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October 5, 2012 4:51 PM

Retail

How to Eavesdrop on Seventh Avenue

My first day as a reporter at WWD was right after the Fourth of July in 2000. I spent the long weekend out of town and had to take this horribly early bus back into the city....

My first day as a reporter at WWD was right after the Fourth of July in 2000. I spent the long weekend out of town and had to take this horribly early bus back into the city.

The guy behind me wouldn't stop yapping on his cell phone, talking very adamantly about computer servers and networks. I was irritated, unable to sleep and thoroughly uninterested in the details of his work life until he let slip that he worked at Polo Ralph Lauren, now simply Ralph Lauren.

So instead of turning around and giving him the nasty look, I tried to memorize everything he said and waited for some nugget that would lead to me triumphantly kicking off the first day of my life in journalism with a major scoop.

Alas, the big launch of Polo.com was still well in the future, and ultimately another reporter's story, and all I learned from that irritating guy was that I know nothing about computer servers.

I did, however, play it cool and anonymous when someone was blabbing when they shouldn't have been. And that's rule number one -- be discreet.

Rule number two, although it's less a rule than matter of happenstance, is to understand what it is you're hearing.

If you don't know anything about computers or, say, the nuances of corporate finances and takeovers, it's going to be hard to overhear a snippet of conversation and get the scoop.

And knowing might not even be enough: The people working on big-time deals are using code names these days.

All eavesdropping hope is not lost, though. When you see a couple of banker types in an elevator and are pretending to be listening to music on your iPhone, listen for mention of precious and semi-precious stones.

Regulatory filings tell us that bankers advising J. Crew in its private equity takeover referred to the deal obliquely as "Project Jade."

And we learn from Christopher Burch's lawsuit against his ex-wife, Tory Burch, that the Barclays Capital process to sell a stake in the company they started together has been dubbed "Project Amethyst."

Why Jade and Amethyst? I have no idea. Maybe diamond or pearl would be presumptuous. Maybe there's some secret logic I have yet to glean. Or no logic.

Maybe just like some people dream about working in fashion, people in fashion dream about being spies with code names and fast cars. And maybe spies just want to be normal people and the circle completes with everyone wanting to be someone else, wanting to hear secrets from another world just to be able to dream for a moment.

Keep those ears perked and when someone refers to "Project Emerald" or "Project Sapphire" stay alert -- big things could be going on.
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