NASHVILLE — The novelist Ann Patchett, who lives in this city, has said that she brings out-of-town visitors to two places: the Parthenon, the replica of the ancient Greek structure in Centennial Park, andUnited Apparel Liquidators, or U.A.L. as devotees know it. Both are temples of a sort.
The small clothing chain has three stores in the Nashville area. The flagship is also in the city, in a strip mall of no distinction, half-hidden between a nail salon and a Chinese takeout place. Ms. Patchett took the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert, shopping there one day last year, and during a literary talk that night, they dished about the Christian Dior flats that Ms. Gilbert purchased.
“They were so beautiful,” Ms. Gilbert told the audience, “I was licking them in the store.”
Better still, Ms. Patchett noted, the designer shoes were “10 percent of what they had once cost.”
Technically, U.A.L. belongs to the booming retail category known as off-price. But where discounters like Nordstrom Rack and T. J. Maxx have a bargain-basement atmosphere and leftover-seeming merchandise, U.A.L. feels like a designer boutique. Imagine walking into Jeffrey in New York or Fred Segal in Los Angeles and discovering it’s having an everything-must-go fire sale.
The labels offered — Balenciaga, Chanel, Givenchy, Isabel Marant, Public School, Alexander Wang — are dizzying for fashionistas, as are the markdowns. A Thierry Mugler gown that originally retailed for $2,960 will sell at U.A.L. for $740.
A pair of $1,000 Manolo Blahnik leopard-print heels can be had for a relatively paltry $224. U.A.L. marks down 70 percent from full retail as an opening gambit, then slashes further from there.
And yet, many fashion insiders have never heard of the place. Its founders, Bill and Melody Cohen, who run the business with their former daughter-in-law, Stephanie Cohen, are savvy if eccentric businesspeople, who for 37 years have operated what the shopping website Racked called the “best-kept secret” in fashion. They locate their stores in secondary markets in the South, in small cities like Hattiesburg, Miss., and Slidell, La., where one doesn’t expect to find, say, a $10,000 crystal-embroidered Dolce & Gabbana bustier dress for sale next to a pool hall with $2 bottles of Michelob Ultra.
The Cohens do no advertising, relying on word of mouth, and being in the liquidation trade, they are publicity shy, though T: The New York Times Style Magazine once included the store in Metairie, La., which is now closed, on a list of the world’s best outlets. “We were in there with Antwerp and Milan!” said Melody, who learned of the distinction after a friend phoned her.
Still, bargain hunters in the know flock to U.A.L., crossing state lines if necessary. On a recent Saturday, a crowd of women and a scattering of men rifling through the racks included two shoppers who drove six and a half hours from their home in Charlotte, N.C.
One of the women, Tracy Sanchez, said she discovered the store three years ago during a visit to Austin, Tex., where there is a branch. “I was, like: ‘U.A.L.? I don’t get it,’” Ms. Sanchez said. “Then I walked in, and it was intoxicating.”
Deeper into the store, a blond woman named Bo Clark emerged from the dressing room wearing an Oscar de la Renta dress, an ivory-colored, long-sleeved number with a mile of lace. “I just got engaged two weeks ago,” Ms. Clark said. “It became operation ‘Let’s get great party dresses and cocktail attire.’”
She had eyed the dress on a previous visit, and when U.A.L. announced through its Instagram account a 30 percent off “White Out Sale” on white garments, she rushed over. Ms. Clark reached around and fished out the tag that showed the original price: $3,500. U.A.L.’s price was $733, and the additional 30 percent off.
“If you’re into style,” she said, “this place is the jackpot.”
There are currently six locations: Hattiesburg; New Orleans; Austin; and the three stores around Nashville, including the newly opened store in Brentwood, Tenn. Northerners who discover them have been known to suddenly start visiting family and friends in the South, or checking airfare to nearby cities. Southerners, meanwhile, when in proximity to a U.A.L., will load up on fashion the way visitors to Cuba hoard cigars.
Ms. Clark recalled being in the Brentwood store recently and meeting a woman who had driven from Atlanta to hit all three Nashville-area stores. “She was swiping that card, let me tell you,” she said.
Leora Novick had come from farther away, and 10 minutes in, she’d already found a Narciso Rodriguez dress and several Phillip Lim tops to try on. A New Yorker, Ms. Novick had flown to Nashville to see her friend Lauren Zwanziger, a social visit she has made before, though always with a strict condition. “I insist on a full afternoon” at U.A.L., she said.
When Ms. Zwanziger first introduced her to the store, Ms. Novick said, “They almost had to sedate me.” A pair of Celine pumps cost her $200 — a price that, she noted with amazement, “sounds like Chinatown in New York.”
After returning home with a stuffed suitcase, Ms. Novick was faced with the predicament that confronts every U.A.L. shopper: tell her friends or keep it a secret?
There’s the cautionary tale, told by Melody Cohen, of the woman who shopped at the Metairie store without informing her best friend about all the bargains. When the best friend read about U.A.L. in the newspaper and told her, the woman had to fess up to shopping there for years. The friendship was never the same.
Ms. Novick decided to tell her friends and colleagues at a Manhattan creative agency, presumably believing the 13-hour drive or two-hour flight to the nearest U.A.L. would discourage a stampede. Instead, her friends have asked her to FaceTime with them so they can shop remotely.
The store they see on their iPhones bears little in common with the burnished interiors of a big-city department store. The flagship more resembles a slightly upscale Salvation Army store: fluorescent ceiling lights hanging on chains; round racks packed with women’s and men’s clothes; heels, flats and pumps advertised by a homely wood sign that says “Shoes.” The high-end European fashion is grouped as “Couture,” though in the strict definition of the term, it isn’t.
Bill and Melody Cohen describe their approach to store location and design as “catch as catch can.” The first U.A.L., which opened in Hattiesburg in 1980, was in an unrentable building 10 feet from the railroad tracks. The rumble of passing trains sent women rushing out of the dressing rooms in a startle. The new Brentwood location was formerly a car rental agency, and for some inexplicable reason, a deep-freezer sits in the back room, which the employees use to store shoes.
Still, all of the stores are skillfully merchandised, and the sales associates are as knowledgeable and attentive as anyone working at Bergdorf Goodman or Barney’s — and noticeably friendlier.
Ryan Skelton is a Mississippi native who worked in the Hattiesburg store in college. He is now a sales manager in New York for the French luxury brand Chloé, and a graduate of the U.A.L. school of fashion. “Melody wants to bring her passion and knowledge of the fashion industry to people who don’t know,” Mr. Skelton said. “To see them buy their first designer garment.”
For small-town Southerners with wider aspirations, U.A.L. has served not simply as a clothing store but “a connection to the bigger world,” in the words of one Hattiesburg native, Sylvie Anglin.
“When my sister, Julie, and I were growing up, we were really into fashion,” Ms. Anglin said. “We would go to U.A.L. and recognize the things we saw in the fashion mags.”
Ms. Anglin lives in Chicago now, and happened to be in Nashville on a college tour with her teenage daughter, Ella de Castro, when they unwittingly stumbled on the store near the Vanderbilt campus, and then the flagship, and couldn’t resist doing some shopping.
She laughed recalling how as teenagers in the ’80s, she and her sister used to dress up in their U.A.L. finds and go to the International House of Pancakes and pretend to be French-speaking models from out of town.
After they moved away for college and careers — Ms. Anglin to Chicago, her sister to New York — they would save up their money and wait to shop until they were back in Mississippi, searching out the designers they’d discovered up North.
“So many people who were stumbling into that store had no idea really what it was,” Ms. Anglin said. “It was always pushing the edge of this fairly conservative Southern town in terms of fashion.”
For Mr. Skelton, U.A.L. gave him his first real glimpse of a Dolce & Gabbana dress not in a photograph. Bill and Melody, with their style and charisma and Mercedes sedan, were celebrities to him, he said, like the characters he saw watching Jeanne Beker’s Fashion Television show on VH1.
“I told Melody this,” Mr. Skelton said. “I don’t think she’s completely aware of what she means to people.”
In the living room of their glass-walled, high-rise apartment in Nashville, where they moved from Louisiana nine years ago to open the U.A.L. flagship, Bill and Melody told their riches to rags back to riches story.
She is 64, with short hair the color of a gingersnap and funky round-frame glasses that match her effervescent personality. He is 76 and describes himself as “a picaresque guy” from New Orleans, with artistic tendencies that he channeled into a career as a merchant.
They met, appropriately, in a clothing store, in 1968, when Melody was a high school student in Houma, La., and Bill was the hip co-owner of a boutique called Jeffrey Garrett. She and her girlfriends used to go to Jeffrey Garrett every Friday to pick out clothes for the weekend. She remembers the outfit she bought that day.
“It was a tunic pantsuit, gray, with a little white pinstripe,” she said, smiling.
He said with a laugh, “My first wife sold her the pantsuit.”
“Honestly, he looked like Elliott Gould,” Melody said. “But we didn’t see each other again because I was 16.”
U.A.L. wasn’t born until 12 years later — after the two became a couple, opened their own store, grew wealthy and went broke, at one point sleeping with their infant son in their car on the side of the road because they couldn’t afford a motel.
Throughout the 1970s, the couple ran a popular boutique in Pensacola, Fla., called Bill’s Melody. Melody was “a great saleslady, a great operator,” Bill said, while he had a gift for spotting a deal and anticipating business and culture trends.
But while the couple were having a wonderful time partying with the local beach people on their sailboat, they missed an industry shift. Chain retailers began selling cheaper, mass-produced clothing and steamrollering the independents, and by the end of the decade, their store’s sales tanked. Drowning in unpayable loans, they sold everything and had to move in with Melody’s mother, near Hattiesburg.
Out of personal misfortune came a new business idea: They would become liquidators, buying off-price merchandise from other stressed store owners. While Melody ran the first U.A.L. store, Bill went to New York on buying trips and networked with designers and retailers.
He earned a reputation for integrity, and vowed never again to get in debt. “I’d say: ‘Do you have any old stuff in the warehouse? Call me,’” Bill said. “When you’re the little guy and a scrapper, and you do a good job and don’t cheat anybody, people line up behind you.”
The locations in small Southern cities offered two advantages — there wasn’t much competition from big retail chains, and image-conscious fashion labels could “bury the goods,” as Bill put it, far from New York or Los Angeles where they had stores. That’s why, in part, such incredible fashion flows through U.A.L., including in-season styles, and the place feels like a dream store. It also means the West Village in Manhattan or Beverly Hills is unlikely to ever get a store.
The 10,000-square-foot Metairie location closed after Hurricane Katrina. But Bill and Melody regrouped in the French Quarter, their first store in a high-profile district, expanded to Nashville and are currently scouting other locations in the South. (These days, Stephanie Cohen is the company’s creative director and, along with a team of executives, handles the day-to-day operations for Bill and Melody, who are semiretired. Their only son lives in Florida and is not part of the business.)
Melody recalled something Bill had told her in their Florida beach house, when the creditors were closing in and they hatched their new plan.
“He said: ‘You stick with me through this, and I will make us into many millionaires,’” she said. “‘With the way I can buy it now and the way you can sell, we can go anywhere and start something new.’”
She laughed: “He said, ‘As a matter of fact, we can be megamillionaires.’ I said, ‘Don’t overshoot.’”
Fresh merchandise comes to U.A.L.’s stores five days a week from the warehouse in Hattiesburg, and the employees unbox the shipments with the anticipation and surprise of Christmas morning. Two Prada blazers! A pair of Rodarte black leather pants! Twenty striped tees by Edith A. Miller!
What U.A.L. gets depends on the closeout deal, and because the deals constantly vary, there is a randomness and mystery that makes shopping there exciting. You come across a dress with the sewn-in label “Vika Gazinskaya” and wonder who is Vika Gazinskaya, and where did this garment originate, and how did it wind up in a strip mall in Nashville? Bill and Melody are tight-lipped about that last part, to protect trade secrets.
Typically, U.A.L. gets only a few of each garment, so if it’s not your size, you’re out of luck. And you have to be willing to hunt the racks and keep coming back. Some days it’s a gold mine, other times the store feels picked over.
Ms. Clark, who found the Oscar de la Renta dress, said you have to embrace the quirks of shopping there.
“Some people don’t like to look,” she said. “They want everything so-so. I like to hunt. It’s the thrill of the find. And you never know what’s coming in.”
For customers like Ms. Anglin, it’s the deals they find gratifying, the deep satisfaction of “seeing something that says $3,000 and you can get it for $150.”
The overwhelming feeling inside U.A.L. is joy — a guilt-free, unrepentant joy that isn’t typically associated with clothes shopping.
“It’s not curing cancer,” Melody said. “But people do love the experience. And then it’s so cheap and they think, ‘How can this be?’”
She added: “I always tell them: ‘You saved so much. Even if you go in the poorhouse, you’ve spent your money wisely.’”