The Anti-Malls

In Miami's Fashion District, there's no Aventura adventure

On the last Saturday before Christmas, Mr. Pocketbook, a purse store, was blissfully void of holiday cheer — no windows adorned with mechanical elves, no Kenny G renditions of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." The owners of Mr. Pocketbook (2850 NW Fifth Ave.), Philip and Moshe Nahum, are Jewish, but the absence of wreaths and baubles has nothing to do with religion.

In Miami's Fashion District, roughly in and around NW 5th Avenue from 24th to 28th streets, shopping is about business: the exchange of money for goods. Over the past three decades, the quality and quantity of stores has risen and fallen with the whims of the Latin American economy (most of the shops sell wholesale to stores there). The Venezuelan oil boom of the late Seventies prompted forays into luxury, but today the area is no-frills — unless you're talking about the objects for sale.

Our advice is to ditch the blowout sale at the mall — it will blow — and embark on an urban adventure. Do it on a Saturday. During the week, most stores sell their wares wholesale to stores as far away as Egypt.

At Mr. Pocketbook, heart-shape metallic bronze shoulder bags adorned with butterflies hang alongside fur-covered purses of extreme hues. A button-covered evening bag? A beaded Louis Vuitton-inspired wallet? Even the most exigent of drag queens could find her holiday wishes fulfilled, but the weekend before Christmas the atmosphere was less Santa's bag of toys and more shipping crates in the Port of Miami.

A crowd of men speaking Hebrew unload cardboard boxes labeled with Chinese characters into the store. The salesgirls spoke Spanish; the customers, Kreyol. At wholesale prices, the purses were a mere $12, about half retail.

Across the street, the clothing store Adriana (2801 NW Fifth Ave.) was similarly void of red and green. Like most shops in the Fashion District, Adriana has no dressing rooms. The lighting is fluorescent, and the carpet industrial gray. Purchases are wrapped in black plastic trash bags, and the store does not contain a single mirror, let alone a poinsettia. Nothing is visibly priced. Upon inquiry, everything seems to cost $18.99.

Around 2:00 p.m., Sherly Boursiquot, a poised 32-year-old native of Haiti, tried on a long, black peasant skirt over her capri pants — not a holiday gift for anyone but herself. A smiling salesgirl stood ready with a shimmery low-cut shirt on a hanger. Boursiquet couldn't care less about the utilitarian décor. "Here they have a cheaper variety of clothing. At the mall, people judge you by the way you look. They don't always help you out. Here they don't care."

The Fashion District and its neighbor-in-kind, the corridor of NW 20th Street from 17th to 25th avenues in Allapattah, are the domain of the off-road shopper, the bargain hunter, and the lover of kitsch. For Miami's real consumers, the lack of amenities is well worth avoiding antlered mammals, tinsel, and the miasma of perfumed grandmothers.

But even without mistletoe, the shopper might find a Scrooge or two. Gabriel Sved, owner of a bikini store called the Gabal Collection (1839 NW Twentieth St.), says business typically declines during the holidays — or at least the sort of business he prefers. "More people wanting to buy retail come in, but the wholesale buyers come in before the holiday season. I make a better profit from retail, but it's a lot more work," he complains.

Sved sat in his shop sharing a midafternoon glass of Bailey's Irish cream with a friend. He can't fathom why some shoppers prefer areas like NW Twentieth Street: "The malls are a little more expensive, but it's easier. You park. You go inside. Everything's all there." He took a gulp of his drink. "But come back when it's summer and buy yourself a bikini," he suggested brightly.

The Fashion District — with a scraggly tree-lined median that dates to the area's glory days — is nicer to stroll through, but NW Twentieth Street offers more stores. On a weekend, the area is mobbed with bargain hunters who throng parking lot displays of 14-karat gold earrings and strategically ripped Brazilian jeans. Mr. Pocketbook boasts no fewer than three branches of its store on 20th Street at 19th, 22nd, and 23rd avenues. Chinese slippers, rayon nightgowns, menswear, perfume, and even Italian sausage can be found on the strip.

Ginger Fulkerson-Harris, fashionista and editor in chief of minimagazine Six Degrees, says the Fashion District is perfect for the sort of gift that shows some thought without costing a lot. But she offers this tale of caution: "I went into one of the stores, and I said, öHey, they have True Religion jeans here.'" The designer jeans retail at Bloomingdale's for around $200. At this fashion district locale —she can't remember which store it was — they were $75. So Fulkerson-Harris bought a pair.

"I wore them threetimes," she laments, "and the third time they ripped all the way from the hip down to the knee." So she called the company to complain. "The woman at True Religion asked me, öAre you sure they're real?'" She told Fulkerson-Harris to read the numbers on a tag inside the pants. "I finished reading the numbers, and she asked if there weren't any more. I said no."

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