The Social Detective

By staff October 1, 2006

I had to live by an impossible set of rules when I was growing up. Among my mother’s unbreakable commandments: Thou shalt not covet any clothing item on sale. Sale meant discount. Discount meant bargain. Bargain meant not this season, not quite fresh—and who knew who might have tried it on. Bargains also meant the temptation to buy something that didn’t fit, or had another fatal flaw, like a fabric of stripes, loud colors or, God forbid, even a print. This sale phobia in the Bible of Park Avenue dates from the era when women wore foundations instead of underwear and glowed instead of sweating.

Back then, whenever I wanted something unacceptable by my favorite designer, Clearance (pronounced Clairawnce), ma mère would urge me to reconsider: “Can you see Jackie Kennedy searching markdown racks for Chanel, or worse falling for a shop-worn paisley?”

(Now I know why Jackie didn’t have to forage for discounts: Designers like Halston often gave her brand-new outfits for free.)

But even for Jackie, wearing something, or acquiring furnishings, that someone else had owned was not completely forbidden. It just depended on who it was. My mother wore jewelry from a Russian princess and a heavily silver-bullioned purple Pope’s robe. And the house was full of crumbling antiques with frayed fabrics and flaking finishes. The credo on decorating was never to have anything younger than oneself.

Most of the Park Avenue crowd got over their squeamishness about bargain basements when they shed their girdles. Sales have an altogether different meaning now. These days, a sale is like a drug, loosening up inhibitions and inspiring odd behaviors—such as strangers taking their clothes off in front of each other and fighting like dogs for something way too small for any of them. Sales are the siren call of buying, overwhelming need and judgment every time.

And that was just what Margaret Wise, Jean Weidner, and Diane Roskamp had in mind when they founded Designing Women, a charitable resale and consignment shop. It even has a monthly Salon Series that this summer drew 70 ladies for an Independence Day sale, fashion show, box lunch, and talk by Larry Thompson, president of Ringling School of Art and Design.

I went with high expectations and was not disappointed. A swell of excitement met me at the boutique door. “Here’s a size six and a half. Get Victoria, quick,” Margaret Wise cried.

Victoria Leopold was modeling a pair of Chanel boots, brand-new. Original price—could it be—over $1,800? They had me on the couch with my shoes off before I had time to say hello. Thank God, I couldn’t zip them up. They came to my thighs.

One of the most innovative charitable endeavors in town, benefiting community arts, endowment, and human services, Designing Women began when Jean, Margaret, and Diane were stuck after 9/11 at the Roskamp house in Pennsylvania, where they had been on an Asolo board retreat. For five days, the three Sarasota divas talked nonstop, hatching a plan to mix their two greatest passions: shopping and philanthropy. Since opening only four years ago, Designing Women has donated almost $500,000 in grants to local nonprofits, proving that shopping is an unstoppable force for good.

“We wanted to create something lasting and have fun,” Diane told me after Larry Thompson talked about the Ringling School and we gobbled down the terrific lunch provided by California Bistro Grill. “The three of us are a team, each offering a different strength. Jean does the day-to-day overseeing in the shop. Margaret is the marketing and shopping wiz. The one paid employee is executive director Kathleen Myrtle.” Diane was characteristically modest about her contributions, but her signature grace and style are all over the place.

The concept of getting white elephants from people’s closets—things they paid too much for, have lost interest in or that don’t look good on them—was launched when Margaret invited her 200 best friends to lunch at Molly Nelson’s and Susan Palmer’s houses. The price of admission was the clothes off the guests’ back. Everyone came and everyone gave, and then everyone bought at the store’s first location, a small storefront on Fruitville. It was a recycling frenzy. Margaret says the three founders were surprised when the store sold more in the first three months than they had budgeted for the whole year.

Success forced them to add quarterly buying trips to New York and hunting forays to local retail shops, like Nello and Olivia’s, for year-end close-outs of new clothes and shoes. Now Designing Women has its own digs at the Roskamp Center on North Tamiami Trail and sells new and formerly owned (but often unused) clothes, home accent pieces, antiques, accessories and collectibles, and well as hosting many fun events, like the monthly luncheon salon and blow-out sales.

This season, DW will host a Fashion Week starting with a fashion cabaret and dinner at the Boutique on Sunday, Dec. 3, produced by Jean Weidner and Molly Schechter. A VIP preview dinner on Nov. 13 at Flemings is also being planned by Diane, Margaret and Mary Ann Robinson.

Molly Schechter, whose husband Edward is on the board, told me the 40 volunteers at the shop act as salesgirls and do many housekeeping chores for free that they pay others to do in their own homes. And the shopping mistakes they count on for donated merchandise are not limited to the clothing department. She pointed out the brand-new $25,000 custom Sylvan Garrett rug on the floor. “The donor didn’t like it when it came in, so now it’s on sale here for considerably less. The desirable designer clothes go very quickly. We know the price is too low if they’re gone in 24 hours,” she says.

Mary Ann Robinson, shopgirl for the day, showed me around. “I wear my outfits for a while and then forget them. People wearing clothes I’ve donated wait for me to recognize them, but I never do. I sold my $5,000 sable coat here,” she told me, and admitted she did some buying, too. “This is the only volunteer job that costs me money.”

Diane Roskamp was proud to report the store sold 14 full-length mink coats this year, and I think she bought her little white mink wrap there herself. “Some of my friends wouldn’t dream of buying resale clothes, but I’m a rummager. I love to forage for great stuff,” she says. And so do a lot of other people. Alex Quarles buys her gifts there, and when I left, I saw Helene Noble trying on shoes. “I have a passion for the mission,” she said, watching herself wiggle her toes in an especially fetching pair.

Other visitors on that summer salon day were Gwenne Heiser, Renee Sheade, Caroline Zucker and Adela Rose. Janet Hunter modeled with delightful students from Ringling. Drawn by the postcard announcement, Connie Cosbar, Sally Crowell and Mindy Mast, three friends from the three local yacht clubs, came to DW for the first time. Many other luncheon guests were also first-time visitors. A group of friends from Longboat Island Chapel, whose table I crashed, came for their girls’ day out. Later, I saw them heading for the dressing rooms.

Pat Thompson, despite being the wife of the speaker, was almost turned away because of the sell-out crowd. Pat Paru also came to hear Larry, but assured me she’s a frequent Designing Women visitor. She even bought a beaded purse and a scarf to wear at her daughter’s wedding. Gloria Moss did microphone duty, and Harriet Schlage summed it up. “Everyone who’s anybody supports Designing Women.” And the clothes are a great buy, too.

Leslie Glass is a playwright and the author of 14 novels, including the best-selling crime series featuring the NYPD’s April Woo.

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