartorial trends — how one day, seemingly out of nowhere, store aisles are full of side-ruched gowns and the streets teem with pants so tight they straddle the line between clothing and hosiery.
There seems no doubt that social media is an outsize factor. In the two years since Milstein started posting handbags and shoes on Instagram, her sales have more than doubled, with clients all over the world clamoring for whatever they saw a celebrity wearing on Twitter. But as I learned during an afternoon in the Saks personal-shopping department, consumer demand is a complex cycle of desire — a frenzied drama in which images, aspirations and connections, both virtual and personal, play intertwined roles.
On the first floor of Saks, where customers were scarce on a quiet, frigid Thursday afternoon, Milstein scurried around the shoe department clutching a pink-clad iPad and an iPhone. Petite and blonde, she has been at Saks for nearly a decade; accessories are her specialty, particularly very high, very sexy, very expensive heels, though Milstein herself — like everyone I spoke with at Saks that day — sticks to flats on the job.
In front of us was a panoply of vivid hues: orchid, melon, persimmon, jade, fuchsia. “For spring, it’s all high heels, all color,” Milstein told me, ignoring the irony of such a collection being peddled by an army of black-clad, flat-shoed salespeople. “Would you wear any of them?” I asked her. Milstein considered, then picked up a pair of Chanel resort thongs with a paper-thin sole: “Maybe these,” she said with a dubious look.
But as Milstein’s sales reveal, there are plenty of women around the globe yearning to slip their feet into towering pumps. Once she started posting her favorite styles online, her client base quickly evolved from Philadelphia-area trendsetters to far-flung fashionistas who scour the Internet to track down shoes or bags they can’t find locally. According to Randi Edelman, marketing director at the store, Saks is excited about how social media feeds like Milstein’s are extending, and even transforming, the august brand.
“People would say, ‘If you want this shoe or that bag, you call Lauren,’ ” Milstein explained of her now-global reach, which extends to clients in Singapore, Canada, London, Saudi Arabia and Dubai. “They’ll see on Instagram that I sell Vuitton or Chanel.” With the mighty Saks inventory at her fingertips, Milstein jumps on her iPad and locates a hard-to-find item that most can only covet.
Upstairs, the ladies’ section was hushed as salespeople glided past formal, rectilinear displays of frocks from Chanel, Dior and Balmain. An inconspicuous black doorway opened into the personal-shopping department, an enclave tucked into the rear of the store, where conspiratorial jocularity could be heard from within.
“Just as long as my nipples don’t show,” a departing customer joked to Lisa Blank, who joined in the laughter as assistants filed in and out of an office hung with Vogue portraits. Blank, who is one of the top three sellers in the entire Saks universe, is an oracle of style for her devoted high-end clients, who — according to stories I heard from the Saks marketing department — consult her on everything from what dress to wear to the Academy Ball to which dentist whitens teeth best.
Blank is so attuned to her clients’ fancies that each season, she procures an edited selection of Paris designer clothing, which hangs in an exclusive room that the regular second-floor browser never sees. Small, neat and brightly lit, Blank’s wardrobe room holds perhaps a half-dozen racks of items from Dior, Chanel and Celine — her own favorite lines.
“It’s a different temperature back here, isn’t it?” commented Annette Malandra, director of Saks’ Fifth Avenue Club, the personal shopping division, as clients hovered outside near the dressing rooms and chatted like old friends with the staff. “This is such a tight community here.” Of the bustle that day, she explained: “There’s a big Bar Mitzvah this weekend.”
Blank’s clients — and a good cross-section of the area’s best-dressed women — rely on her to curate the latest from Paris, Milan and New York, where Blank grew up. “A lot of our clients are originally from New York,” explained Malandra, “and they trust Lisa, because she’s from there.”
Like many of her clients, as well as Milstein and Edelman, Blank is Jewish, which she considers a fashion advantage. “Jewish shoppers take risks,” she told me. “They’re more gregarious people, and they take more risks with how they look.”
Blank’s own fashion risks usually succeed, as her all-black ensemble that day made clear. Chunky square-frame eyeglasses were softened by a fringe of curly bangs; her leather pants and patchwork Chanel trainers highlighted two of her favorite tendencies: animal skin and couture sneakers. “Sneakers are one of the biggest trends, period, and it definitely came from social media and celebrities,” said Blank. “It’s not celebrities like Hollywood movies; it’s really the urban celebrity, it’s Jay-Z and Beyoncé. It’s the music.”
Stars of that wattage find their every look dissected, parsed and simulated across cyberspace — which explains why stalwart brands or items go white-hot overnight. “I think some fabulous person like Rihanna comes out in a Timberland boot, and suddenly everyone and her mother is running out to buy them,” Blank said. “The world touches it, and everybody wants it.”
Even as their roles have become more reactive, designers — and the buyers, like Blank, who scour international fashion shows for their clients’ closets — are still significant players in shaping taste. For one thing, they are interpreters of “the emotional temperature of the world,” as Blank described it. “I think when things were not well, when the economy wasn’t doing so well,” fashion “was much more somber. I think that things have slightly picked up, and designers have chosen to be more colorful, more up, more happy.”
Whether because of the soaring Dow or the floral gowns stretched over Kim Kardashian’s ample derriere, “spring is very feminine, very pretty, lots of dresses,” Blank decreed as she scooted among racks of flowery frocks. “Fabulous tops. Dior is always about femininity and color … Balmain, oh my God. Sexy leather, sexy everything. And you know, the face of Balmain is now Kanye and Kim.”
The fragmentation of influence means people are less likely than before to hew slavishly to a head-to-toe designer look, or even to any particular look, Blank reflected. Celebrity caprice aside, “there are so many different brands out there that are very true to themselves. You don’t have to fall in love with a designer. You can fall in love with items.”
Back downstairs, Milstein took me to see some of the items Saks shoppers fall in love with most — Chanel handbags, the latest of which had just been put on display in shades of blue and beige.
Donna Santus, who has sold the quilted, chain-link bags for about a dozen years, observed that such classics are perpetually in vogue, season after season. But demand for the latest incarnations — this year’s boy bag, the jumbo, the maxi — is fueled by the same consumer-driven social-media loop that prompts a style to sell out before anyone even touches it in person.
“If they see it online and they know it’s a hot item, they have to have it,” Santus said. She was talking about Chanel purses, but she might as well have been summarizing the entire fashion moment we live in — the cycle of desire propelling consumption, circa 2015. “It’s a domino effect,” she added. “Once one person has it, everyone wants it.”
Hilary Danailova is a frequent contributor to Inside and the Special Sections of the Jewish Exponent.