Maybe it’s because I was reading The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis’s 2018 book about how the current administration in Washington is “government led by the uninterested,” as NPR put it, but my first response to the announcement last week of the Fifth City makeup brand was: What are the first, second, third, and fourth cities?
It could have been worse: They could have called it Fifth Place.
Fifth City is a private-label brand sold through SaksOffFifth—the discount division, launched in 1990, of Saks Fifth Avenue. The parent company was founded in 1867 and for decades has been synonymous with “Manhattan luxury”; its flagship store is, of course, on Fifth Avenue.
So you can see where they got the “Fifth” in “Fifth City.” But they got it wrong.
In a collocation like, say, Broad City, the title of the Comedy Central series that ended its five-season run last night, the first word describes a subcategory of the second word: It’s a city of broads (women) or a big, wide city. (The show’s creators have said the double meaning is intentional.) Sports monikers like Raider Nation follow that formula as well.
But change the first word to an ordinal number and the meaning shifts to ranked order. First National Bank of Omaha was the first financial institution established in that city. The mission of the Seventh Generation company, which makes household and personal-care products, is to consider the impact of its actions on the next seven generations. (Let’s not get started with Fifth Third Bank, OK?)
Fifth City invites comparison to The Second City, the improvisational comedy enterprise founded in 1959 in Chicago, which at the time was the second-largest city in the U.S. That name was chosen in a spirit of self-mockery, and it was kept even after The Second City expanded to Los Angeles (now the actual second city in terms of population) and Toronto. Following that logic, Fifth City would point to Philadelphia. On the whole, I don’t think that’s what Saks intended.
Confusingly, the Saks credit card is called SaksFirst, which doesn’t help clarify matters. Add to that the challenging pronunciation of “Fifth City”—lots of consonant blends to trip you up—and you have one ungainly name. Off the top of my head, I can think of plenty of less misleading and more appealing names for a SaksOffFifth beauty brand: Avenue, OnFifth, FifthPosition (a ballet term), Five, Quinta, SOF. Needless to say, they didn’t ask me. But I’m available if they want a do-over.