I used to be in the fashion business.    My job was to find the things that people would buy before they knew they wanted to buy them.    That’s what being a merchant is.

People often ask me, “How do you know that you’re a merchant?” and I am always stumped by the question.    I don’t know how to answer them except to say,  “I just am.”    It comes to me – at odd times during the day when I’m doing something else, when I’m meditating, often when I’m least looking for it, sometimes in the dark of night and I awaken to scribble something on a pad by my bed.

It always seems like an accident and it never is.   It’s just who I am.   I am eternally inspired – some people call it their “genius”.   Some think it comes and it goes — I believe  it’s what’s there when you take all my “stuff” away.   It’s wrapped up with the love, the truth, the beauty, the goodness, the Divine — that is in all of us.

My best merchant moments are when I don’t intend it.   I just let that inner spark tell me what to do and I go with it – and then – I’m always so surprised when people love it.   In fact, sometimes, I seem a little weird to people.    That’s when I REALLY know it’s right.    Maybe not right now – but, it will be in a year or so.

I have a story that illustrates this phenomenon – for me.  Perhaps you’ll recognize it in yourself.

I used to travel to Italy three or four times a year to buy the sweaters for my division at Bloomingdale’s.  Anyone who knows me knows I love Italy and all things Italian.  My plane lands in that country and my ancestral fires start to burn and my heart flames up in love and beauty and passion – and, well, there’s just no stopping me!

After working for a week, seeing lines and creating styles for my sweater programs, I walked into a showroom one day.  As I lay my coat on a chair, I looked down to see someone’s open bag.

It was love at first sight.  This bag was a tawny and black leopard print PLASTIC bag, like the kind of stuff that cheap cosmetic bags are made of – except it was Italian – and, nothing that Italians make looks cheap.  It was about 14 inches long and 10 inches deep, with two little carry handles at the top – not my usual favorite, since I prefer shoulder bags for the kind of carrying around everyday of lots of useless stuff, which  is what I do and what I have always done.  Even better, it had four deep outside pockets, two on each side.    Oh, goody!  More places to stick things!

I turned to my sales rep and just gushed, “Ooooh, I love this!  Where did you get it?”

(Side note:  People in the fashion business have no qualms about asking you where you bought something, what designer made it, and we even go as far as to touch your clothing all the time to “feel the fabric”.  Fortunately, I have harnessed this habit… a bit.  However, if I reach out to rub your sleeve, do not think I am hitting on you – it’s simply my primal need to figure out what the yarn is and where it came from…).

She laughed and said, “You like it?”   Oh, yes, I did.  She leaned over to whisper, “I bought it at the cosmetics store on the corner.  It’s just a make-up bag.”  I laughed with her and shook my head in amazement!  So much for Gucci and Louis Vuitton!

After the appointment, I dragged my assistant and my translator to the corner, and, sure enough, there it was in the window, full of lotions and potions and blush and brushes, with a paisley scarf tied through one of the short handles.

Truly, only in Italy can they pull off paisley with leopard print… Don’t try this at home.

I walked in the tiny, crowded shop, pointed to the bag, and the saleslady climbed on a ladder and took down a fresh one in a clear plastic bag from a high shelf.  “Quanto e?”, I said in my almost native, but limited Italian.  She told me.  $25 worth of Italian lire.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune!  A bag that I loved without a designer price – big enough to hold everything and everything again.

I have always loved leopard print – everyone makes fun of me for it.  My Blackberry cover today is hard plastic leopard print, half my closet is leopard print; I have leopard print sweaters, a leopard print raincoat, leopard print shoes – you get the picture.

However, being a merchant doesn’t mean buying what I would wear, it means buying what other people would wear.  For me, those are usually two different things.  This time, though, there was a powerful trend emerging – and this is how I knew….

I dolled that bag up with my own little black and gold scarf – wisely knowing the limits of my Italian heritage and not attempting the paisley – and took it out and about into the world.

And, that’s when I got it.

Everywhere I went, people asked me where I had found my bag?  Where could they get it?   Whose was it?   What designer had designed it?  I always laughed inside at this – if only they knew.

It didn’t end there.  My next stop was Paris for the fashion shows and EVERYONE who is ANYONE in the fashion business was in Paris for the shows.  And, EVERYONE asked me where I got my bag!  I was stopped in the street and photographed – the photographer, on two occasions, asked me to hold the bag up for a closer shot.

Even better, every other buyer, merchandise manager, and fashion office person asked me about my bag.    Now, I started to play coy – I would smile sweetly, half-close my eyes, flutter my false eyelashes, and say, “Isn’t it DIVINE?”

When I got back to the states, it escalated to fever pitch, culminating with my being photographed on Fifth Avenue by New York Times Styles photographer, Bill Cunningham.  Then, I was in the Federated Department Stores offices one day and my friend, MaryJane, who was VP of Accessories for all Federated stores, came out to say “Hi”.   She saw my bag and asked if she could photograph it.  “Sure,” I said.  I was very blase about it by this time.  I knew what I had.

Finally, a peer of mine at Bloomingdale’s,  Doris, who was in charge of the accessories division, came to me one day, wanting to photograph the bag.  I could no longer hold it in – I worked for this store, for Goodness sake!  I said, “Doris, don’t knock it off – it will be too expensive.  It’s just a make-up bag I bought in a cosmetics store in Florence.  Call the manufacturer and buy it from them directly!”  With that, I opened the bag and we found the little, obscure label on the inside pocket.  She copied it down and that was the beginning.

Months later, I came through the front doors of Bloomingdale’s from Lexington Avenue, into what is known as “The Arcade” – and there they were!   All over the better handbag department!  There was my version in leopard, and then white and black zebra stripes, and a cocoa and black tiger stripe version.  They were $125 for each one.

They sold out in only a few days.

Meanwhile, in my own division, I had created leopard prints and tiger prints, and cheetah prints, and zebra stripes in everything that you could put those prints on:  skirts, blouses, dresses, stamped on tee-shirts, on printed angora sweaters – all a hit, all “hot”…

All sold out.

A few months later, someone I worked with told me that they overheard the CEO of Bloomingdale’s say, as I walked by, “I just don’t understand why she can’t carry a Chanel bag like everyone else.”  The person responded by saying, “Do you know that she found those bags and we’re now selling them down in the Arcade for $125?  And, they’re selling out?”

In all of this, I can only tell you that it never occurred for me as something I reached for, something I looked for, something that was odd or different.   It felt like the right thing at the right time.   I always find it to be the most powerful when I’m more than slightly surprised that everyone else thinks it’s great  — and I am just doing what I do, effortlessly.   I feel like an innocent who has stumbled onto a treasure — full of joy and delight!

Everyone has this, you know.  It’s your gift.  Find out what that is and do it.  And it will be joyful and beautiful forever.

Deliciously yours in the “Fabulous-ness” of it All,   Linda

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you just like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”  e. e. cummings

Here is the famous leopard bag, which traveled with me all over the world — Here seen in The Forbidden City in Beijing, China in 1987.  That’s me, on the left, holding on to it, proud and tight, with two of the buyers in my division, Paul Price (now at Burberry in London) and Roberta Troilo.

© Linda Ruocco and “Spiritual Chocolate”, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Linda Ruocco and ”Spiritual Chocolate”  with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  Thank you.

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