Owings Mills Saks packs bags Out of fashion: Too small, with too much competition, one-time "jewel" of the mall fades into history.

January 06, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Like revelers who linger long after the champagne has run out, a handful of die-hard shoppers yesterday wandered the aisles of Saks Fifth Avenue in Owings Mills. But there's no doubt that this party's over.

The department store that many Baltimoreans hoped would bring New York's fashion savvy closer to home today will shut its doors for good. Hailed by developers when it opened in 1986 as the "jewel" of the mall, it now has the forlorn feel of a ballroom on the morning after.

The entire contents of the local department store -- six counters and 15 clothing racks -- now fit into several hundred feet cordoned off from the rest of the bleakly empty store with yellow police tape. "Omigosh," mutters a man in a parka as he looks around the store bewilderedly. "This is worse than it was at Woodies."

Party shoes with killer heels are tossed helter skelter on the counters. Evening gown prices are slashed to less than 10 percent of their original cost. Exotic bubble baths, milk baths and French clay body masques can be had for a song. Signs everywhere -- on the front doors, counters, racks, walls -- shout "The end is near!"

Good-bye glamour.

Good-bye Saks.

When the announcement came in early November that the local Saks would close, retail experts attributed its demise to competition from Nordstrom at Towson Town Center, which opened in 1992. And the local Saks store was too small for success, they said. A mere 90,000 square feet compared to other department stores such as Hecht's and Macy's, which are upwards of 120,000 square feet.

Bit by bit, Saks management has been selling off or moving out merchandise and not restocking shelves. Signs that blare "entire store now 70 percent off" are backed up with addendums in smaller print that add plaintively: "off the lowest ticketed price."

But surely what's left behind as Saks Fifth Avenue takes its leave of Owings Mills Mall drops hints about the psyche of Baltimore and its shoppers. And maybe a little something about New Yorkers, too.

Anne Klein slingbacks to-die-for -- with heels-to-die-in -- are marked down from $167 to $34. Nearby, nestled in boxes are Charles Jourdan red suede pumps with three-inch heels and shiny gold slip-on mules (like Barbie wears!) reduced from $110 to $16. On a nearby rack, "mismatched shoes" are for sale. Marked down, of course.

All of men's wear now fits on two racks. One holds a dozen handsome, but unconventionally striped, shirts. On the other hangs a lone, black suit (jacket size 36S). Its trousers are neatly pleated, pressed and ready to be hemmed to a tailor-perfect fit.

Two pairs of light blue men's boxers with Saks' own label also remain -- size "Trim" -- marked down from $15 to $3 each.

The shoppers are mostly women, though a few men peruse the leftovers. All are doggedly sorting through the cropped Dana Buchman jackets, short-sleeved, silk T-necks, gold-dust bustiers and the Mondi plaid wool shorts.

Many say they are on their lunch breaks, or that they were running errands elsewhere in the mall and just dropped by. Some say they've been watching the sales ever since hearing the store was going to close.

Few will give their names.

"In early December, the prices were still outrageous -- even the week before Christmas," says one Owings Mills woman who bought two Dana Buchman pants suits for about $250 each, plus a blazer marked down from $226 to $68 and a pair of evening shoes for $28.

But she added, "Oh my God, did you see those pumps that no one could wear? I thought, now where would anyone wear those?"

Half of the counters are filled with luxurious lotions and potions. Exotic bath oils and essences scented with lettuce, thyme, sage, mallow, horse chestnut and lavender crowd the shelves. Some bottles contain liquids identified as aphrodisiacs. Scented candles are on sale, too, along with clay body scrubs and "invigorating" foot rub crystals.

But the biggest draw here are the evening gowns. Nearly every woman who steps into the store winds up in front of the tiny rack that bears frilly, slinky, shiny, short, clingy, outrageous bits of fluff that are on sale for a seemingly preposterous 90 percent off.

Every woman takes a long slow look at the gowns, one by one. But most walk away. One of the dresses is a solid-pink gown that begins with a strapless bodice embellished with embroidery and ends with a short, pink-net skirt that flares sharply outward. Designed by James Purcell, the dress is essentially a size 4 pink tutu, originally priced at $1,775. It's now selling for $78. "This is such a great bargain!" says one woman as she thoughtfully fingers the material. "But where on earth would I wear it?"

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