NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The road to New Haven is paved with nondescript office buildings. Close to the city, rusted water towers fill the horizon along with faded warehouses that once housed the West Haven Lumber Co. and the Pre-Hung Door Shop. There are vacant lots and walls emblazoned with graffiti.
Not exactly the ideal path to a fashion and cultural mecca.
But to many New Havenites, the city is slowly becoming just that: an easy place to drop $300 on a pair of distressed Dolce & Gabbana jeans, catch a show at the renowned Shubert Theater or a lecture by visiting professor Peter Eisenman at the Yale School of Architecture, and then dine at Ibiza, voted one of Wine Spectator’s best Spanish restaurants in the U.S. in 2003. And as in any good makeover, fashion is one of the most important elements of the city’s transformation.
“You don’t have to go to New York to find good fashion anymore,” said Jane Moritz, a 24-year-old sporting a healthy dose of black eyeliner, chandelier earrings and a lethal-looking pair of stilettos. “People in New Haven really are ready to break away from cookie-cutter fashions.”
Moritz, who is “so tired of Abercrombie & Fitch,” but is “in love with Marc Jacobs,” is a saleswoman at Lordz Fashion House on Chapel Street. She is also a typical post-college New Haven resident: educated, fashion-conscious, and willing to spend. Luckily for her, the city and Yale University — the biggest employer, property owner, and one of the largest commercial landlords in downtown New Haven — have recently realized the vast spending capacity of the Jane Moritzes of the region. Indeed, they are counting on them, and their interest in shopping, to help build the city.
This change in direction for New Haven is often attributed to the mutually beneficial partnership built between Richard Levin, the president of Yale, and Mayor John DeStefano, when they were elected in the early Nineties. The university, seeing the potential of its underserved and wealthy constituents, had a particularly heavy influence on developing the city by way of retail. Intent on bringing more of the $4.9 billion spent in the New Haven metropolitan area to the city’s downtown, Yale went beyond the standard approach of pouring money into better street lights on its campus and a marketing campaign. It took on the rebuilding of New Haven from another angle, and hired a shopping expert.
Bruce Alexander, former head of development for urban and mall retail developer The Rouse Co., which is now owned by General Growth Properties Inc., spearheaded Rouse’s major urban revitalization projects, including Harborplace in Baltimore, Riverwalk in New Orleans and the South Street Seaport in Manhattan. All of the projects created urban shopping, entertainment and dining experiences in downtrodden city neighborhoods.
Since Levin recruited his personal friend and fellow Yale alumnus Alexander to engineer the turnaround of downtown New Haven in 1997, the university has invested $20 million in retail acquisition and development alone. Under University Properties, the real estate arm of Yale, the university now owns the majority of the retail on the three main shopping blocks in the city: Chapel Street, Broadway and Audubon Street.
All of its properties were formerly decrepit sites tied up with financial and ownership difficulties. Yale also invested an additional $80 million in infrastructure improvements and commercial real estate acquisitions and development in the area. As an added encouragement for shoppers, University Properties requires that its tenants keep their stores open until at least 9 p.m. on weekdays. Profit, though, is an ancillary concern.
“Yale is not a greedy landlord,” said Lucien Padawer, owner of Luciano Padua, a luxury retailer kitty-corner from Yale’s campus and the launching point of the Chapel Street retail district. “The rent they collect is truly secondary to the ambience they add to the neighborhood.”
Padawer, whose boutique sells exclusively Italian imports under his Luciano Padua label, is a lifelong fashion lover. His family ran Foxrun, a major outerwear manufacturer in the Fifties, and owned the Fifth Avenue boutique Parisette. The family business left him with relationships with producers in Italy, who now custom design small batches of shearling ponchos and rabbit-fur jackets for his boutique. Padawer’s sleek shop also sells custom-designed jeans, detailed suede skirts and accessories, while best-selling items last season were tweed, velvet and corduroy blazers. Though New Haven doesn’t seem the most likely spot for such a boutique, Padawer, now in his 70s (and who personally favors Roberto Cavalli and Dolce & Gabbana), has a convincing argument for why it is.
“It doesn’t matter where you are, smart young women know the difference between great merchandise and not-so-great merchandise,” said Padawer in a lilting Italian accent. “The world is so small, that women see fashion no matter where they are and they desire it. People think New England is so conservative, when really, people just can’t buy what is not offered to them.”
And lately, the growing critical mass of the Chapel Street district allows for vastly different tastes.
“Now we can treat our properties as a collection, a real shopping district,” said Alexander, now vice president and director of Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs. “We can find and take advantage of complementary merchandising patterns and develop our own design criteria for the stores. It improves the quality of the entire street.”
Though Yale does not own all of Chapel Street, it helps create an environment where Italian luxe and patchouli get equal play. Group W Bench Gallery, across the street from Luciano Padua, infuses its hacky sacks, Minnetonka boots, hemp balm and thousands of semiprecious rings with wafts of incense. Just inside the door, which is plastered with the visage of Che Guevara, you can buy a patchwork-designed leather handbag for $70 “to help support the craftsmen and women of Nepal.”
At the pretty and preppy Maxine’s down the block, you can pick up white tank tops for $39, 1921 jeans for $129 and soft cashmere sweaters for $200.
At the far end of the street, at the studied, disheveled cool of Bottega Giuliana, upscale denim is king. You can browse racks of AG, Seven For All Mankind, Rock & Republic, True Religion, Ernest Sewn and Dolce & Gabbana, ticketed between $150 and $300, and duck behind retro-print curtains to try them on. “People don’t care what they spend as long as it looks good,” said store manager and hairdresser Becky Wolinsky.
And in the middle of it all, home to the Abercrombie & Fitch-knocking Jane Moritz, sits Lordz Fashion House. Perhaps the greatest testament to New Haven’s growing fashion community is the fact that Roderick Williams, a designer and former salesman at Bottega Giuliana, had enough clients to support opening an edgy new boutique last year. He and wife and business partner Ayse Ikna set up a sewing circle in the back of the tiny shop, which is tucked into an alley off Chapel Street, where they customize vintage jackets and blazers for $150. They also sell an eclectic part-Goth, part-luxury mix of shoes, handbags, jeans, detailed bustiers and floaty tops. The couple’s favorite designers include Jean Paul Gaultier, Cesari and Save the Queen.
“New Haven really does have a lot of people that are very fashion conscious,” said Ikna, whose mother is a fashion designer in her native Turkey. “But before the past few years, there were no stores here, so people had to travel to New York. Price is not an issue. People here can afford any level of clothing, you just need to introduce them to the looks.”
The couple is so happy bringing their taste to New Haven, in fact, that it is opening a second store to focus on shoes and high-end accessories at the end of April. It plans to design the interior like a temple, and install a more elaborate sewing studio.
Meanwhile, the city is doing its best to encourage retailers like Lordz. According to Henry Fernandez, New Haven’s economic development administrator, store owners can receive a “facade grant” of up to $30,000 to renovate the retail space visible from street level. The encouragement to renovate befits the city’s goal to be a “new” New Haven. Retailers are also the beneficiaries of a special services district, which maintains sidewalks and city landscaping.
“Much of the work the city did in the 1990s was to try to save what New Haven once was,” said Fernandez. “Now, we really looking for what New Haven is going to be.”
As Moritz puts it, the city is finally getting “with it.”
This is the first in an occasional series of articles where WWD visits markets “off the beaten path” of the regular retail and fashion haunts of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. In this series, which takes readers on a journey across the U.S., WWD will see how peripheral markets evolve, what brands are in demand, how retailers merchandise their goods and what it takes to thrive in these markets. Today, “On the Road With WWD” makes its first stop in New Haven, Conn., home to Yale and a burgeoning retail and cultural scene.