NEW YORK--SoHo's sidewalks are swarming with spenders again. Once the stamping grounds of the art world, SoHo sagged when the late-Eighties recession closed many of its galleries. But in the last year, those galleries have been replaced by retailers of another kind: young fashion designers, some of whom have already established reputations uptown--most notably, Cynthia Rowley and Todd Oldham--have been opening their own SoHo shops. They are drawn by a number of factors: low rents, compared to uptown...an affinity for the more creative lifestyle associated with SoHo...spaces that are generous and attractive...a consumer profile that's a good fit with the idiosyncratic nature of many of the designers who do business there. SoHo shoppers are generally not people who are looking for a conservative corporate wardrobe. If they aren't artists, musicians, actors or ad executives themselves, they don't mind if people think they are. It seems everybody wants to sell in SoHo, from Miuccia Prada, who said she'd like to open her first American Miu Miu boutique there, to a high-end sporting goods store like Patagonia, which is close to signing a lease on Wooster Street, to traditional East Sider Ralph Lauren, who is said to be considering opening a Polo Sport store. On the weekends, SoHo--which is bounded by Houston Street on the north, Canal Street on the south, Sixth Avenue on the west and Lafayette Street on the east--is packed, often with tourists from abroad taking advantage of the favorable exchange rates. Now though, they are buying items that are a bit smaller and a bit less expensive than a canvas from the latest hot painter. Rowley, who lives just north of SoHo, said she'd spent "years" looking for the perfect spot for her store. "First I tried upper Madison Avenue, the Carnegie Hill area," she said. "I liked the neighborhood, but then I realized that I never really went uptown all that much and if I didn't go way uptown, maybe my customer wouldn't either, so I went to SoHo. I wanted the right street--not too busy, not too far off the beaten track. I literally waited for years for this spot to open up. "To me, SoHo is the best place to have a store even if you can't sell a lot of merchandise, because everyone who comes to New York goes to SoHo. It's like a worldwide advertising campaign." "SoHo runs in cycles, and each street runs in cycles," said Caroline Banker, a senior vice president and SoHo specialist with New Spectrum, a realty company. "Retail is coming back very strong, and Wooster is the hottest street, as it had been when Comme des Garcons and Dianne B. were there. In 1992, you couldn't give Wooster away." Now it has Todd Oldham--offices and retail store, across the street from each other--and Patagonia is about to sign a lease there. Also on Wooster is Steven Alan, a 500-square-foot accessories store that opened in September, and the year-old signature shop of the designer J. Morgan Puett. Isaac Mizrahi has had his design studio and showroom at 104 Wooster for seven years. "The reason I picked SoHo is because it fit in better with my lifestyle," said Steven Alan Grant, owner of the new accessories store. Grant, whose father ran a jewelry store on the Upper East Side for 30 years until moving to Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side 10 years ago, said he had considered opening uptown, but decided against it. "In midtown, you have to be there to open up at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m.," he said. "You are dealing with working people who are shopping on their lunch hour and don't have a lot of time to look. In SoHo, the people who come in have a very critical eye. The Germans, Italians, Japanese tourists, they have a good eye for design and it's fun to sell to them. The fun of retailing is when you can build a business. "Also, I look at this shop as a sort of ongoing market research project. I'm still learning about what people want, how they shop. When you're on Madison Avenue and you're paying $10,000 a month, you better know exactly what your niche is." Grant said he'd like to do about $250 per foot, or some $125,000, in the first year of his shop. On Greene Street, there's the designer boutique Yati and the showroom Seed, each of which opened about a year ago. Farther north is Jonathan Morr, a coffee shop-cum-gallery that hosted Christian Blanken's fashion show this season. Yati Zainudin, who owns the 2,300-square-foot designer boutique Yati, said she chose SoHo because "it's not a stiff environment." "We have a lot of fun here," said the Malaysian-born retailer. "We offer all the same services that the uptown retailers do--fittings, pinnings, delivery, sending a car for a client. It's funny, the Upper East Side woman is really afraid to come down here, but there's an incredible European and South American crowd." Retail rents here can be less than one-third of Madison Avenue levels, according to Banker, who has specialized in SoHo since 1985. "Rents right now on Wooster, Greene or Mercer are $40 to $60 a square foot, and Spring, Prince and West Broadway are $60 to $100," she said, and that reflects a 20 percent increase over the last year. In contrast, ground-floor Madison Avenue rents are $200 to $300 a square foot, she said. "SoHo has been dead the last couple of years, and now it's coming back," said Joel Isaacs, president of Isaacs & Co., a real estate company that handled the move of publicist and show planner Kevin Krier to 84 Wooster St. this summer. Ellen Carey opened her showroom, Seed, a year ago at 76 Greene St., in a building that also houses the design offices of Mirabella art director Sam Shahid. "I looked uptown, but I couldn't find anything that wasn't a trillion dollars," Carey said. "People had a very negative reaction to me moving here. They were saying, 'Don't do it, it's a schlepp, no one will come.' People were locked into either midtown or that lower Fifth Avenue area, but I feel like that never really happened the way it was supposed to. Here, if you're early for an appointment or you want to kill some time, you can walk around, you can go drink coffee at Jonathon Morr. "We wanted to be the discovered little jewel. Buyers don't drop in for two minutes; they come for half a day. "The atmosphere down here is so different," Carey added. "When I was at [Roméo] Gigli uptown, we'd try to do these special events, like poetry readings in the garden behind the store. People would yell out their windows at us to shut up." Carey's apparel lines are mostly Italian, including women's apparel by Cherchez La Femme and Micaela de Leon, knitwear by Lorena Antoniazzi, cashmere by Cristiano Fissore, and intimate apparel by Grazia'lliani. Carey also works with Puett and potter Jonathan Adler, who collaborates with Todd Oldham. Further south, at 476 Broome St., Nick Hallack opened a 7,500-square-foot showroom in September. He also works with several European lines, including Jean Colonna, Xavier Foley, William Beranek, Ahmed Akkad's collection and diffusion line and the men's line by Giuliano Fujiwara. Hallack, who ran a showroom in 214 West 39th St. for eight years, said: "A big part of this was personal. It was for quality of life." But he added, "I don't think we'd be able to maintain or grow in the high-fashion marketplace if we had stayed on 39th Street. "We are an addition to SoHo, not the first ones. It's already a desirable neighborhood with several important American designers opening stores here. And we're near Comme [des Garcons] and Yohji [Yamamoto], who took the chance years ago." Hallack said that while he didn't think he would have too much trouble coaxing the "A-list" stores down to the showroom, he did install a small cafe area with telephones for buyers to have lunch and do business, if they want to, Hallack said. One incentive for firms that don't have a lot of money, which is often the case with younger designers, is that there's a good amount of space that doesn't need a lot of work before it's ready to become a store or showroom. The same white walls, big windows, cast-iron columns and refinished wood floors that housed art galleries in the Eighties are now looking very good to retailers and designers. "I showed one client a space that had been an art gallery. They probably spent thousands on the renovation," Isaacs said. "It was just beautiful, and ready to move into." Not everyone is making the move south, however. Perry Ellis International has been on Prince Street for close to two years. To be closer to Seventh Avenue, it is moving next month to the Flatiron district.
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