Welcome to our second installment of "I Work Retail," in which we investigate the very peculiar torture of selling designer goods. The anonymous author, C, worked at the Soho Prada flagship store, the site of a five-alarm fire last year. She saw symbolism in that, and shared with us this cautionary tale.
In the literary phenomenon that was The Devil Wears Prada, the devil denotes Anna Wintour, and the point of wearing Prada is that she's some divine style setter or something. Well, I worked at Prada, and I am here to set the record straight. Both Anna and the Devil do wear Prada; the problem is that no one else does. They buy the bags, sure, and sometimes the shoes; and most commonly they buy the fakes. But Prada clothes are worn by few besides lesbian art dealer types — which is how a cynical vampy goth-type like me ended up working there — and Anna Wintour, who I once had the privilege of coming in three hours early to wait on.
She arrived at 8 a.m. and bought a wool sweater, some socks, and ordered twenty white T-shirts and maybe a skirt. And by "bought," of course, I mean she did no such thing; all her clothes were always free — Sarah Jessica Parker, meanwhile, justified merely a 30% discount — which may have been why she did not treat anyone too horribly. It was difficult to see her as the devil, when the real satanic force in the room was standing right next to her, ushering her through the store while managing to avoid making eye contact with any of the people who worked there. It was Connie Darrow, the CEO of Prada USA and the most miserable person I have ever had the displeasure of knowing. Next to her, Anna was snooty and overprivileged but essentially harmless, like a poodle somehow captured in human form.
So anyway: Connie. A Barney's veteran who had been kissing rich bitch ass since the eighties, she'd been at Prada since the mid-nineties and was not exactly humble about this fact. The first time I met her was on my third interview with the company, an adventure which took me to their odd lab-like US headquarters in a desolate part of Midtown next to the Hustler strip club. I had lied on the requisite personality test in which they determine whether you are masochistic enough to handle high-end retail, and passed the credit check they used to sort out where my finances stood on the trust fund to junkie-likely-to-steal spectrum. I was almost in.
Connie stood about 4'11 in Prada jazz shoes. She was dressed in a full Prada skirt embroidered with glass beads, Prada knee socks, a Prada blouse, a black mink cape and a diamond-encrusted Fred Leighton tiara. Fred Leighton was allegedly a friend of Connie's, and that shit had to be worth a hundred grand, which is tasteful attire, when you are interviewing someone you're planning to pay $18 an hour — though it makes more sense when you remember the company had sunk some $30 or $40 million into building the temple to consumerism I was about to call work.
The interview was filled with little gasps and "ohhhh's." Connie tried her best not to look at me directly. "I see you have tattoos, do you plan on getting more?" she wanted to know. (I had a small one on my wrist.) "No," I replied. "Do you speak Italian?" (Errrr, they didn't teach that at my high school?)
High-end retail is always somewhat soul-killing and ruinous of your ability to do anything else. I had moved to New York at eighteen to go to college for creative writing, but I was broke and met a girl at a hostel in Queens I briefly lived in who got me a job at the boho-chic shop Calypso, and from there I worked at another high-end Italian designer store, where my assistant manager then quit for Prada, so I had been around enough to recognize a few critical problems. For one, there are so many rich assholes you are required to be excessively, absurdly nice to, that you treat normal people — your significant other, say — like total shit, just because it's so much easier that way.
All day long, you smile at the grayed sixtysomething rich guys as they escort their dewy faced young girlfriends into the high-tech dressing rooms for a little pre-splurge BJ action. You smile at fourteen year olds carrying handbags that could pay your rent for a semester. You smile at tourists who mistake Prada for a cultural attraction — it did, after all, used to be the Guggenheim — and the other tourists who mistook their fake Prada bags for real ones they could bring in for repair. And you smile as Kimora Lee Simmons DEMANDS that you furnish her with a skirt two sizes too small for he and throws a tantrum when it doesn't fit.
And then: you go throw up, or do a line (coke? heroin? whatever works, hon!), or go into the backroom and jerk off to gay porn (like my bisexual assistant manager, who was, incidentally, sleeping with too many of our co-workers to really justify needing porn.) Two other salesgirls in women's ready-to-wear had teeth that were brown from all the puking. I personally turned into a cokehead.
But Prada was worse than most high-end retail jobs because the company was in trouble. It had pissed away millions on fixtures like automatically fogging-up dressing room doors and a huge, pointless ramp that looked like a skateboard half-pipe, just as all the cash the company made off those damn mini-backpacks was starting to subside, when September 11 happened and slowed down shopping even more. The rumor was that the store's extravagance was a product of an illicit affair Miuccia Prada was having with its architect Rem Koolhaas, but it was also a symbol of dotcom era hubris. Connie seemed to deal with these facts with a combination of tactics: denial and self-destruction. She set my department's goals around $75,000 a day — impossible at the time — and then proceed, in a fit of mad "inspiration," to shut down the section while she ordered in tea and scones and ruminated about how best to rearrange the place. Nothing ever worked, of course; no one downtown felt like coughing up five figures on a beautifully made dress that didn't really fit that well. The shoe department fared slightly better, but was hugely territorial about their sales. We were told to skip lunch — not that anyone really felt like eating, what with the coke and the crystal meth and the eating disorders.
On the best day of work at Prada, some hipster skater kid came in and slid down the half-pipe. Someone called the cops. My assistant manager was fired over the porn, and I quit shortly afterwards. Connie was ousted in 2005; her "personality" was cited in the trades. Then in 2006, the store burned down. No, really. I cannot say I was sad about it.