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The Fashion Industry’s Manifest Destiny

Seeking space, light and edge, showrooms move west.

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NEW YORK — Comme des GarCons in the late Nineties pioneered the trend of fashion companies moving their offices and showrooms to the far West Side of Manhattan. Hugo Boss and Club Monaco soon followed. Now, Marithé & François Girbaud, Tommy Hilfiger and even staid Tiffany & Co. are making the leap.

Moving their operations closer to New Jersey and farther from Seventh Avenue and other parts of the city seems an unlikely step for a fashion firm, but increasingly, designers are pushing past the traditional boundaries of the Manhattan business district to establish themselves along the Hudson River. Even mainstream companies are seeking the space, light and edge offered by properties like the Starrett-Lehigh building, making the former West Side no man’s land one of the hottest fashion neighborhoods.

“People have obviously chosen Starrett-Lehigh more for its aesthetics than for its location,” said Jarid Tollin, executive vice president at Newmark Retail. “It’s not convenient. But it’s extremely cool. It’s a hip building to be in.”

There’s no lack of space within it. The structure at 501 West 26th Street is 2.3 million square feet, covers an entire city block and has its own zip code. Along with 475 Tenth Avenue and 111 Eighth Avenue, it forms a trifecta of funky former industrial buildings commanding the attention of fashion companies. 

Besides Comme des Garçons, Hugo Boss and Club Monaco, Starrett-Lehigh is home to Tommy Hilfiger, Tracy Feith and Carolina Herrera, in addition to dozens of fashion-related firms such as photographers Richard Phibbs and Monica Stevensen and visual merchandising companies Look Inc. and Joint LLC. Girbaud and Tiffany have settled in 475 Tenth Avenue, while Armani A|X and Nike have leased space at 111 Eighth Avenue.

Although 111 Eighth doesn’t seem quite so far off the beaten path, it is an atypical office and showroom building for Manhattan and even bigger than Starrett-Lehigh, at 2.8 million square feet. Both buildings have operational truck elevators, remnants from their industrial days, going up to the commercial floors. Some tenants use the truck elevators for their intended purpose, loading goods or supplies, and others revamp the truck pits entirely.

“One of the reasons Armani fell in love with 111 Eighth was that there’s this big truck pit in the middle of their space,” said Danielle Zimbaro, a director at Cushman & Wakefield Inc. and Armani’s broker. “They’re renovating the pit into a mock store, so all of the new lines and merchandising can be set up right outside their offices. It has amazing value.”

The unconventional environment “helps employees come up with bright new ideas,” she said. “The space is fresh and cutting-edge, which reflects in their fashion.”

“It’s a throwback to another era,” said Paul Pariser, a principal in Taconic Investment Partners, which owns 111 Eighth. “You can do incredible things in here.”

The huge, column-free floorplates in these former warehouses also allow big companies to group all of their design, merchandising, production and corporate teams together with offices and showrooms.

“Starrett-Lehigh was one of the few buildings in the city that has a large enough footprint to house all of our people together,” said Caren Bell, spokeswoman for Tommy Hilfiger, which is to move into the building this spring. “Right now everything is disconnected, and the building will really provide a synergy for us.”

The company, which is taking two floors, will also have a fitness center, two auditoriums and a cafeteria for its employees. The building offers all of its tenants the use of a Pilates studio, juice bar and cafeteria, which it plans to revamp this year. Mark Karasick, a partner in the investment group that owns Starrett-Lehigh, said the owners and tenants have invested almost $200 million in improvements in the building since the late Nineties.

Synergy and amenities supplemented with wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows, views of the Hudson and neighbors like Hugo Boss — which has several flat-screen TVs, a grand piano and seasonally changing decor in its lobby — have also drawn smaller upscale lifestyle companies to the far West Side. W Hotels has taken up residence in Starrett-Lehigh, with its trademark green grass displays in the lobby, as have Veuve Clicquot, the School of the Visual Arts and French publisher Assouline.

“The cool factor of the neighborhood certainly has an appeal for a lot of people,” said Laura Pomerantz, principal at PBS Realty Advisors. “A lot of these companies, like the galleries that are over there, are destination companies, so their customers and clients will visit them wherever they are.”

The buildings are still a steal. The average asking rate per square foot in west Chelsea is in the low $20s, half that of Midtown, though some leases are being signed as high as $48 a square foot in Starrett-Lehigh, a sure sign that these warehouses have made the leap from dilapidated to chic.

Fashion companies hoping to join the fun on the far West Side, though, better move fast.

“Everybody wants to be a part of it before it becomes passé,” said Zimbaro. “Or too expensive.”

NEIGHBORHOOD FACTOIDS

  • People: Paint-spattered twentysomethings with paper coffee cups.
  • Art: The James Cohan, White Box, Capsule and Walter Randel galleries, the Chelsea Art Museum.
  • Food and Drink: The Red Cat, The Half King, O Mai, Botito.
  • Clothes: The Meatpacking District.
  • Transportation: A/C/E train on Eighth Avenue (15-minute walk to 11th Avenue).
  • Future Plans: The 2012 Olympics, new stadium, extension of No. 7 train.

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