SOHO’S METAMORPHOSIS CONTINUES WITH FRESH LUXURY INFLUX

Byline: Janet Ozzard

NEW YORK — If Martin Scorsese ever decides to do a sequel to “After Hours,” his dark 1985 comedy where a hapless Griffin Dunne gets hopelessly entangled in multiple freaky intrigues in SoHo, the director would definitely have to scout another location. SoHo now is anything but freaky.
The once-artsy neighborhood is going through yet another retail revolution, this time led by high-end European and American design names. The area, bounded by Sixth Avenue on the west and Lafayette on the east, Houston Street at the north and Canal Street on the south, is still so desirable that ever-bigger names, from Chanel to Prada to Giorgio Armani, are there now, or will be soon, despite rents that have bounded 25 percent over the last 18 months.
Here’s a synopsis of a few recent moves:
In October, Bottega Veneta opened its accessories and apparel store on Wooster Street between Prince and Spring Streets, and Camper accessories and footwear brand opened on Prince.
In November, Coach and Kenzo both opened second stores in New York, on West Broadway and Prince, and at 80 Wooster, respectively, while Hogan opened a shop on Spring.
Chanel opened a 3,300-square-foot store housing footwear and apparel at 139 Spring on the corner with Wooster in December.
An Emporio Armani is opening on West Broadway shortly, while an Armani Casa store is slated for 97 Greene Street, the former Zona store, between Prince and Spring.
A new 5,000-square-foot Joseph store is under construction at 110 Broome Street and is slated to open in the next four to six weeks. It will carry the Collection women’s wear line as well as Joseph’s Essentials and the new men’s wear collection made under license by Gibo.
There’s a fine jewelry boomlet, with H. Stern constructing a building on the corner of Mercer Street and Prince, Cartier reportedly zeroing in on 141 Prince between Wooster and West Broadway, and Movado taking the space formerly occupied by multibrand apparel store Oasis on the corner of Wooster and Spring.
In May, Ferragamo is scheduled to open its 5,000-square-foot store at 122 Spring, on the corner with Greene Street.
In case the lengthy construction is causing temporary amnesia, Prada is building a 24,500-square-foot store, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, on the corner of Broadway and Prince.
Helmut Lang said Friday that is has taken possession of the former Pace Wildenstein Gallery at 142 Greene, just below Houston, its third property on the street. That confirms a report in WWD, Jan. 11. A spokeswoman said plans for the space were not yet defined.
Gucci’s name is being bandied about by brokers. The company reportedly has looked at the Replay store on the corner of Greene and Prince. A Replay spokeswoman in Milan said that the store is not moving and, in fact, will be remodeled later this year. A spokesman for Gucci said, “As Gucci continues its growth strategy, it is always looking for unique retail opportunities. SoHo is under consideration for a possible second location in the city; however, nothing can be confirmed at this point.”
Big American names are also very much part of the picture. Tommy Hilfiger’s three-floor, 12,000-square-foot megastore at 372 West Broadway on the corner with Broome is under construction, although it has reportedly hit some snags due to an excessively high water level. DKNY is working on an 8,000-square-foot store at 420 West Broadway, and the company has said it will look for a signature store as well. Michael Kors is opening a shop for his bridge line, Kors, on Mercer between Houston and Prince. Ralph Lauren owns a chunk of real estate on West Broadway, where he opened a Polo Sport store in August 1999 and uses part of the space for his fashion shows.
Why the sudden explosion? There’s a cool factor that comes with opening a store in a neighborhood that has an artsy image. It doesn’t hurt that SoHo is also centrally located, has beautiful buildings with high ceilings and big windows, and rivals Rockefeller Center as a major tourist destination.
“SoHo was hopping before, but with smaller, younger companies,” said Caroline Banker, executive vice president at Douglas Elliman’s Retail and Office Group, who has worked in the neighborhood for over a decade. “Now it’s attracting the heavy hitters. It’s no longer considered an edgy neighborhood. It used to be that when you rented a building in SoHo, the landlord would say, ‘Who are you and give me three months’ in cash.’ Now it’s, ‘Give me a year’s letter of credit, and what are you going to offer me that your competition isn’t?”‘
“That an international city like New York only had one concentrated shopping area has always been strange to us,” said Lynda Abdoo, vice president of retail stores for Ferragamo. “Paris has the Left Bank and the Right Bank, and we think of SoHo as New York’s Left Bank.”
“There’s a fascination that every other culture has with New York,” said Andrea Hansen, director of marketing for H. Stern. “We use New York as a launch pad for our collections, our ad campaigns, our events. And we knew that having a location in SoHo would bring a youthful, artsy association to the brand.”
Ten years ago, said Banker, SoHo landlords wanted to deal directly with the owners of the companies that leased their spaces.
“Now, they’ve had enough of dealing with the president,” Banker said. “They want a signature company. It’s no longer about wanting a creative entrepreneur, they want financial security.”
And the big names offer just that.
“There is a huge population of [downtown] New Yorkers that never cross 23rd Street,” she added. “They are moneyed and fashionable, and they want the best. That population has grown significantly, with the development of TriBeCa, the meatpacking district, Chelsea and the financial district, not to mention tourism. Madison Avenue is intimidating; you can’t change that.”
“These aren’t retailers that depend on one city,” said Faith Hope Consolo, vice chairman at Garrick-Aug Associates, the commercial real estate firm here.
Rents have skyrocketed to as much as $350 to $400 a square foot for the prime streets. That’s up 25 percent in the last 18 months, added Banker, and as much as 50 percent in the last three years.
A few things have colluded to trigger this wave. First, the recent luxury boom got a lot of brands thinking American expansion. Second, cool hotels — the SoHo Grand in 1996, the Mercer in 1998 — got tourists and business travelers staying in the area as opposed to passing through it. More of those are happening — 60 Thompson just opened, while hoteliers Andre Balazs and Ian Schrager have each signed leases for hotels in the area. Third, leases began to turn over from the last go-round of SoHo expansion in the early Nineties.
And stores, from Madison Avenue veterans to trendy multibrand boutiques, say there is a change in customer tastes south of 14th Street.
Stacy Pecor, owner of the growing multibrand chain Olive & Bette, found one of SoHo’s rare smaller spaces and opened her fourth store there in November. Pecor, who has shops on the Upper East and West Sides (as well as the original door in Burlington, Vt.), sees very distinct differences. The SoHo customer, she said, is slightly older — in her early 30s — looking for hip sportswear and willing to pay $180 for a cool pair of jeans or $42 for a T-shirt with a vintage Sex Pistols screen print.
Sarah Hailes, co-owner of the high-end boutique Kirna Zabete on Greene Street, agreed. “If you look at the merchandise in the Chanel boutique, it’s not about wardrobing,” she said. “It’s fashion-y items, for the shopper who wants Chanel now.”
Changing the mix is part of appealing to the downtown mind-set: Most of the executives said they tweak their stores to make them slightly edgier. Robert Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs, said he’s putting more emphasis on the secondary Marc line in the four-year-old signature Mercer Street store.
“I’m so torn right now,” said Duffy. “I want to leave, but I know I can’t. As SoHo has become a huge designer mall, it really has enhanced our business.” On the other hand, he said, the serious designer customers who shopped during the week and liked SoHo’s quieter streets are being turned off. That’s why he’s close to signing a deal for a signature women’s store in the West Village, where the company has a men’s wear store, while the Mercer Street unit will become more Marc-oriented.
British designer-retailer Joseph Ettedgui, owner of Joseph, doesn’t believe in the idea of the uptown and downtown customer. To him, they’re one and the same woman. “Both areas are very, very charming, but I don’t think the customers are very different now,” he said. “I love uptown because it reminds me of old movies, while if it’s modern, SoHo is the place to be. But New York is a city where customers travel to find out the new and different, and that’s the same whether a place is on Madison or in SoHo.”
Hailes said she likes the influx of high-end names.
“It makes SoHo that much more of a destination,” which is ultimately good for business, she said. John Idol, chief executive officer at Donna Karan International, agreed. “You have to be [in SoHo],” he said. “It’s clearly changing, but it’s becoming more grown-up. And for most companies, a SoHo store will rank in their top 10 in the U.S. market in terms of sales.”
That’s in large part because of tourists. “I stand here and watch the tour busses drive by,” said Pecor, whose store gets so crowded on weekends “that we should charge just to come in.” Pecor said she’s been doing about $3,000 per square foot and hopes to hit about $2 million at the new location this year.
But transitions are bound to ruffle feathers, particularly in a neighborhood whose identity is largely derived from its artsy denizens. As the gallery population has fled to Chelsea and the meatpacking district, veterans say the new arrivals are changing SoHo, for the worse.
“SoHo started in a somewhat ad-hoc way,” said Shael Shapiro, an architect who has lived in SoHo for close to 30 years. “We fought for the zoning changes together, and we really bonded as a community.
“I would be happy if things had frozen about 10 years ago, when we had a unique blend of artists and galleries, small boutiques, things you couldn’t find other places,” he said. “There was still some manufacturing and a few salvage places. There were a lot of things that supported the artists. On the other hand, I guess change is inevitable. But it’s hard when you go out on the weekends and there is no resemblance” to what the neighborhood looked like a few years ago, he said.
While there are still galleries and resident artists, any vestigial memory of SoHo as an artist enclave “is kind of romantic at this point,” said Sean Sweeney, director of the neighborhood activist group the SoHo Alliance.
And the new neighbors aren’t bad to work with, he added, “but they’re difficult to get to.
“These big companies, if you call to complain about something, you never get to the right person,” he said. Sweeney heads up SoHo’s landmarks board and can blackball plans that try to fiddle with the protected architecture. And there, said Sweeney, the Europeans are the most obstinate. “People pretty much want to preserve the 19th-century character,” he said. “But it’s the Americans more so than the Europeans, particularly the Italians and the French. Their attitude is, well, if we can put huge plate glass windows down to street level on the Via Veneto, why can’t we do it here?”
Not so, says the current wave, who say they have tried very hard to fit in.
“Our approach to both stores is to retain the integrity of the exterior and interior,” said Robert Triefus, corporate vice president of worldwide communications at Giorgio Armani SpA. “It’s obviously a very vibrant community, and SoHo has become not just a tourist destination, but a shopping destination for New Yorkers. For Emporio, it’s our downtown location, and for Casa, it’s very relevant and appealing.”
“We have done everything in our power to make sure our store fits in with the neighborhood,” said H. Stern’s Hansen. “Believe me. We changed the color of the brick and the size of the windows on our original plan to merge better with the architecture. You know, we announced this project in August 1998, and it’s taken that long to put this project together. And every delay has had to do with making sure we would fit into the neighborhood.”
Ferragamo is restoring its 1883 building, said Abdoo. “It was really in disrepair. The store we’re building is much more in character with the neighborhood.”
“We wanted our store to reflect the style and attitude of the environment, particularly in SoHo, where there is such amazing history and a strong aesthetic sense,” said Reed Krakoff, executive vice president and creative director of Coach. “The materials we used — stainless steel, concrete and oak — all look believable.”
“I think neighborhoods by nature evolve,” said Ferragamo’s Abdoo. “There’s so much character in SoHo that I’m not worried about it becoming Madison Avenue. It has a very strong architectural imprint that people are eager to preserve.”
But at least one expatriate feels SoHo’s new look is a step in the wrong direction.
“SoHo is the goose that laid the golden egg,” said Holly Solomon, who closed her SoHo gallery two years ago after 25 years. “Those fashion people are really very silly. They had the greatest galleries in the world, and now that’s no longer true. Now, who is going to go there? Why would anyone go there? That was the major thrust of the area. If you are a tourist from Ohio, why are you going to go there anymore? Now it’s a mall, a grand mall. It’s sad, because it will never go back.”

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