Extreme Brand Loyalty

From left, Gelman, in her bedroom; her handbag collection, which includes 34 Chanels; in the new season’s belted trench with red quilted handbag. (Photographs by Leeta Harding)

Corey Gelman
Obsession: Chanel
Extravagance: 85 suits

If it weren’t on the 34th floor of a residential building off Third Avenue in the Sixties, it would be easy to mistake Corey Gelman’s apartment for a designer showroom—Chanel’s on 57th Street, to be specific. Of eight closets in the apartment, the most spectacular is an enormous walk-in, right off her bedroom, that features several glass-panel displays housing her collection of some 34 Chanel bags (11 of them quilted, in every size imaginable), 9 Hermès Birkins, and 2 Kellys. “I always wanted a closet where you could just go in and it’s like a store,” she says. “I’m a little OCD,” she adds. “I’ll buy three Chanels a season, but I’ll only wear one. Then the next season, I’ll buy another three and I’ll only wear one.”

In the walk-in closet, a floating wooden island contains drawers that are filled to the brim with Chanel sunglasses from different seasons. A shoe closet in the hall has 60 pairs of Chanels. What was once a bedroom has been turned into a fitting room with mirror-paneled closets that contain her coats, skirts, and dresses and her collection of 85 Chanel suits, most bought for between $2,500 and $4,500.

Gelman, 35, began buying Chanel in 1993. While working a $10,000 summer job at Citicorp, she walked into the Chanel boutique on 57th Street and found two overcoats she just had to have. “I remember thinking, This is so expensive, I’m going to have to work all summer for these two jackets.”

So she did. Two years later, she was making more money as an investment banker than anyone she’d grown up with, working in a testosterone-charged environment that she frequently found intimidating. “There were very few women then,” she recalls. “I was hit on constantly.” Chanel suits became her armor: “The men all wore Armani suits and Hermès ties. They didn’t quite understand what a Chanel suit meant, but I did. I felt very powerful going into meetings. I felt strong.”

Within a year, she had become one of the store’s biggest customers. In 1998, the onerous hours of her job prompted her to consider a life change. Fittingly, she found it on a shopping excursion, when her long-haired Chihuahua, Bear—clad in a leather-and-fur jacket his mistress designed—caught the eye of InStyle fashion director Cynthia Weber Cleary, who asked to see more.Today, Gelman owns and runs Chic Doggie by Corey, a dog-accessory business, but she still shops on 57th Street. She pairs the old suit jackets she wore as an investment banker with jeans and heels, makes weekly visits to her saleswoman, goes to trunk shows three times a year, and receives a once-a-week house call from the tailor who began serving her at 23 and has since left Chanel for Versace.

She doesn’t own the Chanel surfboard, but she does have a Chanel tennis outfit. “My boyfriend totally made fun of me for buying this. I said, ‘Do you want me to play or not?’ ” He’s currently warning her not to buy the skis.

Other Chanel merchandise she owns: two Chanel sun visors, a Chanel baseball jacket, a bathrobe, more than twenty cashmere sweaters, and two dozen winter coats, the most recent of which is a belted trench for 2004 that she preordered two months before it hit store shelves.

Needless to say, she can speak of her favorite brand with the kind of reverence that puts even the most fevered fashion publicists to shame: “The beauty of Chanel is that it never goes out of style,” she says solemnly. “It’s elegant, sophisticated, crisp, clean. I can’t tell you how many pairs of other designer shoes I’ve given away after one season. But you can never go wrong in Chanel.”

Clockwise from top left, Kumiko Kiba trying on a sweater and fur collar from Balenciaga's fall collection; in a belted trench from fall 2002; in a wool tweed dress from fall 2004; in a blouse from spring 2004.Photo: Leeta Harding

Kumiko Kiba
Obsession: Balenciaga
Extravagance: Nine biker-inspired handbags

When Kumiko Kiba, a business-management student at Pace, walks into Balenciaga’s West Chelsea store, decked out in a pair of the label’s cargo pants, it’s as though the entire staff has been waiting for her. The salesgirls wave. The security guard kisses her on both cheeks and gives her boyfriend, Chris Duerrmeier, a fraternal pat on the shoulder. When Kiba, 23, goes to find her personal salesman, Lester Lagda, she strolls right into the stockroom and returns with him, arm in arm.

“She’s like a fixture,” Lagda says, making the security guard chuckle. “She’s here all the time.”

“When the new season comes in, I get this complete adrenaline rush,” Kiba says. “I want to try on everything. Some people do drugs. I’m addicted to cigarettes and clothes.”

Kiba discovered Balenciaga three years ago when she came across a paparazzi shot of her style icon, Kate Moss, sporting the company’s signature biker-inspired leather handbag.

“It was slouchy and vintage-y and had this motorcycle detailing,” she recalls. “It was the coolest-looking bag I’d ever seen.” After sitting on a waiting list for three months to buy it in black for almost $900, she immediately began snatching up everything Balenciaga she could find—at Barneys, on eBay, and at the store.

Her father reprimands her for the enormous credit-card bill that arrives home in Osaka, Japan, every month, but Kiba is indefatigable. “I just feel best in Balenciaga,” she explains. “They’re like urban fighting clothes. They make the best suit jackets and the best pants. It’s so form-fitting and sexy, but it’s not like J.Lo-Versace skin-revealing things that scream ‘I need sex!’ ”

In the Hoboken apartment she shares with Duerrmeier, a fellow student from Pace, she eagerly pulls out nine of the biker-inspired leather handbags in several different colors, and likens her obsession to collecting art. “The great thing about Balenciaga is that their clothes are like art pieces. If you get sick of them, you just put them away for a couple seasons.”

In addition to her handbag collection, Kiba’s Balenciaga surplus includes four pairs of designer Nicolas Ghesquière’s cargo pants ($1,100 each) and seven of his black hip-huggers (ranging from $400 to $600); the signature black bomber jacket ($3,000) and belted trench ($1,800) from fall 2002; the cropped shearling from fall 2003 ($3,200); the jungle-print T-shirt that was the signature look from the spring 2003 collection; several blazers; a pair of jeans from spring 2004 that have been hand-painted with flowers ($465); sweaters in green, black, patchwork, and pink; and a rainbow-print jersey and matching bustier worn by Sarah Jessica Parker on Sex and the City.

Unfortunately, the museum is running out of space. With her father cracking down on her spending, she’s begun reselling her old designer clothes on eBay to help raise funds for new Balenciaga purchases. Duerrmeier’s clothes have been relegated to a tiny broom closet. “I mainly like playing video games,” he says.

I suggest to Kiba she could live more extravagantly if she shopped less, but she shrugs. “Probably, but I prefer buying clothes.”

Clockwise from top left, Madoff in a cream overcoat from Rodriguez's fall 2004 collection; in her favorite pair of mary janes; in a leather overcoat; with her daughter, Rebecca, in a dress with piping.Photo: Leeta Harding

Shana Madoff
Obsession: Narciso Rodriguez
Extravagance: Black

Shana Madoff is standing in the foyer of her Park Avenue apartment, trying on a very understated summer dress from Narciso Rodriguez, when her 41⁄2-year-old daughter, Rebecca, comes bounding in for the fifth time in ten minutes.

“Rebecca,” her mother says, “what color does mommy wear lots of?”

“Black!” the child replies. To say the least, Madoff’s wardrobe is nothing if not practical.

While in law school, Madoff, 33, had seen Rodriguez’s clothes photographed on Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, but it wasn’t until she was shopping at the downtown store Bagutta Life in 2001 that she came across one of his dresses: a slinky black jersey dress that reminded her of Azzedine Alaïa, whose clothes she’d been trying to find with little success. “I just thought it was plain and chic. And for me, that’s the trick. I have to know that I can buy it and be able to put it on in three years.”

Shortly after that, she began to collect Rodriguez’s clothes, mixing and matching his monotone blazers and skirts. Her salespeople at Jeffrey messenger a shipment of Rodriguez’s clothes and shoes to her at the beginning of each season and simply charge her for what she doesn’t return.“If I see something I like, I call around,” explains Madoff, a securities lawyer. “I just don’t have time to shop. I get a little bit aggravated when I go into a store because I could be doing so many other things that are so much more productive. And the salespeople are around the clothes all day. They know them much better than I do.”

She can be quite determined about getting certain items. Last summer, while sitting on Georgica Beach, she was thumbing through Harper’s Bazaar when she stumbled across a tweed Prada bag she knew would go perfectly with her Rodriguez basics. She left her friends and walked down the beach saying she had “to make an important phone call.” She ordered the bag on her cell phone. When it arrived two days later, she came clean to her boyfriend. “That was my important phone call!”

She mentions the ease with which she can transition Rodriguez’s clothes from work to going out. “I can wear one of his jackets and a long skirt to work with a pair of princess heels,” she says, “and at night I’ll unzip the jacket a little, change my shoes, and it’s a cocktail outfit. Or I can throw a pair of jeans in my bag, take the skirt off, and go casual. And with the dresses, you don’t have to do anything. They’re completely versatile.”

Her collection: a black knee-length leather coat from fall 2003; six dresses, three of which feature Rodriguez’s signature piping detailing; a belted trench in tweed; a black knee-length peacoat with a faux-fur collar; a beaded white tank from last fall that she pairs with jeans; a lavender skirt and matching corset from spring 2004; two linen skirt suits with his trademark piping; a black-and-white Chanel-inspired blazer; and four pairs of Rodriguez’s shoes, of which her favorite is a pair of white mary janes with crisscross straps.

“I just think he’s so smart,” she says of Rodriguez. “I love that when you see his clothes, you know they’re chic but you don’t quite know who designed them.”

Extreme Brand Loyalty