It may not have been as attention grabbing as the demise of Marshall Fields, but it's still hard for Portlanders not to notice that the familiar Meier & Frank store downtown has been transformed into Macy's. Having acquired May Department Stores in February of '05, Federated Department Stores (the huge corporation behind Macy's), is converting 330 of the May Company's department stores to Macy's. Meier & Frank is just one among them. And while the historic Marshall Fields in Chicago was mourned rather loudly when the Macy's sign recently went up, Portland also shed a tear or two over its own defunct retail landmark. Although it's somewhat questionable to have an actual affection for a store, much less a huge chain of stores whose owner you will never meet and whose credit card will take you to collections all the same, department stores haven't always been like that. Le Bon Marché, the original department store founded in Paris in 1838, began as a single, independent store, as did most of what have become Goliath-sized big boxes, including Macy's, founded in 1858.Taking the appealing idea of having comprehensive departments under one roof, the department store was basically a modernization of the marketplace, minus the competing vendors and with an added sense of luxury. And those that have lasted have joined other buildings in cities as historical landmarks, notably Macy's flagship store in New York City, declared the "world's largest store," and which has hosted the huge Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade since its inception. Through community events like this, stores wind their way into the affections of customers who come to associate them with childhood memories and traditions. Other famous stores, such as Harrods in London, have even become tourist attractions in their own right. The new downtown Portland Macy's begins its own introduction to the neighborhood this week with a fall fashion show benefiting the Gerry Frank Center for Children's Care at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. (Thurs Sept 21, Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park, 6 pm, $65—includes a $20 gift card to the store, refreshments, and valet service, with $20 per ticket going to the charity) A hallmark of bourgeois culture, department stores have historically been associated with luxury, a mood exemplified by Nordstrom installing live piano players in its stores, making even the muffins at the in-store café seem indulgently high class. Even at our own Meier & Frank, local clothing designer Adam Arnold remembers the "air of sophistication" he noticed when visiting his grandmother's workplace in the store's fabric department.These days, the department store shopping experience has certainly changed. While places like Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue still retain a glitzy exclusivity, the ubiquitous department store chains across America have lost their mystique. Having formed giant conglomerates, the stores are noted for their lack of individuality at a time when individuality is key in fashion, and the emphasis is shifting from big names and mass production to small boutiques and esoteric labels. Jenners, in Scotland, was the last of the independent department stores, finally giving up the ghost just last year when it was purchased by House of Fraser (which also owns Harrods). Last month I visited its historic flagship location on Edinburgh's Princes Street, and was struck by the cutting-edge designs in many of its departments. It is perhaps Barneys shrewdest habit to pick up small, up-and-coming lines and incorporate them into the recognizable merchandise names in their stores, keeping things fresh for the younger generation while maintaining its stature with the elder. According to Macy's Manager of Regional Special Events, Community and Public Relations, Denise Hinton, the store's aim is to provide the customer with "affordable luxury," two words that, when paired, essentially cancel each other out. Sorted into categories of "good, better, and best," Macy's tops out at lines like DKNY and Calvin Klein. So huge is the number of Macy's stores nationwide, they have been sorted into regions, with buyers for the stores taking stock of what the customers need and want in these multi-state regions, and stocking them according to this macro method. Because stock is ordered in such huge quantities, an independent designer has virtually no chance of seeing his or her products on Macy's shelves. Whatever you make of Macy's size and "affordable luxury," it's worth knowing your options. Speaking of which, on the other side of the river, locally owned boutique Yes is having their End of Summer Sale with huge discounts on xgLA, Mary Meyer, The People Have Spoken, and more. (Yes, 811 E Burnside, through Sunday) Department stores are for make-up: marjorie@portlandmercury.com