NEW YORK — For Agnès Troublé (better known as agnès b.), next week’s opening night party for her Howard Street store here will be much like the life she leads — artistically minded, infested with friends and presumably fun.
In some indirect way, the hordes of weekend shoppers who now troop through SoHo have Troublé to thank for helping to lay the groundwork for the area’s retail boom by first setting up shop on Prince Street in 1980. While the designer, who divides her time between Paris and her hometown of Versailles, France, undoubtedly would loathe such a title, she has pretty much maintained a boutique in the neighborhood throughout that time. It was the indie art scene that first reeled her in and made her at ease in the area.
During a phone interview last week, Troublé described her intellectual pursuits that meld nicely with her clean designs. “I have always wanted to show people that clothes are something you need and something you like, but they are not a final project. You get dressed in the morning and then there are other things you are concerned with and many other problems that need to be taken care of,” she said. “I wanted this store to be very personal. If I was starting agnès b. today, maybe it would be what I’m doing on Howard Street.”
What she will be doing at 50 Howard Street is opening her first gallery boutique featuring work from Ryan McGinness, Rostarr, Dan Colen, Ryan McGinley, Harmony Korine, José Parlá, Bast and Jonas Mekas, among other artists who also happen to be friends. Their artwork won’t be the only traces of their creativity hanging in the 500-square-foot exhibition area within the 3,000-square-foot store, however. Their limited edition designs for her Artist T-Shirt collection will also be on display as of the April 1 opening night bash.
Tony Shafrazi, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Lynch, Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro were among those Troublé first befriended in the neighborhood after opening a shop at 110 Prince Street. In the Eighties, Madonna once dropped by for a hat and, upon learning about the then-rising pop star’s visit after the fact, Troublé said, “I told them you should have given her one.”
As much as she loves SoHo and has always felt comfortable there, even Troublé has been surprised by its transformation and never could have predicted it. “I wouldn’t think many people would be coming from New Jersey every weekend. At that time, that wouldn’t seem possible,” she said.
And while commerce is the focus of her stores, art remains her first love. Agnès b. is the main fashion sponsor for the 2011 Warm Up at P.S. 1 in Queens. A recipient of the Cross of Officer of the Légion d’Honneur, she has had the Galerie du Jour, a contemporary art gallery in Paris, since 1984. She also publishes a hybrid art periodical, Point d’Ironie and, in 2009, JRP-Ringier published “Collection agnès b.,” a book that highlights more than 300 pieces of artwork from her personal collection. “I have a life full of art, fashion, film, creativity — I love different things,” she said.
To give the store more of a neighborhood feel, agnès b. will have occasional film screenings in the store, and a partnership with a local independent film center is in the works. Troublé, who operates the film production company Love Streams and sponsors New York City’s Anthology Film Archives, is at home in the film world and not just because Lynch has been a friend for more than 25 years. She was the associate producer for “Jess + Moss” by Clay Jeter, which aired at Sundance. The designer has also dressed actors for various films, such as Keitel in “Reservoir Dogs” and Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction,” but such footnotes are only learned when asked. Troublé isn’t one to drop the names of her famous friends for personal financial gain.
“It’s friendship. It happens because it never had anything to do with advertising in any magazine,” she said. “I feel pure — I don’t feel like I am letting people on. It’s my culture.”
With her retail pursuits, the designer tries “to stick with the spirit of a city” as best she can. The New York store is housed in what used to be the New York State Soldiers’ Depot, a hospital and rest home for troops on leave dating back to 1863. With 12-foot ceilings, original cast iron columns, floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed brick walls and a limestone facade, the store has been refreshed with polished pale gray concrete floors, clean white walls and a mixture of antique, midcentury and industrial furniture. Of the agnès b. women’s and men’s clothing, shoes and accessories that will be sold, Troublé expects the artist-designed T-shirts, her exclusive prints and a red skirt to be early hits with women shoppers.
Agnes b. remains a privately held, family-run operation that now has 246 stores around the world. Her own globe-trotting is characteristically nonconventional. Last year, for instance, she could be found in Cairo inspecting the Tara, a scientific research vessel that her company is backing for a three-year global expedition to study oceanic ecosystems. Eager to return to Manhattan, where she keeps an apartment that she doesn’t often see, the designer plans to check out the Koo Jeong exhibition at the Dia Beacon, the Robert Crumb show at The Society of Illustrators, go to mass in Harlem, traipse down Canal Street and through Chinatown and catch David Daniels at Carnegie Hall and much more.
“I always have my program,” she said enthusiastically.
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