At Manhattan's luxurious Takashimaya

East Meets West

Liz Conover has lived on three continents, worked in ten countries and logged 4 million frequent flyer miles. Before she landed in Darien ten years ago and called it home, she was a global nomad.

In other words, she’’s the typical Takashimaya customer.

But instead of buying at the Japanese-owned department store on Manhattan’’s Fifth Avenue, she’s buying for them. As executive director of merchandising and marketing at the luxury retailer, Liz’s East-meets-West sensibility is making its mark there.

In more than twenty-five years as a luxury-brand specialist, Liz has led businesses for the likes of Paloma Picasso, Tommy Hilfiger and Salvatore Ferragamo. A year ago she signed on with the New York Takashimaya, a petite version of its grand siblings abroad. Takashimaya is the largest department store operator in Japan and runs about two dozen stores in Japan, Singapore, Taipei, Paris and New York. In Asia, gigantic Takashimaya department stores include money exchanges and travel agencies, galleries and exhibit space for local artisans, supermarkets and food courts. The New York version is a boutique — a delicate and edited mix of goods, flowers, clothing, crafts and a tea room. The store exudes serenity and energy, warmth and shine, magnificence and simplicity. Like Liz, it is elegant and accessible at the same time.

Übermodel Kate Moss is draped in a dark coat and dark glasses, walking by the elevator on Takashimaya’s first floor, whispering on her cellphone. Her $8,800 Chloe handbag nudges a simple bird-of-paradise in the floral boutique in front of the store. On this day, it’’s pouring outside. But inside, flower arrangements, as inviting and intriguing as a mini botanical garden, seem to soothe and stimulate the likes of Kate and her fellow shoppers. Liz doesn’’t seem surprised by the celebrity sighting (besides, she’s’ not supposed to talk about it). She knows that Takashimaya is a favorite destination for celebrities, CEOs, decorators, designers and international customers with taste and money who appreciate that Takashimaya keeps their comings and goings confidential.

One thing Liz will acknowledge: “"Our customers tend to be global nomads who are united in intelligence, taste and money, customers who shop ‘mass and class’ in the same week.”"

Shoppers in the seven-floor oasis are as likely to find a fur and cashmere bed throw costing $2,995 as they are $5 chopsticks of lacquered wood. The Village Voice captured the feel of the place after the store opened in 1993: "It’’s as if Takashimaya set out to sell only things that no one could possibly need, presented in such a way that you wonder how you could ever live without them.”" Consider the French linen cocktail napkins, copper bowls handmade by Bolivian gypsies, Italian raincoats that zip into their own pouch, scarves made of English lambswool, vintage cufflinks, silk pajamas, orchids, ceramic pottery, hand-crocheted finger puppets in the baby goods boutique. Even a two-room secret spa tucked away on the sixth floor.

Liz’’s task is to fuel business at the store while maintaining its elegant, just-our-secret reputation. “"We certainly do not want to stay a secret —, so the challenge is how do you do more business in a Takashimaya-understated way?”"she queries.  It’s a delicate task, particularly for an American, do-it-now administrator in a Japanese, let’s-talk-and-talk-and-talk-about-it administration. But Liz is finding a way to make it happen.

“Ooooh, feel this fabric,” Liz coos to a handful of coworkers huddled together in the back offices around two racks of clothing just in from Paris. She’s fingering the gold silk of a blouse by designer Kenzo Takada. Liz and her colleagues look worshipfully at the garment, one of ninety-six pieces they’ve ordered from the Japanese designer. In less than a week, they’ll be the centerpieces of Liz’s endeavor– a lively and loud after-hours fashion show at the store, whose noise level rarely exceeds museum and cathedral levels.

Takada’’s new line is a unique twist on classic feminine designs that can be seen and felt, a combination of Japanese-inspired clean-and-modern lines colored with a Parisian palette. When Liz learned of his reentry into the fashion world, she convinced him to debut the line at Takashimaya. She also had to convince her colleagues.

One of them was Yoshiko Inoue, the deputy general merchandise manager at the store. “Nobody had the experience of doing that kind of party before. It was very difficult,” Yoshiko admits. “You have to think through so many different things. The communication was not easy. But Liz knows how to do it. She has a lot of positive connections. She’’s good at creating connections.”

Liz picks up a Takada black sweatercoat and slips it around her shoulders, over her handmade, cherry red kimono, worn over black slacks and a black blouse. She spins around and admires the coat’s lines in the mirror, to the quiet applause of the staff gathered in the tranquil office space. She returns the garment to the rack, tucks it under a clear plastic sheath and heads to her office, which is to the right of the store’’s president, Kenji Yoshikawa, to whom she reports, and who is alternately referred to by Liz and her colleagues as Yoshikawa-san or Mister Yoshikawa.

It’’s less than a week to the fashion show and Liz wants to review details again on the eleven-page task list with store manager Missy Behan. Which of the celebrities will need make-up and hair help? The Taittinger Champagne needs to chill for a full two days. Where is that champagne, anyway? How will they arrange for discreet and respectful security when a guest leaves the first floor to use the restroom? Where will the models get dressed? What about empty glasses, too tipsy guests, party-crashers? Behind butterscotch-colored eyeglasses, the lenses round as golf balls, Liz pores over the list. She wears a vintage Chanel necklace, four-strands of gold bulbs thick across her neck. On her wrist hangs a little turtle fetish, to remind her where her heart is, on the beach in Mexico. On one finger is another reminder, a thick pink gold band engraved with LISDIN, for Life Is Short Do It Now, a gift Liz received after her best friend died of cancer. As Liz and Missy make their way through the list, the light fades on Fifth Avenue. Through the windows and out on the street, workers are packing up and going home. In the office, the cleaning lady comes and goes.

During the list-check, Liz shares a concern with Missy, who sits in front of Liz’’s Zen table, which is anchored with shells from Liz’’s Mexican villa. "I’m just worried that Mr. Takada is not speaking up because he’’s Japanese and he doesn’’t want to say he needs anything," Liz confesses.

Although this job is relatively new to her, Japanese etiquette is not. She was a little girl with blonde pigtails when her family moved from her native San Jose to Yokohama, following the transfer of her father, a general in charge of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The food, the customs, the language, the house staff, the books with their delicate handmade paper — everything intrigued Liz. Her family lived in Japan for three years before the general was transferred again.

One of young Liz’’s favorite things to do with her four siblings, all younger, was to play store. She’d cut up little strips of paper and mark them like currency, hand them out, grab a cardboard box, and “sell” the items in her room to her siblings, slipping the paper bills into the box as she went along. "I always sold to the one with the most money,"” Liz remembers. "It was so much fun; I loved counting the money!"

It was also an escape from an authoritarian father and an alcoholic mother, whose neglect left much of the child-rearing to Liz. The experience turned her tough, determined and strong, like a “dandelion growing in concrete,” she says. These days, she reflects on that analogy when it comes to doing something difficult. "It’’s not about trying. It’’s about doing it or not,” "she says.

Liz got started in retail at Bullock’’s Department Store in California. The store manager realized how much Liz loved the business and took her under his wing, teaching her the principles of retail and lending her book after book about the business. She climbed the ladder, to buyer and merchandise manager and up. As president of Tommy Hilfiger Accessories, she launched the line and sixteen months later it was a $30-million business. As president and CEO of Paloma Picasso Accessories, she led domestic and international sales. She brought the Salvatore Ferragamo shoe company into the handbag and accessories business. She served as president of Etienne Aigner Accessories, updating the company’’s products and image and turning a sagging business into a highly profitable one in two years.

It was while working for Paloma Picasso that Liz first noticed the Takashimaya store under construction at 695 Fifth Avenue, on her way to the office. The construction process took about a year. "I thought those people must be very erudite if it’’s taking them this long to open,”" she reflects. Multi-paned windows in front of the sleek and elegant building resemble shoji screens. Two ebony-colored two-story granite columns mark the entrance, which opens to a three-story atrium. City Review magazine called the building a masterpiece of craftsmanship and style, “the best Post-Modern building in the city [with] forceful, vigorous and cohesive design.”

Liz visited the store shortly after it opened. “"The physical plant was beautiful and they had interesting clothing that they didn’’t have at Saks or Barneys,”"she recalls. “"The third floor — the home floor — was my favorite. It was Asian influences with a modern, pared-down unique bent to it. It opened up for me not only gift-giving, but I wanted to copy that stuff in my house. I thought they must have a fantastic buyer/curator.”"

Now she supervises the buyers. "It is one thing to love shopping at Takashimaya as a customer. It is another thing to be part of it,”" Liz says, laughing. “"The challenge is how to make a great store even better while staying true to the tradition, history and allegiances at Takashimaya. You have to approach the thrill — and it is a thrill  —  like a ballerina in a glass factory, not a bull in a china shop.”"

So far, Liz’s changes have been subtle, but come springtime she will be embarking on a major renovation. "I think I’’m making it more year 2007 and beyond,” "she says.
This kind of thinking got Liz hired in the first place. "Takashimaya must be in transition for new things,” "reports Takashimaya President Yoshikawa. “"[Liz] has been approaching the role from a ‘big picture’ point of view, which includes both merchandising and marketing, because of her past high position as CEO.”"

Says Liz, "More than anything there’’s a trust that I can do what I want and what I think is best to increase store sales and improve guest relations. I work for a boss who appreciates whatever I do. I think they get a kick out of the fact that I really like what I do.”"

She’’s speaking over a cup of tea in the Tea Box Cafe, a minimalist basement hideaway at Takashimaya, with soft lights and beige fabric billowing from the ceiling. It’’s a soothing respite from the cacophony of Fifth Avenue. On the table, light-as-air crispy cookies, made with 256 layers of dough, sit beside genmai-cha, green tea with toasted rice that is flown in regularly from Japan. The tea, steeping in a black iron pot on the table, is one of thirty-five teas offered for sale. The Tea Box also sells biscuits, sweets and lunch, like tiny foccacia filled with horseradish cream and sushi, sandwiched in between sticky rice.

Liz says, "This is a specialty store with a curatorial view. It’’s like a garden, a blank canvas. Before you start to buy one single thing on any single floor you need to have a curatorial view."”

Liz has that same perspective at the Darien home she shares with her husband, architect Udi Saly. “There are things all over the world that are beautiful. But are they compatible?” Liz wonders aloud in her backyard overlooking Holly Pond, on a spread of gardens and marsh and stone that serves as the site for a neighborhood party each summer. Inside, the home is a beautiful, tasteful, comfortable and warm live-in gallery for the collection of treasures Liz and Udi have gathered in their travels. In the living room, for example, the furniture is covered in men’s suiting fabric of gray flannel, so the accessories get noticed. Things like emperor and empress puppets in royal costumes from Kowloon, Hong Kong, are displayed with handpainted turtle prints from France, eighteenth-century architectural drawings from Florence and wooden boxes from a market in the south of France.

"We spent eight months looking for a house on the water,”"Liz says. “"We started on 125th Street and kept moving up.”"One snowy day in 1996, Udi and Liz stopped a couple walking their dog in Darien and asked if there were any houses for sale in the neighborhood. “"Somebody ought to buy that house,” "the couple responded, pointing to a dilapidated colonial built in 1955. The Saly-Conovers fell in love instantly with the property and bought the house without ever stepping inside.

They had a similarly serendipitous meeting. Liz was in the lounge of Singapore Airlines in Hong Kong suffering from a miserable cold and trying in vain to open a bottle of water. Not long before, she had gotten a scolding from her younger sister, who’’d told Liz to stop trying to do everything herself and to ask for help every once in a while. For once, Liz heeded her sister’’s advice and asked a gentleman if he would be kind enough to open the bottle for her. Later, she and the gentleman boarded the San Francisco-bound plane, both heading for row 14. Liz grabbed the window seat because she wanted to sleep against the window. The gentleman told her it was assigned to him, and that he needed to plug in his laptop to get his work done. Liz stayed put. Fourteen hours later they were still talking. At the end of the flight, Israeli-born Udi declared that he was in love with Liz and planned to marry her.

Two years later, they did marry. Udi and Liz tore down the walls in their Darien home and opened the vista to the water. They also combined their talents on two villas they designed and rent out in Akumal, Mexico, not far from Cancun and Tulum. On a secluded and tranquil strip of the Caribbean, the couple worked with a team of Mayan craftsmen and artisans to construct Casa Del Sol Naciente, or House of the Rising Sun, and Villa Zen del Mar. So many strangers asked to buy the homes that Udi now works full-time designing and building Mexican villas, and Liz inspires that work.

Says Yoshiko, “She stimulates many different areas. She has fresh eyes looking at certain things. She has brought many different thoughts to the table in many different ways, such as how to improve service in the store, how to improve the guest experience, how to improve merchandising and product development, how to be proactive. Like the Takada party —– it’’s many things like that that we have not done before."

The night of the fashion show, Liz turns the first floor of Takashimaya into a catwalk. The crowd of more than 400 people, including Uma Thurman and Lauren Hutton, parts as models sashay through wearing Takada’’s latest fashions. The next day Fashion Wire Daily reports that the items are “flying off the racks at Takashimaya.” (In fact, the store sells about $20,000 worth of Takada merchandise in just three days. About a month later, only seven pieces remain.) The next night, Liz finds a way to put an exclamation point on her work. She attends the birthday party of a friend, Sen. Hillary Clinton. During the private reception afterward, the senator compliments Liz on the Takada blouse she is wearing and asks Liz where she might buy one. Liz knows just the answer.

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