La Dolce (& Gabbana) Vita

Linda Chodorow is frowning at an $880 Yves St. Laurent camel-and-red silk top, which in size 38 is not sitting exactly the way it should atop Chodorow’s generous breasts. “I love it, but it doesn’t fit right,” Chodorow says apologetically, her nose scrunching up as she turns to her favorite saleswoman, Robin Federiconi of Neiman Marcus King of Prussia, as the two stand before a mirror on the store’s third floor.

They both agree: The silk top, with its ruffled neckline that swoops over Chodorow’s cleavage in a spectacular plunge, is too big. “It’s gorgeous, though,” says Chodorow hopefully.

“Linny!” trills Robin to her assistant. At Neiman Marcus, the top sales associates have personal assistants. “Can you get this in a 36, please?”

Chodorow, a former model who is the wife of restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow (China Grill, Asia de Cuba), shops in the way that beautiful women married to rich men should shop: She buys Dolce & Gabbana for the yacht in St. Barths. She gets Gucci and Celine for dinners in Paris, Giorgio Armani for restaurant openings in Miami and New York, and Lucky jeans for the Hamptons and her farm in New Hope. And Chodorow’s favorite place to shop is Neiman Marcus King of Prussia, and the reason for that is Robin.

“Robin, your hair looks good!” says Chodorow, as she tries on a ruffled one-shoulder Moschino dress from the dozens of outfits, all with matching Manolo Blahniks, that have been placed in a wood-and-mirrors dressing room on the third floor before Linda arrived from New Hope. Everything is going well, except it’s hard for Linda to get some of the dresses over her ring, a huge canary diamond the size of a China Grill steamed dumpling. “This makes me look wide here,” says Chodorow, pointing at her slim hips and wrinkling her nose again.

“I don’t think you could look wide there,” says Robin. But she’s already moving on to Prada pants, because if Linda thinks it’s true, she’s not going to buy the Moschino dress. As Chodorow sips cappuccino from a china cup, delivered from the store’s Zodiac Café, the two women continue chatting about the opening that evening of English Is Italian, the new incarnation of Jeffrey Chodorow’s New York restaurant Tuscan Steak, and the Chodorows’ son, who’s at Penn, and Robin’s boyfriend Danny, a real-estate developer with whom she lives in Princeton, and Robin’s cholesterol, which is too high. …

Robin, 39, who goes to all of the Chodorows’ restaurant openings and dinner parties and bar mitzvahs, is a five-foot-three blonde with a California-meets-fashionista look who delivers well more than a million dollars a year of Giorgio Armani, Chanel, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana to scores of loyal clients. Robin is of the cool-girlfriend school of sales. She went to Barclay Prime before you knew it had opened, she travels everywhere her clients travel, and she dresses in chic Missoni tops, YSL jackets and Gucci boots. All of this imbues her with fashion credibility that translates into huge selling power: You buy from Robin because you want to look like Robin, have lunch with Robin, drink prosecco with Robin; she takes over your life if you have no sense of fashion, or enhances your world if you do.

When you shop with Robin on the third floor of Neiman Marcus, the most expensive floor in Philly’s most expensive store, bugles should sound and unicorns should gallop out to flank the escalator as you ascend. Here, magical things happen, and no one ever talks about how much anything costs. Pellegrino and champagne automatically appear; Voula, Robin’s seamstress, is at the ready to make alterations. Lunch, tagliatelle with sea scallops, is served from a white-clothed tray.

“It’s not about getting someone into an expensive outfit,” says Robin seriously, in her sunny, lilting voice that makes spending $1,900 for a dress to wear around the pool seem perfectly normal. “If you buy a $5,000 Chanel jacket and the hair is a mess and the bag is wrong, it’s not going to work. Something as simple as a bra can change someone’s life. When I meet someone, I get a vision for them — I do people’s closets, I help them pack for vacation, I send over a new blush or a lipstick, I do people’s Christmas shopping.”

“This is good!” says Linda, who’s now in a $900 orange Celine dress and a pair of orange-and-blue strappy Manolos. Linh, Robin’s assistant, returns with the Yves St. Laurent top in a 36, which has been sent to the bowels of the store to be steamed out. It fits perfectly.

Unfortunately, Robin and Linda hit one snag as the Pretty Woman shop-travaganza continues. The heavy mahogany dressing room door swings shut, and locks. Robin’s keys are inside. Linda’s cappuccino is inside. All of the outfits, the Chanel bags, the Manolos — inside.

“Linny!” shouts Robin.

Neiman Marcus opened at the Plaza at King of Prussia with a black-tie gala in February 1996, and as cumin-rubbed pork kabobs and olive-stuffed mussels were passed to nearly 1,300 guests, it was clear that the economy was heading into a boom. Although the legendarily expensive women’s boutique Nan Duskin had closed less than a year before, there was a luxury market in Philadelphia — but it had moved to the suburbs. That market has grown every year, so that by 2004, the store was selling an estimated $60 million of clothing and accessories each year.

Neiman Marcus King of Prussia — our de facto Madison Avenue and Newbury Street, the closest Philadelphia will ever get to Worth Avenue — comprises more than 100,000 square feet, a carefully constructed temple of luxury where everything is pleasing to the eye and soft to the touch, where the air is scented with Annick Goutal and Jo Malone candles. The floors are beige marble; the dressing rooms are subtly lit, with Art Deco-looking beige velvet sofas and chairs, flattering mirrors, burnished wood accents. There are dozens of tailors in invisible work areas; there are 120 attractive sales associates gliding around in dark suits.

And every inch of the airy store is calculated toward making huge profits on expensive goods. Here, according to a 2004 company report, shoes and accessories make up 20 percent of sales; clothing comprises 35 percent. The cosmetics (13 percent of sales) and jewelry (12 percent) departments, on the first floor alongside menswear and handbags, are vast, serene expanses of glass counters, sold by expertly made-up women, some sporting white doctor’s coats. The third floor is the realm of couture, where 60 percent of the clothes are sold through appointments with personal shoppers.

On a recent spring day in the second-floor shoe department, a tiny black-and-white dog was hanging limply under the arm of his owner, a 40-something blonde. The dog looked resigned — there were clearly hours of shoe-shopping in store for him, because one reason Neiman has succeeded where Nan Duskin failed is the sheer breadth of goods: There were no fewer than 71 styles of Gucci shoes on two multi-tiered tables, separated into L’il Kim trashy and Catherine Zeta-Jones tasteful. There was the floral Gucci pump ($475), the shoe that was in every Vogue and W layout this spring; there were the slutty four-inch-high wooden-heeled mules with the huge Gucci bit; and there were sporty $235 flip-flops.

There is such an emphasis on service here that had the dog squeezed out a poop near the Guccis, no doubt someone would have quietly pooper-scooped. If he got hungry, he could be toted up the escalator to the Zodiac Café. And along with the chicken consommé and airy popovers that are served as soon as you sit down, the little dog could dine on beef brisket.

The dog’s owner had a look peculiar to some NM shoppers: pained intensity paired with boredom. This look of strain is found on older women wearing Burberry quilted jackets; on young moms pushing Bugaboos, wearing boot-cut jeans and cashmere sweaters; on the dozens of women in yoga clothes. In a very small subset of Philadelphians, those who spend weekends in Palm Beach and attend the Ball on the Square and Paul Rosen’s annual beach-house party, it’s expected that you shop here. And once you do, you’ll be in the Neiman club, meaning tempting catalogs, luncheon invitations, and personal notes from salespeople wing into your mailbox every week. This attention is pure pleasure for some loyal clients.

“It’s where I disappear,” says Penn Valley attorney Leslee Tabas. “Even lunch there is an incredible experience. I feel like I’ve been on vacation when I go there.”

But shopping at Neiman Marcus, while hedonistically joyful, can be quite stressful, too: If you’re here, you have attained, or aspire to, a level of consumer sophistication that very few Philadelphians are even aware of — but you have also entered a cashmere-lined world of status anxiety. Unless you are, say, Aileen Roberts or a Lenfest wife, you are bound by some budget, and are soon bedeviled by questions unique to this lovely place: Are you stuck on the second floor, or have you escalated into a third-floor habitué? Can you buy at the height of the season, or must you root through the racks at the twice-yearly sales, when almost everything is 75 percent off?

Where once Philadelphia socialites would slip in through the discreet back door at Nan Duskin on Walnut Street rather than consume conspicuously, there’s now a ­McMansion-in-Gladwyne-style cachet in saying you shop with Robin at Neiman Marcus. At the same time, though the new Boyds now stocks top women’s designers, as do Knit Wit and Joan Shepp, Center City has lost much of its allure for luxury shoppers: Nan Duskin became Borders, and now sits empty; once-genteel Bonwit Teller is now Daffy’s. Then again, there are certain women who would never shop at Neiman Marcus, no matter how much money they have.

One doesn’t get the sense that most of the shoppers here are worried about whether it’s morally wrong to spend hundreds of dollars on Crème de la Mer moisturizer. They’re going to spend hundreds of dollars on ephemera, whether it’s here or at Barneys in New York, which is why you’ve never seen as many attractive people in Philly as you will at Neiman Marcus on any given day.

These customers are well understood by NM sales associates, who keep small silver three-ring binders choked with information about their clients’ favorite designers, their sizes, recent purchases, summer and winter getaways, their kids, birthdays, hobbies. “Every associate in ready-to-wear hosts a luncheon for top customers each season,” says Robert Hughes, the general manager of Neiman Marcus King of Prussia. Hughes is the man who chairs charity events such as the Give the Shirt Off Your Back gala for the Breast Health Institute. He sends flowers when customers have hissy fits. He courts mega-shoppers such as Hilary Musser, the interior-designer wife of former Safeguard Scientifics chairman Pete Musser, and Ed Snider’s new wife Christine, and Aileen Roberts and Joan Spain. Hughes sends customers to the Armani show in New York, he hosts them at the Academy Ball, he buys $5,000 tables at their charity events. When one of Robin’s clients wanted to have a “fur party” for his five daughters, Hughes called in pelts from all over the country and shut down part of the third floor.

Hughes, and Neiman Marcus, believes in sales associates operating like mini-
entrepreneurs within the store. “To be a sales associate here is a lot about confidence,” says Hughes, who has a Southern accent and a courtly manner, and provides his top people with offices, couriers, and commissions of six to 10 percent, plus bonuses and incentives. All of this helps salesman Steve Shuster make in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Steve Shuster takes care of Georges Perrier. He’s the salesman who handles Jeffrey Chodorow, former New Jersey Nets owner Lewis Katz, and Chase and Ana Maria Lenfest. Shuster, who is in his 50s but looks younger, is thin and wiry, dresses in elegant suits, has a spiky haircut, and could sell minks to PETA protesters. Shuster’s style is intense, focused, laserlike: In fact, he’s so amped up that he never resorts to coffee, tea, or, heaven forbid, diet Coke. Shuster simply will not rest until his people are well-outfitted.

Shuster, whose office is in the first-floor men’s department — realm of Gucci loafers, Oxxford suits, and Loro Piana cashmere sweaters — is a one-man symbol of the great luxury-fashion migration from downtown Philly to King of Prussia. He used to own Strega, an upscale shoe store, before Walnut Street became the realm of Coach and Ubiq. Shuster saw Nan Duskin and Gucci die downtown, realized the power of Neiman Marcus, and went west in 1999. “I brought a tremendous clientele from Walnut Street,” Shuster says, in his excited and earnest way. “On my first day, I actually walked in and had the highest sales figure of any associate that day.”

Shuster has cultivated some clients for more than 30 years. He’s virtually a brand unto himself, and his somewhat hysterical persona rules the first floor of Neiman’s the way Robin’s breezy blondness defines the third floor.

Shuster’s technique is the antithesis of Robin’s. Where she is fun and easygoing, dining out and attending parties with her clients, Shuster closes the deal by overtly working for his customers. He can’t get them enough water, coffee, scones or Breathsavers. He writes thank-you notes for all his sales the day he rings them. Naturally, Shuster has his own assistant — one of his former assistants now runs the handbag department in King of Prussia, and another is a Dallas-based buyer for the company — but insists on doing most of his deliveries himself. Though he won’t be specific, Shuster sells as much as $2 million worth of products a year, likely makes more than $200,000 annually, and almost always works seven days (and nights) a week. “I try to make 100 phone calls a day,” he says. He arrives at the store in the early morning hours to begin networking with his 500 established clients, and opens the door to special clients for 8:30 a.m. personal-shopping consults. He would work after 9 p.m., except that store security shuts all the lights off. Still, if he has a few free minutes, he walks the floor and meets new customers.

“I met Steve buying shoes on Walnut Street and followed him here,” says Bruce Cooper, the owner of Jake’s Restaurant, shrugging on a $1,150 Armani blazer one recent day while Lino, the head of men’s custom tailoring, chalks the sleeves.

“Can I get you anything, Bruce?” says Shuster, hanging up Cooper’s own leather jacket and whisking it away to a closet, then actually running to Starbucks when Cooper mentions he’d like a piece of gum. Cooper and Shuster troll the men’s department, picking up cool striped shirts from Etro, Paul Smith, Armani, and John Varvatos. (“A tremendous amount of white and soft greens permeate the collection, lemons and limes, gorgeous,” gushes Shuster.) Shuster goes on to enthuse about some Brioni socks the colors of “mustard and peanut brittle,” sincerely and slightly manically.

“It sounds like you’re talking about food,” says Cooper. “And Steve always gets it right.” Shuster got it right again today: Cooper buys two shirts, the Armani blazer, and one pair of pants, spending about $2,000. That’s not as much as the client yesterday who came in to pick up a $375 shirt-and-tie combination, found that Shuster had set up a dressing room with suits and spring casual clothes, and spent $8,500, but it’s still a very good sale from a loyal customer. “My problem is I can’t get enough of the luxury items I need,” says Shuster. “The store only bought seven of the Gucci python bag trimmed with almond leather, that’s $2,750, and I can’t get my hands on one.” Shuster is so passionate about his clients that last night, after a long Sunday at work, he made a delivery to Bryn Mawr and took his wife on a tour of his customers’ mansions.

Shuster has plenty of women customers, too, but he has one big disadvantage: He’s straight!

Still, he’s trusted enough by husbands that in December, one sent his wife to Shuster with a $5,000 budget for a four-hour “dream day.” Shuster is huge on service. He happily schleps to Chestnut Hill, Atlantic City, Center City (where he lives with his wife, who owns a personnel consulting firm and luckily is also a “bit of a workaholic,” Shuster says). He sometimes sends his assistant on house calls, but he really likes to do it himself. “Clients have full access to me, 24 hours a day,” he says one day at the store, while he hands me a Sprite (which he has ordered from upstairs, because he remembers me drinking Sprite once, a month prior).

King of Prussia was Neiman Marcus’s 30th store, part of the Texas-based luxury chain’s steady move northward. Started in Dallas in 1907 by Al Neiman, his wife Carrie, and Carrie’s brother Herbert Marcus, the chain now comprises 35 stores (and also owns Bergdorf Goodman, Horchow, part of Kate Spade, and Laura Mercier cosmetics; Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie’s family once had a large stake in the conglomerate). Neiman Marcus sells more than $3 billion in designer fabulousness each year, and is particularly revered in its native Texas, where women in Houston and Dallas dress in Dolce and have their hair blown out to go to the grocery store, let alone parties or dinner.

In moneyed suburbs all around the country, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman’s play off each other, competing aggressively for the same clientele. Where one goes, the other follows — even Worth Avenue in Palm Beach now has a Neiman Marcus across from the fabulous Saks. In Philly, a few long-­established retail executives jump between Saks in Bala Cynwyd and Neiman Marcus: Missy Dietz, with Nan Duskin for most of the ’90s, moved to the Fifth Avenue Club at Saks in Bala in the late ’90s, and several years ago became merchandise manager at Neiman’s. The competition in Philly between the two is heated, with Saks having an edge in that it’s absent mall traffic and close to the city; however, Neiman has a bigger men’s department and a larger variety of everything luxe. After Neiman opened in King of Prussia, there was a flurry of backing-and-forthing with Saks in Bala by sales staff, which has largely subsided, at least at the Robin and Steve level. “I’ve been asked,” says Robin, “by several high-end stores in town! I’m sure they’re wonderful, but if you’re going to work in retail, for me, the only place to work is Neiman Marcus. It doesn’t get much better than this.”

The Bala Cynwyd Saks is much longer established, since 1969 in Philly, and carries similarly luxurious goods, with its Chanel boutique and Gucci frocks, but in the world of mega-shopping, Neiman Marcus has, ever so slightly, a reputation for even greater poshness. It is famed for its Christmas Book, in which private jets and Labradoodles are sold. The King of Prussia store recently rented a huge suite at the Rittenhouse Hotel to host a Chanel trunk show, where clients like public relations executive Kelly Boyd browsed the $900 sandals while champagne and tuna tartare circulated.

Neiman Marcus’s core shoppers are high-net-worth women ages 35-plus. According to retail experts, 20 percent of customers buy 80 percent of the total merchandise sold in specialty stores like Neiman. Case in point: There are customers at King of Prussia, general manager Robert Hughes says, who have earned 1.5 million InCircle points, which are equivalent to every dollar spent in the store. (Some special evening parties offer double InCircle points, but still.) And while luxury shopping took a hit after the economic downturn beginning in 2001, it is somewhat
recession-proof. Rich people, it seems, will always buy $1,100 handbags.

“Robin isn’t just for people with dough — she came up to me when I was scouring the Last Call sale rack and found me something,” says mystery writer Lisa Scottoline, who lives on a Chester County farm with five dogs and four horses. Scottoline is a Robin-ista, the Eliza Doolittle of Robin Federiconi’s clients.

Scottoline has no qualms about her Robin habit. Her life mostly consists of writing (she writes a book a year, each of which ends up on the New York Times best-seller list) and shoveling out her horse barn, so Robin brings cars full of couture to her before each book tour. Post-Robin, Scottoline is now more mindful of trends and styles, and this fashion savvy is reflected in her purchases. “I’m currently a Chanel junkie,” admits Scottoline. “Robin showed me you can wear it with jeans and a white Hanes t-shirt.”

A key to Robin’s ever-increasing sales bottom line is that she convinces people who have never shopped anywhere more exclusive than Banana Republic that they need to wear fine clothes, in a non-threatening way. “I couldn’t afford anything by Armani,” explains Scottoline, “and she’d call me and say, ‘I have a jacket you’d like,’ and I go in and it’s beautiful, it fits like a frigging glove, and then she holds it until it goes on sale.” Federiconi makes the experience similarly effortless for a successful young couple who live in the northern suburbs. “They’re among my most important customers,” she says. “I brought them over so many things last week, and I ended up staying till 11, drinking wine and eating lobster with them that they had brought in from Barclay Prime.” At Scottoline’s house, the experience is less glamorous, but no less intimate. “Robin’s really beautiful,” Scottoline says, “but she’s really a down-home kind of girl. Don’t let that gorgeous polished exterior fool you.”

It’s true that Federiconi can move in any circle: She started working in high school at Elegance by Edythe, the Jurassic specialty store on Bustleton Avenue in Northeast Philly; while she was still a teenager, she became the store’s head buyer. She then was approached by Barbara Bunch, a Saks manager who jumped to Neiman Marcus in 1996. Bunch remembered Federiconi from a prior meeting, and hired her before Saks could get her. “I didn’t own anything couture except one scarf,” remembers Federiconi of her pre-Neiman days, but she learned quickly; the store immediately put her in charge of the Armani boutique, for which she is now a buyer, and she roped in clients on the store floor and around town, most of whom have become friends. “You live through her relationships,” says Joanna Wills, of their intimate conversations. Wills, a Klehr Harrison partner, frequently dines out with Robin and has her to her house for closet conferences and parties. “Everyone is like her sister or her mother.”

Federiconi used to be married to one of Jeffrey Chodorow’s executives at China Grill Management, which is how she first met Linda Chodorow, but has found true happiness with her current boyfriend, whom she met on the Internet after accepting a friend’s dare, one of her clients told me. “She’s so beautiful that she had to try Internet dating,” said the customer. “She couldn’t meet anyone decent, I think, because all they cared about was how she looked.”

“She’s very aggressive in getting customers,” says Joanna Wills, who was approached by Federiconi on the third floor, “and once she gets you, you’ll be a customer for life. One time she brought all these formal gowns to my office when I was in a pinch. And not only did she bring the gowns, she brought a seamstress.” Wills, who has hundreds of pairs of shoes, adds thoughtfully: “You end up spending a lot of money, though.”

One quiet Thursday at the store, Faith Weiss, a new Neiman Marcus salesperson who lives in Bryn Mawr, is sitting at a desk writing invitations to potential clients — who include her daughter’s classmates at a Main Line private school. Weiss, who is slim, in her 40s, and clad in a black skirt and sweater, a diamond necklace and Gucci pumps, looks like the wife of an attorney, which she is. She hadn’t worked in 20 years, but when her son went off to college, Weiss was presented with the opportunity to work in the personal-shopping department of Neiman Marcus. Now, she’s calling all her friends to come in to shop, and organizing a prom-shopping event for 50 17-year-olds who can afford $400 dresses. “My husband thinks it’s great!” she says. “He doesn’t care if there’s nothing to eat in the house.”

Scores of other women in their 40s, 50s and 60s work at Neiman Marcus, where they go after a divorce or after raising kids; Weiss is as typical of the sales staff here as the chic 28-year-old saleswomen unloading David Yurman jewelry downstairs.

And all of them want to be like Robin and Steve Shuster, who lead sales meetings and speak regularly at classes held for both new and seasoned associates. Amazingly, though, Shuster says he would give up sales in a minute if Neiman Marcus would make him its company-wide sales guru. He would jet from Dallas to Scottsdale to Bal Harbour, sharing the wisdom of calls and notes and birthday gifts and Pellegrino on silver trays. Unfortunately, though, the store probably could never pay him as much as he makes selling clothes.

One of Robin’s clients says, “I’m sure she makes a lot of money, and she should make money.” Federiconi and Shuster, though, say they would never be as successful as they are if they weren’t emotionally involved, even obsessed, with their customers, with righting fashion wrongs and making the world a more beautiful and stylish place.