The many-headed hydra known as the holiday gift list is upon us again. (Is it any wonder that psych wards fill to capacity each December?) The good news is, these days every SoHo flagship has a less-expensive stepchild outside Manhattan, where the same brand names are sold at a discount. Of course, for many New Yorkers, the words outlet mall conjure images of bins of irregular tube socks and garish sweaters even Bill Cosby would be ashamed of. It's true that outlets inevitably stock a fair number of last season's trends, but for anyone who has experienced the unparalleled frisson that comes with snagging a coveted designer bag at a hundred-dollar discount, that only adds to the thrill of the chase. Persevere and you can make some record-setting buys and save enough for a pair of Gucci stilettos for yourself.
Woodbury Common Premium Outlets (914-928-4000), an hour north of the city in Central Valley, now looms alongside the Empire State Building and Central Park in the imaginations of foreign tourists. And for good reason. The 220 shops in the quaint "Colonial-style" village have the world's highest concentration of marquee labels centered around a single parking lot. The major draw is the Prada and Miu Miu outlet -- the cheapest way to dress expensive aside from a free ticket to Florence. Sandwiched between Max Mara and Christian Dior, the store bears the deceptively banal name "Space." Inside, Japanese teenagers fill suitcases with red-and-white patent-leather Miu Miu heels and nylon wallets. While Woodbury also offers plenty of housewares and gift bargains, it's really all about the clothes. A recent excursion could have scored you a gray herringbone pantsuit from Marc Jacobs, a cashmere turtleneck from Céline, $50 orange driving loafers from J. P. Tod's, or any number of goodies from TSE, Malo, Club Monaco, or the trendy teen catalogue dELiA*s. Seasonal sales abound -- Versace, for example, is offering 50 percent off selected merchandise until the end of the year. Additional discounts can be had by shuttling up there on the Short Line bus from Port Authority (212-736-4700; $33 round-trip) or by simply clicking onto the Woodbury Website (www.premiumoutlets.com).
The Tanger Outlet Centers (800-407-4894) in Riverhead, Long Island, are no secret to Hamptons weekenders. Just as 495 ends, the oasis of 170 stores miraculously appears. Magnets include Barneys, Coach, Calvin Klein, and Kenneth Cole. But Tanger is especially great for beefing up your gym wardrobe, as Fila, Nike, Adidas, and Reebok Factory Direct are all represented. Benetton, Nautica, and Old Navy are some of the other featured players. A Pepperidge Farm outlet comes in handy for the ride home. (And no, the cookies aren't factory seconds.) Sunrise Express Bus (800-527-7709; $29 round-trip) makes pickup and delivery stress-free.
I LOVE NJ
Just last month, the Jersey Gardens outlet mall (877-SAY-VALU), large enough to house 38 Meadowlands-size football fields, opened across from the Ikea in Elizabeth. Despite pleasingly anachronistic touches like skylights, topiaries, and Adirondack-style chairs courtesy of architect David Rockwell -- who also did Nobu and the W New York hotel -- it still feels like a giant suburban mall, thanks to the airport-size food court, two Auntie Annie's Pretzels, and the Rainforest Cafe's annoying P.A. system. Tax-free shopping at 200 stores, however, changes your perspective on such things. (Sbarro, anyone?) Off 5th-Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet and Last Call Neiman Marcus are great opening acts, but it's the headliners like BCBG Max Azria, Tommy Hilfiger, Brooks Brothers Factory Store, Banana Republic, and a warehouse-size Gap that make you love, or at least really like, New Jersey. Academy Bus Lines buses (212-971-9054; $15 round-trip) depart from Port Authority every two hours.
Less Is More
Outlet shopping often means delving into downmarket trappings in order to come up with treasures you didn't even know you wanted. Remember this as you pull up in front of the decidedly unfabulous Secaucus Outlet Centre (800-358-2373). Inside, upmarket brand names await (as well as amusing eighties throwback Gloria Vanderbilt). The crown jewel is the Gucci store, where wild-eyed city girls fight over microscopic white bikinis (modestly priced at $99). There's a decent selection of men's clothing, but the best deals in the house are in women's shoes. Metallic-blue sandals and stiletto half-boots can be had for the price of a midtown lunch. Other draws are Donna Karan and Searle. And at Calvin Klein, shoppers line up at the register holding armloads of underwear. The No. 129 bus from Port Authority (973-762-5100) is itself a bargain, at $3.80 round-trip.
It sounds like a hike, but the Franklin Mills (800-336-6255) outlet in Philadelphia (also tax-free) is actually only an hour and a half away. With more than 200 bargain opportunities, it's the largest indoor mall in the Northeast. There are masseuses on hand at the Relaxation Station to help the weary recover after navigating the "neighborhoods," which are divided by color (blue for designer apparel, yellow for children's wear, etc.). This month there will also be psychics on hand to help divine what your all-black-wearing, Nine Inch Nails-listening teenage nephew might like to see under the tree. Only a handful of high-profile names have their own locations (Donna Karan, Polo Jeans, Ann Taylor), but anchors like J.C. Penney, Off 5th-Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet, and Last Call Neiman Marcus make it worth the trip. Academy Bus Lines has a 9 a.m. shuttle, Saturdays only, for $24.95 round-trip.
Let It Snow
If you're headed up to the Stratton or Bromley ski resorts, schedule a detour to a few of the 80 boutiques at the Designer Factory Stores (800-955-shop) in nearby Manchester, Vermont. Calling the main number in advance will get you passport coupons for additional discounts. After a fruitful pass through Joan & David, Escada, and Armani, would-be woodsmen will want to check out the Barbour jackets and Battenkill canvas duffels at Orvis. Anyone, however, can appreciate a few marked-down champagne glasses from Baccarat to help ring in the new year.