Divine Design - A User's Guide

Last Monday marked my sixth annual pilgrimage to Divine Design, the discount designer sale hosted by Project Angel Food, an organization that brings meals to housebound AIDS patients, among other good works. All the local designers unload their overstock and samples, and the floor of some expansive piece of local real estate (this year it was the recently-abandoned Robinson's May store at Wilshire and Santa Monica) is given over to racks of clothing at rock-bottom prices. It is one of Los Angeles' most competitive shopping venues, and I have picked up a few essential survival tips for those who are thinking of taking on the challenge next year.

1. Go on the last day. The sale starts on Friday with live-auction, gala celebrity, black tie, hoo-ha. It's all Sean "Puffy" Coombs and Sarah Michelle Gellar glad-handing and posing for the LA Magazine photogs. Blow that off. Though everything starts at 50% off the designer's price -- big whoop. A $6,000 dress marked down to $3,000 may be a real coup for some B-list actress or trophy wife, but is still too rich for us freelance keyboard jockeys.

The next day everything is reduced to 60% off, Sunday it drops down to 70% and then Monday morning dawns at 80% off and I awake twitchy with excitement. I used to go early on the last day, but this year, due to my partner-in-crime's work schedule, didn't get there until after 1pm when the sale had bottomed out to a giddy 90% off. This is the golden time, when practically everything you touch is a steal. Sarah Michelle and Puffy are off power lunching and Divine Design is given over to the fashion bottom-feeders: the freelancers and the part-timers, the waitresses, school teachers and D-girls burned out on haunting the Gap sale racks and jonesing for a smidge of affordable glamour in their low-paid lives. We paw through clothes, lost in the the mother of all shopping trances, snapping hangers down the rails of rolling racks, deciding in a split second whether a thing is worth a try-on. If it is, we toss it over our arm, or cram it into our rapidly swelling, pink shopping bags provided by Project Angel Food. Yes, the selection may be bigger on the first few days, and what remains on the racks by Monday is officially the dregs, but I figure I can't miss what I haven't seen. And all this stuff looks pretty dang good to me. I load up on silky tops, skinny pants, fanciful evening gowns - items for a lifestyle I admit I am leading in my fantasy life. One where I go to gala events (like say, the Divine Design opening night) and need a red, floor-length, sequined, fishtailed evening dress. I can have it for forty bucks!

2. Proper attire is a must. Come dressed for public undressing. Wear leggings, a skirt and a sport top of some kind. Dressing rooms are the exception, not the rule. Usually the event takes place at the Barker Hangar at Santa Monica Airport, and in the opening days they provide curtained-off dressing areas for the high rollers. But by the last day those are dismantled and half-naked fashionistas are everywhere maneuvering in and out of stylish ensembles. This year's Robinson's May location was deluxe, with carpeted floors and mirrors. Me and my cohorts staked out a length of smoked mirror at the west end of the store and proceeded to work through a mountain of clothes. We were told the dressing rooms were available for the modest among us, but I don't think there were many takers. Why waste precious time going in and out of a dressing room when you can just rip off your clothes in front of everyone and shimmy into your frock? A volunteer mentioned there was a ten garment limit in the dressing rooms and we just snorted. Divine Design is all about quantity Get down to your skivvies or get out. But beware the creepy guys who hang around specifically for the panty show.

3. Go With Your Girlfriends. Tag-team shopping is the only way to go on this bad boy. I came with two gal pals and we hit the ground running, fanning out across the floor. A good friend worth her salt will know what you like and nab stuff for you in her travels. Also, if you like her taste you can try on her cast-offs. When you have done your first pass, then you rendezvous in front of a mirror and start trying on. But a mirror is only good for so much. You need the eyes of your friends to tip the balance and help you decide if that sequined halter top is Bedouin-chic or just hootchie-mama bad, and if it is worth the four bucks you're thinking of throwing down for it.

4. Smoke a joint on the way over. This is so important. You are going out shopping on a work day fer chrissakes. This is an official holiday and slacker rules apply here as they would for a matinee or sex in the afternoon. Get wasted and make an unseemly public display as you dissolve into helpless giggles over inside jokes with your friends and whatever acts of physical comedy may present themselves. It is crucial to maintain the proper point of view or the stress of Divine Design could very well kill you. For instance, when you are trying to make a left across Wilshire into the parking lot and a shopping-crazed woman behind you is leaning on her horn, urging you into a head-on collision with oncoming traffic so that she might not miss out on discounted cruise wear, you must be able to see the utter hilarity of it. Or when your friend rings up at $700, you can practically pee yourself laughing. Yes, it's all "you had to be there" humor, which is why you have to be there... buzzed.

5. Stay hydrated and pack a snack. This is an endurance event. After three hours of shopping we got onto the checkout line only to discover it was two hours long. Carbo-loading is a must, even if it means going up a dress size. Who cares? Divine Design is the place where you can buy stuff for that day, five pounds from now, when you will look good in those tight, peacock green shantung pedal pushers. Have another Milano!

6. Maintain the social code. One of the most awe-inspiring things about Divine Design is the good will demonstrated by all who participate. It's like you've died and gone to a heavenly LA, where women are caring, considerate and downright diffident. My theory is that the possibility for things getting really ugly is so overwhelming, that everyone goes out of their way to be friendly and considerate.
If another shopper is rifling through your rack of clothes, politely inform her that stuff is yours - there's no need to be snippy. If the gal next to you is clearly ogling the bubble skirt you're trying on and you're on the fence about it - give it to her! If a the lady next to you is looking at herself in a fringed miniskirt with a knitted brow and no girlfriend to back her up, tell her how cute she looks! We try to be a model community of consideration and positivity. Don't fuck it up for us by being a pushy bitch, okay?

7. Hang in there. Didn't get much on the first pass? Look again. All day long women are trying on and casting off. One girl's last-minute reject could be your best find of the day.

8. Keep an open mind. So you think that yellow, collared t-shirt with the rising skull/sun and psychedelic palm trees is a little far out for old soccer mom you? Try it on. You never know. And for $2.60 you can take a chance. It could well turn out to be your new favorite garment. Divine Design is an opportunity to take risks and reinvent your fashion persona. And isn't reinvention what us Angelinos are supposedly all about?

9. Enjoy the volunteers. They are almost all gay men and the women who love them. Though they are harried and exhausted, they are also helpful and jolly. A darn sight nicer than the surly old bluehairs who used to work at that Robinson's May.
With my disco days behind me, I so rarely get to bask in the delights of the gay, fashion-forward boy toy, so this is a rare treat. They will flirt with you, bringing you items to try on as you wait in line, quipping and cracking wise as you hand them back your rejects. And they won't bat an eyelash when you strip down to your buff-colored support wear, exposing a cheesy flank as you squeeze into a pair of punky zipper pants. Now how divine is that?

10. Remember, its for a good cause. Even at these low, low prices, my tally came to over $300, which is a heart-pounder for a mom on a tight budget. That is the moment when you think of all the good that money will do. A hot meal served by a kind soul is a beautiful thing for a person too sick to shop or cook for themselves. I shop to honor the memory of my beloved friend, Raymond Wood, knowing he would have wanted me to get that little black, wispy cocktail dress that will look so fabulous on me once I've lost a few pounds. Raymond himself would probably have worn it with a turban and a kitten heel. Divine.

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