The Browser

Style Lab

A tour through downtown Manhattan’s design incubator.

One of my favorite things about New York City is the way businesses huddle together. The diamond dealers are all on 47th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues. Brazilian restaurants are on 45th and 46th. If you want a guitar, new or used, you need to go to 48th Street. Furs are in the high 20s off Seventh Avenue; sewing machines are on West 25th. Some of these districts are ancient, but new commercial clusters are emerging all the time. At the moment, one of the most pleasing is a little neighborhood a few blocks east of the once superfashionable neighborhood of SoHo. In a dozen shops on Elizabeth, Mott, and Prince streets, the common thread is style–and an approach to it that I find very appealing.

A few years ago, this neighborhood was a no man’s land. Bordered on the east by New York’s fabled skid row, the Bowery, and on the south by Little Italy, it still has something of the flavor of a faded ethnic neighborhood, with Italian butchers and windowless social clubs and old people sitting out on card chairs on the sidewalk. But lately the tone has been set by a group of small clothing stores that share an amorphous design sensibility. What’s ordinarily so unappealing about “fashion” is its combination of snobbery, high cost, and humorlessness. What’s wonderful about these places is that they are just the opposite: unsnooty, relatively inexpensive, and fun. Many are presided over by recent graduates of the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Parsons and Rhode Island schools of design who are going into business for the first time. They all have a work-in-progress, school-project attitude. Most don’t open until 1 o’clock, if then, and they close whenever people stop coming in. On nice afternoons, friends drop in on their bicycles to say hello and examine the goods. In several of the stores, the owners apologized for not having their fall collections finished–after Labor Day. There’s an 11-p.m.-at-Kinko’s feeling to the enterprise.

Nevertheless, NoLIta, as the area is disagreeably called (the abbreviation stands for North of Little Italy), has become a style incubator for the rest of the city, which means for the country, which means for the world. The neighborhood is a favorite scouting territory for designers and buyers for larger-scale style setters such as Calvin Klein, as well as for national chains such as J. Crew, Urban Outfitters, and the Gap, who come to troll for inspiration (to put it charitably). These chains, many of which have elegant flagship stores in nearby SoHo, do with clothes what Target and IKEA do with furniture and household objects–they disseminate an affordable version of urban chic to the middle class. In the new ecology of downtown New York, stylistic innovation of various kinds is most likely to take place to the east of Lafayette Street, in NoLIta or the East Village or on the Lower East Side. To the west of Lafayette, in SoHo, those styles are marked up and sold to the unknowing. In some cases, the mass-made interpretations are direct rip-offs from small independent designers, who don’t seem to mind. For the most part, they take plagiarism as flattery. At this stage in their careers, the validation they get from seeing their stylistic ideas catch on is more important than credit or royalties.

Part of what’s appealing about these places is that the idea of style they embody is holistic. All the details of the store convey an aesthetic: the lettering on the window, the paper stock used for business cards, the lighting, the floor, the ceiling, the display racks. The stores are designed by people who pay attention to how everything looks. But they manage to do so, in the main, without seeming precious or prissy about it.

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