Manolo Kombat: Inside New York's Most Vicious Sample Sales

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From Heel to Eternity: shoes designed by Manolo Blahnik are displayed during the fall 2014 collection at New York Fashion Week. Joshua Lott/Reuters

"The budget was $150,000, but I just wouldn't look at the bill," a beautiful blonde in a not-quite-sensible pair of $700 flats said of her last birthday gift while sitting below a crystal chandelier in a Warwick Hotel conference room. Next to her, another woman rattled off the details of her reality show pitch, which her boyfriend assures her will be brought up at his next "investors meeting." Several rows ahead, a polished older woman read the Style Section of The New York Times. She had on a Chanel fanny pack and was recognizable as a seasoned shopper from years past: You never bring a handbag to a sample sale.

Traditionally, a sample sale is a yearly, invitation-only event during which high-end designers off-load just that: samples. The prototype before the mass-produced design, cut in primarily model-small sizes, sells for rock-bottom prices to friends and family members of the people who work for the brand. To this day, veteran sale-goers reminisce about one particularly incredible Hermes sale held many moons ago, during which scarves were $50 and riding boots filled the shelves.

Today's sample sales are a hodgepodge of true samples, last season's goods, damages and things that are just, well, ugly. Prices can be dirt cheap or no better than a year-end Bergdorf Goodman sale. Items range a variety of sizes, not just the model fit, and come in a variety of conditions. In many cases, doors are open to the public, but at the cost of an extremely long, slow-moving line. At a particularly great sale, one can find a mint-condition luxury good at a truly incredible price—that is, once you get past security, the line, more security, and weave through the often-rowdy crowd of fellow shoppers.

New York City is the sample sale capital of the world, with entire websites dedicated to tracking the almost-daily discounts. The city's garment district, though a far cry from its glory days, is still headquarters to many coveted designers, and even the highest end of those designers host sales.

On Wednesday morning at 38th Street and Seventh Avenue, the heart of the garment district, a line of almost entirely women wrapped around the corner. A series of gunshots went off: An NYPD officer opened fire on a man who was violently swinging a hammer at his fellow officer. As authorities investigated the blood-splattered street corner a block away, the line only grew. The Christian Louboutin sample sale was on the other end and not even Bill Bratton himself could have scattered those shoppers.

The Louboutin sale is one of the best and most notoriously difficult to get into. The Parisian designer, known for his red soles, charges retail prices of well over $1,000 for many styles and only the most eccentric ones get a minor markdown in department stores at the end of the season. The sample sale is truly the only opportunity to purchase discounted goods from one of the most popular shoemakers in the world. For this reason, the sale is nearly impossible to enter.

While many sales open their doors to the public, Louboutin requires proof of email invitation, your name on a list, and an identification check. Seven-foot-tall guards police the crowd, quick to explain, "No, ma'am, your brother's co-worker's cousin working here once is not enough to gain access inside."

At this year's Louboutin sale, shoppers tried to sneak into the building through two different cargo doors. Some stood outside, waiting for those with the golden ticket to come out, and asked if they could purchase their shoes at a slightly higher price than what they paid inside. That premium pricing would still be hundreds less than retail, but shoppers declined. Those shoes were theirs and they had fought for them.

Though the Louboutin sale causes a notable ruckus, it does not have the same reputation as the Manolo Blahnik sale at the Warwick Hotel. The latter sale brings out the worst in New York's most cultured, stylish buyers—ones who have the privilege of spending several hours in the middle of a work day buying designer shoes.

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Footloose and Fancy: A pile of Manolo Blahnik's at the brand's sample sale in New York City on May 14 Polly Mosendz/Newsweek

"How they're storming it, you'd think they had the cure for cancer in that room," a woman quipped as she waited to be let into the sale. She sat in the same chandelier-lit waiting room at the hotel, not far from the woman who had complained bitterly about her lack of a reality television show. The frustrated woman was a size 42 and knew that plenty of stock would be left in her more unusual section, even if it took her hours to get in. As for the size 37 and 38, they stood firmly outside their door, waiting and chattering amongst themselves for their number to be called.

In an effort to keep the several thousand shoppers who hope to attend the sale orderly, the employees of Manolo Blahnik hand out carnival tickets with section numbers on them. The brightly colored little slips are pressed firmly into their palms, nearly shredded with sweat and anxiety by the time their section is allowed to enter.

The doorman opens the gateway to the sale and attempts to pick up the two dozen creased tickets thrown at him, which drop like confetti as people sprint into the sale.

Inside, there are screams, bags being ripped open and shoes soaring over shoppers' heads, landing unceremoniously in piles on the floor. An older man who appears to be running the madhouse keeps trying to make announcements: "Ladies, please. Five shoes at a time, OK? Please. Please, everyone!"

Ducking an airborne d'Orsay, I make my way to the size 41 table. Like the frustrated woman in the luxurious waiting room, I wear a large size and enjoyed a plentiful selection. In an effort to keep with the brand's usual sophistication, the conference room's cheap tables had been covered in white tablecloths. Atop them sat hundreds of plastic bags stuffed with last season's shoes. The starting price: $100, a whopping 83 percent off the brand's least expensive heel, which retails for $595.

I reach for a pair of black leather wedges and feel prodded in the leg by a stiletto. Yet another woman was throwing about her discarded merchandise. In a flash, the wedges were gone.

"Those are mine. These are all mine. That's my box," a young woman wearing a Missoni dress shrieked at me. She had filled a plastic bin, used to transport the shoes from the warehouse to the Warwick, with goodies. Her mother, a frail older woman carrying a stunning blue snakeskin bag, stood guard over the bin. "My bin, we got this bin," the mother added in a thick Eastern European accent. She attempted to put a lid on the bin, but it was too overcrowded with shoes. She plopped her handbag on top of it instead, staking her claim with a pocketbook.

At each mirror, a large cluster of shoppers gathered. I witnessed one woman snatch a pair of shoes out of another woman's pile and refuse to give them back. The rightful owner began to tear up and continued to riffle through the piles. At another mirror, a woman yelled, "Get away from me!" It would have been apocalyptic if the shoes weren't so beautiful.

In the center of the room, a gathering began of 15 or so younger buyers. They were all trying on shoes and bartering. A bride desperately needed white, bejeweled heels for her wedding. She traded two pairs of boots to get them. "I had to dig under a table to get those boots, but I need the white heels more," she admitted.

Curious as to what was under the tables, I snuck into a corner near the size 41 table myself. Lifting the tablecloth, I ducked under and found myself surrounded with surplus shoes. Some had been clearly hidden by other shoppers, hoping to come back later. Others were simply kicked under the table in the mess. Unsatisfied with my findings, I emerged. "Anything good under there?" a woman asked me. She had a baby strapped to her front. I told her it wasn't worth it.

Feeling like I did the baby a favor, I strolled to the table of mismatched shoes. It was piled three shoes high and a visibly unhappy employee was given the arduous task of finding their mates. He was being screamed at by a short, older man who was determined to find the other foot of a snakeskin sandal.

The small man was guarding a plastic bin, into which he proceeded to load three massive, overflowing bags of shoes. An employee nearby speculated that he was a reseller. "He has two more bins like that. He's got to be selling them," she said, adding that the hoarding at this sale was the worst she'd ever seen it. She had been with the company for 10 years.

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Best in Shoe: A pile of Manolo Blahnik shoes on the floor at the sample sale in New York City on May 14 Polly Mosendz/Newsweek

Taking a final lap around the conference room turned into a discount-shoe free-fire-zone, I found a unicorn: a true sample of a classic model. Many of the sale items were seasonal pieces, brightly colored or too unusual to wear every day. "NY Sample: Lauratomod. Date: 29/10/2013." For two years, these sandals had sat forgotten in a Manolo Blahnik showroom or warehouse. The Lauratomod is one of the brand's more popular styles, a thick strapped sandal with a chunky heel. Its practical, but not in the way your mother insists your shoes ought to be. (And it was 87 percent off, which my mother would approve of.)

The sample was slightly defective: it was missing the ankle strap, a simple black patent leather strap that I later purchased at a shoe repair store for $10. As I walked towards the check out with my purchase, a woman who had tried on the shoes earlier stopped me. "I found those earlier and I think I'd like to buy them," she told me. "I put them back but I want them again, are you willing to give them up?" I was not, I told her, and clutched them more tightly.

After waiting six hours in line, dodging flying shoes, and witnessing more than one emotional meltdown, I deserved to take home what I long thought was just an urban shoe myth.

Manolo Kombat: Inside New York's Most Vicious Sample Sales