Nashville’s greatest designer shopping destination sits in a small strip mall, nestled between the China Dragon restaurant and Venus Nail Spa, within walking distance of Vanderbilt University and close to the city’s honky-tonk bars. But the humble exterior of United Apparel Liquidators belies what’s inside: Nobody would guess that it's home to overstuffed racks of never-worn Proenza Schouler, Balmain, Kenzo, Alexander Wang, and more, all marked down to at least 70% off retail price.
UAL has remained the South’s best-kept fashion secret for more than 35 years—in fact, the company’s success relies on this secrecy. Today the chain has five stores scattered across the region. Along with Nashville, there are outposts in New Orleans and Austin, as well as Covington, Louisiana and Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Despite this gradual expansion, UAL co-founder Melody Cohen says she’s maintained the same business model since day one. She and her husband opened their first store in Hattiesburg in 1980, "before liquidation was cool." Leaning against the jewelry display in the Nashville location (which today is stocked with seriously discounted Lulu Frost), Cohen says her strategy has always been simple: "Get the good stuff cheap, always pay cash so you don’t have debt, and try to be the kind of company everyone wants to deal with." Flash forward a few decades, and little has changed, except for the quality of the pieces Cohen has been able to acquire.
UAL stores are currently divided into various sections: contemporary (this is where you'll find your Rag & Bones and Steven Alans), menswear, shoes, and "couture." Although not couture by technical fashion industry standards, this area is the holy grail of high-end designer goods.
Every day, large brown boxes arrive at each store location, filled with liquidated merchandise from high-end shops and designer boutiques all over the world. Cohen declines to name names when it comes to the stores she buys from, since her discretion is what keeps UAL flush with gems. The stock is constantly refreshed, making it impossible to predict the kinds of pieces that will arrive—you never know if today is the day you’ll finally nab a marked-down Chanel bag or a $1,470 Rosie Assoulin gown (a steal when you consider its original $5,995 price tag)—and that drives a particular kind of customer to keep coming in.
As Nina Thomas, a loyal customer of the Nashville store, explains, "You have to be in the right mood to hunt and gather—and you need the patience to try on tons knowing it’s hit or miss—but the thrill of bagging a unique piece that fits like a dream at a steep discount is so worth the effort."
While you don’t have to be a devoted bargain hunter to know there’s no shortage of stores selling discount designer items today, UAL remains a cut above Loehmann’s and Century 21 thanks to its well-curated selection of high-end merchandise. Also, unlike what you'll find at Saks Off Fifth or Neiman Marcus Last Call, these aren't inferior-quality pieces designed specifically for outlets. The items at UAL are the real deal, unworn with tags attached, and often just a few seasons old. They came from cool young brands (Timo Weiland, Ostwald Helgason), as well as storied European houses (Chloé, Céline).
According to Cohen, UAL's unparalleled designer assortment is the product of its relationships and reputation. Because the company has been in business for so long, she explains, it receives a large amount of business via referrals. "A manager might call us and say, ‘I bought too much,’ or shipments might get stuck on the dock in LA, and when merchandise comes in too late, what do you do? People say, ‘Try UAL.’" Cohen adds that part of this opportunist strategy is to "always have money for good deals"—she’s willing to take on new accounts to increase her cash flow—but she won’t accept just anything.
Over the years, Cohen and her team have instituted a corporate structure that involves buyers all over the country and in Europe. They direct boxes to UAL’s Mississippi warehouse; there, staffers divide up the stock between markets and ship it to the various stores. Certain designers fit particular locations better than others. For instance, Ostwald Helgason’s infamous balloon dog sweatshirt (marked down to $50 from $270) might sell in New Orleans, whereas less trend-focused pieces do best in the smaller cities.
"People won’t just come because it’s cheap, especially now, because you can buy cheap clothes everywhere," says Cohen. "But if you care about fashion and quality and looking a little different, then we are the place."
Cohen estimates UAL customers range from 15 years old to 65, and include everyone from local high schoolers looking for prom dresses to women hunting for unique workwear to tourists who have been tipped off to the wonders of the chain. Thomas says she's even converted her friends. "I seem to have a nose to sniff out the good stuff," she says. "My friends always want me to take them there because I can pull out hidden jewels."
Cohen says her customer base is typically split between loyal local shoppers like Thomas and people just passing through town. Rather than relying on social media campaigns or marketing tools for publicity, UAL gains customers almost solely through word-of-mouth. "The one thing we always maintain is a low profile, which is our selling point," she emphasizes. "When sellers come to us, they don’t want what we do to be thrown in the face of full-price merchants." For this reason, UAL doesn’t run ads and has only a basic website without e-commerce capabilities (it does, however, have a small eBay store for merchandise that’s lingered too long in its stores).
There’s a fine line between maintaining discretion and allowing a business to grow, and UAL has straddled it for decades. According to Cohen, that's largely due to her chain's location. "We like the South because it is underdeveloped as a retail market and we can be important," she says. "Retailers like when we take clothes out of New York because they don’t want them to be in New York and give away prices. They want stock to go away under the radar, and then happy customers can talk about it all they want."