No Saks Appeal Essay: You may never have walked its marble aisles, but Baltimore is diminished -- in its fashion sense and in its buying options -- by the loss of the upscale department store.

November 04, 1995|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

No Saks, please, we're Baltimoreans.

We like our fashions safe, our clothes familiar, our heels worn down and our collars frayed. We're dowdy and we're proud.

When the Saks Fifth Avenue in Owings Mills closes in January, we can all breathe a sigh of relief and return to our boring Liz Claiborne plaids, our predictable Etienne Aigner shoes, our true, fashion-phobic selves.

Saks was intimidating. It was New York. It was cooler than thou and, well, who needs to be belittled in your own town?

But if you could just get past the name -- and some of those price tags -- it wasn't that outre.

As with all eulogies, it's easy to speak well of Saks now. In its nine years in Baltimore, many shoppers were disdainful -- the Owings Mills Saks wasn't a real Saks, it had too many Miami Beach-ish decorated sweat suits, it kept devolving through the designer lines, from Donna Karan to DKNY to DKNY Jeans even. It was nothing like the flagship store in Manhattan, of course, or the one on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. But it was the only Saks we had.

In a city that has lost most of its own, homegrown department stores, shopping at Saks was a respite from Baltimore's charming if suffocating provincialism. Baltimore: A great place to live, but you wouldn't want to shop there.

But enter the glass doors underneath the famously scripted Saks Fifth Avenue name, and you were transported. The clickety marble floors, the sleek, Eurasian-faced mannequins, the air of assumed New York superiority that hovered throughout. This was a store that you came to, not one that came to you.

"It's sad. We couldn't keep Nan Duskin," Kathy Hillman, a Baltimore marketing executive, says of the late, lamented Cross Keys boutique, "and now we've lost Saks."

People say, oh, there's still Nordstrom. Please. Nordstrom is not Saks. It's not, at least in its local incarnation at Towson Town Center, any of the storied department stores of the shopper's imagination -- Bloomies, Nieman's, Fields. It's earnestly dutiful and so careful not to offend, filled with clothes you could wear to meet a new mother-in-law or to sip sherry at the faculty club. Meaning it's perfect for Baltimore. Saks, by contrast, while known for carrying big designers, really shone when it came to quirkier, mid-level labels -- Susie Tompkins, Laundry, David Dart. "I've only been to Nordstrom's a couple of times, and I would say except for one little department, 95 percent of it is geared to the very middle-of-the-road, moderate customer," says Ruth Shaw of the exclusive Cross Keys boutique.

Indeed, Nordstrom was criticized by an Alex. Brown retail analyst when it opened here three years ago for downscaling itself to what it perceived the Baltimore market to be. At Nordstrom, you'll find rack upon rack of the same clothes you already rejected at Hecht's or Macy's -- the ubiquitous Liz Claiborne and the better yet still prosaic Jones New York.

And Nordstrom, for all its vaunted emphasis on customer service, simply tries too hard. It is Sally Field saying, "You like me, you really like me!"

Saks, by contrast, is Lauren Bacall, saying "If you want anything, just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you? Just put your lips together and blow." Nice and helpful, but without the desperate neediness that makes Nordstrom employees kind of annoying. (And what's with that intercom voice, that cloying, obsequious voice that interrupts every five minutes saying, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, would customer so-and-so please return to the lingerie department?" If they're so well-trained there, why do they keep forgetting to give customers back their credit cards?)

Saks is a little more aloof, which is fine since most of us are shopping for a nice pair of pumps rather than a relationship with the sales clerk. Perhaps it's the difference between their home bases, Nordstrom's puppy huggy Seattle vs. Saks' ged-outta-my-way New York.

And whether you shopped there regularly or not, Baltimore can't really afford to lose a Saks. There's precious little else in town that speaks to the consuming passion that lies beneath even the mostly dreary wardrobes in town; even if you dress prudently, it's nice to know you have the option of going a little bit crazy every once in a while.

"I really hate that it's closing," says Meadowlark Washington, wife of former Colt-turned-Redskin Joe Washington. "I really hate that either this city can't support it or it didn't serve us better -- I don't even know which it is."

That is the conundrum: If we had better stores, would we dress better? Or if we dressed better, would better stores come to town?

There is no answer, of course, only this: Cleveland has a Saks, not to mention a Barney's. Soon, even Charleston, S.C., will have a Saks. Yet soon we'll be Saks-less in Baltimore.

And it was that news, of course, which drew more of a crowd to the usually quiet store in Owings Mills yesterday. Women stocked up on Saks brand hosiery, picked through the sales racks and lamented the passing of yet another shop-op.

The three DuBois sisters -- fifth generation Baltimore, they say, although they mostly live in Florida and parts south nowadays -- left the store empty-handed but for a Nordstrom's bag that one of them was carrying. Inside were fancy black pumps, to be worn when trying on cocktail dresses at Saks.

"I couldn't even find anything to pick up off the rack," shrugged one sister, Elaine Strange.

"That's Baltimore," said her sister Millie Selko.

"A big town," said Ms. Strange, "with a small-town mentality."

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