The Associated Press
Shoppers look through designer merchandise at a sample sale at 260SampleSale's showroom at 260 Fifth Ave. in New York.
Shoppers line up to get into Soiffer Haskin, a showroom for designer sample sales on 33rd Street in New York.
NEW YORK -- Ordinarily I'm a cheapskate shopper who frequents Kmart and Old Navy and thinks of Macy's as a splurge. But recently I decided to explore the secret world of New York sample sales, where leftover designer merchandise is sold at deep discounts.After doing some research with the help of an editor from Lucky magazine and some fashionista friends on Facebook, I came up with a list of venues and set out on my quest. I was prepared for utter mayhem, snooty workers, high prices and tiny sizes designed for skinny models. Instead, while I did encounter crowds and long lines, I also found helpful salespeople and clothes in medium and large.But the biggest surprise was the discounts and my reaction to them: It took all my willpower to refrain from buying one of everything at my very first sample sale, a Calvin Klein event where everything was marked down 90 percent: $1,300 buttery leather bags and jackets for $130, tailored $195 blouses at $19.50, and soft-as-kittens $325 men's sweaters, just $32.50.In five minutes, I went from sample sale virgin to sample sale addict. The bargains were intoxicating. I didn't need these things, but I wanted them, just so I could say I bought something so expensive for so little.
I decided to check out a few more sales before giving in to my first impulse. Of course they were just as tempting: Norma Kamali jerseys, a mere $12, and $330 Helmut Lang jeans marked down to $32. In a self-preserving Freudian move, I managed to forget my wallet, so Norma and Helmut did not come home with me. But I returned to Calvin after mentioning the sale to my sons, ages 15 and 20. They begged for trophies.I arrived 10 minutes before the weeklong event ended. There wasn't much left. My sons are about my size, so I squeezed on a medium gray-and-black checked sweater to check the fit. A salesman looked at me sympathetically and said, "Those runway models are tiny! Try a size up." The large fit well, so I grabbed one for each boy, then decided I'd feel sad if I didn't get myself something. Five minutes left, warned a loudspeaker. I jogged over to the $19.50 blouses and buttoned one over my top, then power-elbowed a man away from the nearest mirror for a look. Success! I joined the checkout line of 100 people with seconds to spare."I bought you a $325 sweater," I later told my teenager. "Nooooo," he said, his eyes growing huge. "Yesssss," I said, producing the sweater with original price tag. Both boys loved their souvenirs.I have to admit: Finding the sales and feeling like I was part of an in-the-know crowd was fun. Whether you're an amateur like me, a tourist in Manhattan with a shopping itinerary, or a fashionista dying for the latest trends to emerge during New York's upcoming Feb. 7-14 Fashion Week, here are some tips for navigating the world of sample sales.Finding the sales
Alexis Bryan Morgan, executive fashion director for Lucky, which specializes in shopping and deals, says finding sample sales takes a little digging: "Join those mailing lists. Read the blogs. If you love a brand, follow it on Facebook and Twitter." Loyal fans are often first to be notified.Sometimes designers hold once-a-year sample sales in their retail stores, as Kamali did in January. But some showrooms partner with different designers to host them throughout the year. Venues include Soiffer Haskin at 317 W. 33rd St., Clothingline at 261 W. 36th St., and 260SampleSale at 260 Fifth Ave. near 28th Street. You can check schedules and sign up for emails on their websites.Other sample sale info can be found at Racked.com, Mizhattan.com, MadisonAvenueSpy.com, DailyCandy.com, TheStylishCity.com, LazarShopping.com and SugarRockCatwalk.blogspot.com, as well as on the shopping calendars at TimeOut and New York magazines.The best times of year for sample sales are late February through June and late September until before Christmas.Several tour companies offer New York City shopping trips that include sample sales, including private access to merchandise before it's offered to the public. ShopGotham.com offers "Garment Center Insider Shopping Tours" Wednesdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., $64, and StyleRoom.com offers private sample sale "Shopping Tour Experiences" for $100.Know before you go
Be prepared for long lines and crowds. "Waiting in line to get into a sample sale for three to four hours is not unheard of," said Lucky's Bryan Morgan.Expect additional lines inside to check bags and coats, and for dressing rooms and cashiers.Sometimes there are no dressing rooms, or "you may want to try something on" right on the floor, said Bryan Morgan. "Wear something you can slip things over -- a simple black bodysuit and leggings or a camisole." There may not even be mirrors; some shoppers bring a pal or send photos by cellphone to friends for feedback.Some sample sales are cash only, some credit cards only. Some sales offer just women's clothing, others sell menswear, children's clothing or linens and home goods.Often, as sales progress, additional price reductions are offered and new items are put out, so try to go more than once.Sizes and quality
True designer sample garments are "tiny, typically size zero to size 4," Bryan Morgan said. But medium and large sizes may be available too, along with accessories like bags and scarves, where fit is irrelevant.Quality is rarely an issue. "Designers want shoppers to remain interested in their lines," Bryan Morgan said. "They wouldn't put out stuff they're not proud of. It's not going to be the dregs."But inspect for damage. Merchandise will be marked if it's irregular or was used in photo shoots. But sometimes clothes are torn by shoppers trying them on.How to shop
"New York City shoppers can be quite aggressive," Bryan Morgan said. "If you see something that you like, don't leave it there and walk away. Chances are someone is going to snatch it up. I have literally had people come up and ask me while I'm holding something if I want it and practically grab it."Finally, be sure items fit and work for your wardrobe. "You think, 'It's 75 percent off, I should buy it,' but then you get home and realize it's a sample sale mistake," Bryan Morgan said. "Just because it's on sale doesn't mean you have to buy it."