By  on October 26, 2006

Joan Kaner championed designer labels during her 15-year reign as fashion director at Neiman Marcus. In retirement, however, she's discovered shopping at Wal-Mart and T.J. Maxx.

"I was curious to see what these [discount stores] were like, and I started making the rounds," Kaner said from her home in New York. "I think it's fun. It's almost like a challenge and a game.…It's amazing what you can find in these places. If you're a good shopper and know quality, you can ferret out some good buys."

At Wal-Mart, Kaner paid less than $20 for a pair of Faded Glory stretch boot-cut blue jeans. She liked them so much she returned to buy pairs in white and black. But it's not as if she's abandoned luxury, especially given her lifetime 30 percent discount at Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. One of her recent purchases was Piazza Sempione stretch wool cropped pants at Bergdorf's.

Although Kaner said she's happiest in casual clothing, she was perfectly tailored during her 43-year career as a retail tastemaker. In an acknowledgement of her influence, she will receive a Personal Style award on Saturday, Oct. 28, at the Dallas Fashion Awards. The accolade makes her "very honored," Kaner said. In June, she got the Council of Fashion Designers of Amerca's Eleanor Lambert Award for excellence.

"Sometimes you feel that when you close the door it's over, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it's not over," Kaner said.

Although Kaner is protective about revealing her age because "being a woman of a certain age doesn't bode well with a lot of people," she described herself as a "lady of leisure" who enjoys taking her grandchildren to the Central Park Zoo. But she hasn't lost touch with the fashion industry, giving an occasional lecture and shopping with a critical eye.

"In New York I think Bergdorf and Barneys are really the best thing going, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the turnaround at the Manhattan Bloomingdale's," Kaner said. "I think Terry [Lundgren, chairman and chief executive officer of Federated Department Stores, parent of Bloomingdale's] and his team have really gotten it together, and it's exciting once again. The big renovation looks good, the selection and assortments are better edited, and there's even an attempt to give more service."She is as opinionated as ever, particularly on the subject of dressing "women of a certain age.''

"Mature women have been neglected on runways and by designers and by the press," Kaner said. "I look at items and say, ‘Who's going to wear that? Who wants to look that way?'

"I find they are just too extreme,'' she said. "They are not thinking about women and how women want to look. I've always maintained women want to look beautiful, attractive, well dressed and well groomed. All the starlets are running around in designer clothes that are being touted, and they're getting them for free. But when you are going to spend $2,000 or $3,000 for an item, I don't think you want it to be quite so trendy."

Kaner said she found it impossible to find a dress for a wedding last summer because the selection consisted of tired slipdresses, full-skirted empire styles suitable for the superslim or pregnant, and casual sundresses. But she saw a positive shift this fall.

"I found there were some pretty clothes out there," she said. "I saw some very pretty dresses by Max Azria with pretty draping and three-quarter sleeves.…In Bloomingdale's today, Tahari looked very appealing — pretty pieces to put together in a casual way or as an ensemble for the office."

Kaner saw a handful of spring shows in New York, including Yeohlee, Ralph Rucci, Bill Blass and the Academy of Arts, University of San Francisco.

"It was wonderful, but I was sort of resentful that I had to get all dressed up," she said. "I like running around in my jeans and cropped pants. I've always been casual at heart, and I've reverted to my original style. At Neiman's we had a very high standard, which I think is good in a business situation. Casual Fridays at some companies led to an indifference and sloth that kind of descended on staff. I think attire changes attitude and self-esteem."

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