Outlook Traveller: Guide to luxury shopping at New York's Fifth Avenue

Fashion Window Walking Tour

Icons like the Empire State building and the Rockefeller Center punctuate this mile-long stretch of flagship stores, including the 24/7 Apple showroom

Walking along New York’s Fifth Avenue is an exercise in pleasure — even in drizzling, blow-your-umbrella-away windy weather. There’s a sense of urban royalty to this walk. Not because it is the most expensive shopping space in the US, or a showcase of all things opulent, but for its sheer elegance and the windows it offers into all that’s regal and magnificent.

Ginza in Tokyo has the glitz; Hong Kong’s high-end Central has the design­er stores; Oxford Street in London is lav­ish and sophisticated. But Fifth Avenue wraps up everything that’s over-the-top exhilarating about those shopping dis­tricts and packs it into one “dreamer’s lane” — as an impish, tap-dancing Shirley Temple described Fifth Avenue.

Most visitors to New York are sated with walking this mile-long stretch just once, but I walked the 20-odd streets three times over. The first walkabout was devoted entirely to gazing upon those architectural marvels that in­terweave the shopping — Empire State building (at 34th Street), St Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center (51st Street) and Bryant Park (42nd Street). Somewhat fittingly, the statue at the end of this retail cavalcade (on 59th Street) is of Pomona, the Roman god­dess of abundance.

The second time around, I dropped into and explored the shopping and the drama and the sheer variety of the store products. The real tiara on Fifth Avenue is its retail leg, from 39th Street, a little after the Empire State Building, to 60th Street, where the lower end of Central Park begins. It is on this stretch that iconic stores have built their reputa­tion over the last 100 years, including Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales.

I did the walk a third time as part of a tour to look at these famous windows of the flagship stores that are part of the novelty and fame of Fifth Avenue, which inspire tourists and shoppers from all over the world.

New York’s avenues run from North to South Manhattan in a grid, and Fifth Avenue is something of a point of refer­ence. This avenue is famed for divid­ing the city: everything east of Fifth Avenue becomes the East Side; these include Park, Lexington, Third, Second and First Avenues. To the west of Fifth Avenue are Sixth Avenue on through 12th Avenue.

But in truth, Fifth Avenue unites the city in many ways. The thread of locals mix with tourists to admire the win­dows of these flagship stores, which come up with incredible themes for Christmas. New Yorkers visit the stores just as enthusiastically as tourists do. And Bergdorf Goodman brings in the high society of the city as well as those from across the world.

A hundred years ago, Fifth Avenue, already a prestigious residential address at the time, began its transformation towards retail. When Saks Fifth Avenue came along in 1924, it set the precedent for upscale shopping. There have been many other transformations over these 100 years: at one time, the city’s slaughterhouse district was between Fifth and Park Avenues from 44th to 46th Streets; there were abortion clinics and man­sions of the rich and famous. Walking along Fifth Avenue, you can see the remnants and locations of the famous mansions owned by the wealthiest fami­lies at the turn of the century, including the Vanderbilts; many of these are now flagship retail stores.

Jon Harari, Chief Operating Officer of WindowsWear, which organises walking tours that tell you how to shop the world’s fashion windows, says that Fifth Avenue transcends the experi­ence of shopping because of its sheer style and offering. “There’s no other street in the world that gives you this level of creativity,” says Harari. “It’s there in every store; its styling and its windows have changed the lives of people.” His point was taken seeing the number of people on the tour, which gave a brief history of each building along Fifth Avenue, relating some of the inspiring stories that created them, and the work that goes into keeping the store windows ahead of every other store in the world.

Here are some of the stops I would absolutely recommend as you walk up Fifth Avenue. Start at Empire State Building, which has its head in the clouds, and which (with 102 floors and at 1,454 feet) was the worldÂ’s tallest building from 1931 to 1974. (Responsibility for your credit limits is hereby renouncedÂ…)

Lord & Taylor, East 39th Street
This building is exactly 100 years old, having enraged local residents when it was built, breaking the mould of the residential complexes here, in 1914. Al­though the store itself has been around since 1825, this building is a reminder of the innovation of the time and is still remarkable: the window displays can be lowered on tracks to the basement and popped up to change instantly. The mix offered here is sophisticated and smart and is unmistakably ‘correct’ for any event anywhere in the world.

New York Public Library, West 42nd Street
Not everything on Fifth Avenue has a price tag. The New York Public Library, also built more than 100 years ago, is one of the grandest buildings, the brain­child of architects Carrère & Hastings. Its (free) reading room has arguably one of the finest interiors, and is worth walking through (even if you don’t stop to browse).

Saks Fifth Avenue, East 50th Street
Here’s one way to know what celebrity designers are up to this season: when I visited, celebrated shoemaker Christian Louboutin had a series of store windows telling a unique story of his new creation for the fall: a white-soled shoe, a first introduction instead of his famous red soles. The windows themselves told a whole story, creating a metropolis called Loubiville, and cel­ebrating the first launch of Louboutin beauty with inspiration from the new Louboutin nail polish that was launched in 30 shades, as of August 31.

Cartier, East 52nd Street
The story goes that this property was bought by Cartier in 1915 for a paltry $100 — and a million-dollar pearl neck­lace! It’s in Renaissance style, and a re­cent renovation (two decades ago!) has kept its exterior elegant. Its jewellery, of course, still remains a top aspiration.

Versace, East 52nd Street
Versace leased this building in 1995; itÂ’s now the only surviving building built by the great Vanderbilt family on Fifth Avenue.

Brooks Brothers, West 53rd Street
The building is distinctive for its number: 666 Fifth Avenue. If that’s in­dicative of the devil, it would be a well-dressed one, with this elegant men’s clothing store.

Rolex, Ermenegildo Zegna, Salvatore Ferragamo, East 53rd Street
A walk on this street can equip you for life: Rolex has been here since 1977, to accessorise your wrist and help tell time, the Zegna store brings the best out for men, and the elegant Italian brand Ferragamo can complete the outfit at all levels. The white exterior of this store belies a darker history; in the mid-1800s, abortion services were provided here for 25 years, ending with a tragic suicide of the service provider in 1878.

Hollister, Uniqlo, West 53rd Street
These are the purveyors of modern style: Hollister is a rage among teenag­ers; Uniqlo is understated, affordable and fast-moving.

Fendi, Nine West, East 54th Street
It’s easy to be intimidated by Fendi’s flagship store, which spans two floors, but it’s worth the walkthrough, for its shoes and handbags. And although there are Nine West stores in India, it’s worth checking out the trends and styles on offer here.De Beers, St Regis Hotel, East 55th Street De Beers is a fine stop for the best of all things that sparkle (think dia­monds!); and further up, there is the St Regis, one of the finest hotels in New York, where Ernest Hemingway, Sal­vador Dali and John Lennon left their footprints. A stop at the King Cole Bar, where the Bloody Mary originated, is sure to revive flagging spirits.

Pucci, Bottega Veneta, Elizabeth Arden, Zara, East 55th Street
A combination of Italian companies Pucci and BottegaVeneta’s hand­bags and then a stop at the Red Door, Elizabeth Arden, which has been here since 1930. Zara gives you a sense of fast fashion at affordable prices.

Harry Winston, Henry Bendel, West 56th Street
Many of the jewellery pieces worn by celebrities at the annual Oscars come from here. Harry Winston’s reputa­tion was immortalised in Marilyn Monroe’s famous song: “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend…Talk to me, Harry Winston!” Henry Bendel, currently the world’s largest accessory designer, opened in 1915.

Tiffany & Co, East 57th Street
Until you walk into this store, it’s hard to figure out why it is famous the world over (and not just for the Audrey Hepburn-starrer Breakfast at Tiffany’s). They claim that it is “the place where dreams come true”. Seeing the size of the diamonds, watches, silver, gifts and opulent ware, I’d recommend that you browse before you buy.

Abercrombie & Fitch, West 57th Street
ItÂ’s the trendsetter in modern times: it has no traditional store windows, and its interiors are dark and heavily fragranced. Worth a stop for the modern version on all things retail.

Bergdorf Goodman, West 58th Street
Prada, Jimmy Choo, Gucci, Lanvin, Dolce & Gabbana are all in here, as in other stores. But Bergdorf Goodman has a unique status among department stores, famed for its stately, understated elegance. The beauty floor on the lower level takes this one step further. There’s also a sepa­rate Bergdorf Goodman men’s store.

Louis Vuitton, East 58th Street
A magnificent store, the largest in the world for the brand, that is spread over four floors, with ready-to-wear outfits, classic leather bags, and mono­grammed belts.

Apple Store, East 59th Street
Open 24 hours; during the day, it often appears from the sheer rush in the store that they’re giving away things for free. But go late at night or early morn­ing to browse or shop.

The information

Getting there
Most major airlines fly from Indian metros to New York. New Delhi-New York fares: Rs 75,000-Rs 90,000 (economy); Rs 1,73,000- 200,000 (business). Most major airlines fly into New YorkÂ’s JFK Airport, which is convenient, but sometimes there are better deals available for Newark. To get to Fifth Avenue, take the subway to the Empire State Building (subways B,D,F,N); start walking up Fifth Avenue till you get to 59th Street, at the lower end of Central Park. Alternatively, start at the top and take a bus down Fifth Avenue.

Visa fee $160; form and information about the process at path2usa.com/visitor-visa-guide.

$1 = About Rs60

Where to shop
Fifth Avenue shopping is usually encapsulated in three words: classic, timeless and pricey. But you’re just as likely to get the best deals here. Here’s what an approximate budget to dress yourself for a special evening date can look like: Christian Louboutin shoes ($800), a Burberry scarf ($500). An inspiring Dianne von Furstenberg dress ($600) from Saks Fifth Avenue (611 Fifth Avenue) or Donna Karan’s latest styles from Bergdorf Goodman (754 Fifth Avenue). For beauty products, stop by at Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman or Elizabeth Arden. La Mer’s The Eye concentrate: $200 (0.5 ml); Christian Dior’s Hydra Life Pro-Youth Sorbet Créme: $60, Bobbi Brown lip gloss: $26 and lipstick for about the same; a Laura Mercier healthy glow colour palette for face and cheeks: $30; and a choice of bags from Louis Vuitton; and diamonds from Tiffany & Co (727 Fifth Avenue), Henri Bendel (712 Fifth Avenue) or the countless other jewellers on Fifth Avenue. Fashion Window walking tours (WindowsWear.com/tours) offers a two-hour tour that shares insights from some of the world’s most famous brands. Tour fee $34.99 per person; also included in the New York Pass visits.

Wear good walking shoes, but make sure they are elegant enough to walk into Cartier, Louis Vuitton, or Gucci without a stare-down by the sales staff. In winter, make sure youÂ’re dressed warmly enough to linger and stare at shop windows, and lightly enough to wander into shops with heating. At the end of this walk of retail delight, cool down your overheated system by walking into the green expanse of Central Park.