Century 21, the Bargain-Hunting Fashion-Lover's Playground, Is Closing For Good

Avidan Grossman
·5 mins read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Esquire

Century 21 was a not a glamorous place to shop. The off-price department store chain, which filed for bankruptcy on Thursday, counted over a dozen locations to its name, but for me and my friends it was a portal to another world, one where high-end designer wares rubbed shoulders with their off-brand counterparts on overstuffed racks, a chaotic merchandising mix that made little distinction between luxury labels and those looking to approximate their luster. The chain's Upper West Side location, on the corner of Broadway and 66th Street, was a favorite hangout spot in high school. "Yo, let's meet at the Century!" was a common rallying cry. (If it wasn't clear already, we were an extremely odd bunch.)

The Century was a place where a group of (white, male) teenagers could feel comfortable going in and out of the dressing rooms for hours on end trying on clothing they had no business buying. It was a place to spend the better part of an afternoon gawking at designer gems piled haphazardly on top of each other and stripped completely of their preciousness, each reduced to but another piece of clothing in a store packed to the brim with product. It was, if not a fashion-lover's paradise, then a fashion-lover's playground, a place to gorge yourself on the full breadth of what the industry had to offer until, slightly dazed and a little bit nauseous, you'd stumble back outside not realizing, for a moment, that it was light out when you went in and dark out when you left.

Photo credit: Alexi Rosenfeld - Getty Images
Photo credit: Alexi Rosenfeld - Getty Images

We dubbed the store The Mecca of Metzias—riffing on the Yiddish word for a particularly good find—and gleefully rubbed our hands together in excitement before attacking swathes of promising-looking racks, gassing each other up when one of us came across a particularly unexpected find. There was hardly a time I wouldn't walk off the escalator into the men's section and shake my head in awe, and a little bit of unease, at the sheer amount of clothing available. It was mind-boggling. (You had to wonder if anyone affiliated with the brands arranged in scattershot format throughout the store ever actually paid the place a visit to see firsthand how their clothing, so carefully merchandised online and in other retail spaces, looked on the Century's floors. I'd have to imagine not.)

The Century always struck me as a fundamentally democratic place. In high school, it nurtured my burgeoning obsession with clothing by affording me hours of uninterrupted facetime with the designer names I was learning to venerate, albeit via a very specific, admittedly picked-over, sampling of their output. Occasionally, it allowed me access to clothing I'd actually consider buying, the straight heat you'd stumble across as you were getting ready to leave, about to give up hope, making the whole trip worth it. It let me sidestep the sparse, mausoleum-like stores the clothing must've started out in at one point, hanging untouched on custom hangers at a safe distance from the rest of their peers, on the austere, carefully arranged shop floors only a few city blocks away. It also inculcated in me an abiding appreciation for the thrill of the hunt—the tireless search for the diamonds in the rough about to reveal themselves on the coming rack, or the one after that, or, surely, the one after that— that still drives me today.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt - Getty Images
Photo credit: Spencer Platt - Getty Images

The Century was always hit-or-miss. It's hard to say what the overall success rate was in terms of actual purchases made on the average trip there. But finding something to buy wasn't the point—not really, anyway. The point was to browse. The point was the shopping experience itself. (Ironically so, given that the store did absolutely nothing to cultivate that experience. There were no chic cafes. There were no live activations. There were no rotating shop-in-shops.)

In a lot of ways, the Century felt like a throwback to an earlier era of New York City retail. The stores were hobbled, in part, by the recent city-wide shutdown that made shopping rightfully impossible, and, more generally, by the permanence of year-round sales and the vicious cycle of steep discounting department stores helped make an industry norm in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. In its death, the chain is survived by the thousands of savvy, spendthrift shoppers it so ably endeared itself to, who will doubtlessly flock to other stores, or, more likely, online, and continue chasing deals for years to come.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt - Getty Images
Photo credit: Spencer Platt - Getty Images

I mostly fell out of touch with the Century a few years ago—spurred by my move out of the borough, far away from the chain's UWS location—but I'll miss it dearly. I'm sad it's gone, and I'm sad what it stood for—its resolute, if accidental, commitment to spotlighting fashion's broken system—will no longer be as readily available to a new generation of bargain hunters looking to stumble across a diamond in the rough on the coming rack, or the one after that, or, surely, the one after that.

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