GRITTY AND PRETTY: A NEW NICHE EMERGES IN NYC’S EAST VILLAGE
Byline: Leonard McCants / Julee Greenberg
NEW YORK — The East Village has a storied history as the home of struggling artists, hippies, jazz musicians and punk rockers, a place where the street’s rhythm followed the beat of the generations.
In the Nineties, as the many neighborhoods became recognized by their retail persona, the East Village, with its small and narrow storefronts under apartments housing mixed-income residents, missed the real-estate boom that established downtown areas such as SoHo and NoLIta.
But as gentrification has turned neighborhoods from Harlem and Hell’s Kitchen to the Lower East Side into less-expensive and safer living alternatives, the East Village has also prospered and benefited. The area was considered part of the Lower East Side until the early Sixties, when many artists, musicians and writers seeking cheap housing moved from Greenwich Village.
Take a walk along Avenue B today and one is more likely to run into college graduates living in $2,000-a-month, one-bedroom apartments and eating in hip restaurants like Casimir than the low-income housing activists and fledgling artists who demonstrated in Tompkins Square Park in the late-Eighties.
With the influx of affluent people and the Village’s popular bars, clubs and restaurants, numerous but unique boutiques popped up in those same small neighborhood storefronts.
Most recently, the East Village was put in the fashion spotlight by Miguel Adrover, who opened a boutique, Horn, in 1995 on East Ninth Street with Douglas Hobbs, who launched his collection Dugg on Saturday. The store closed early last year after Adrover’s fall 2000 collection took off and he became a rising fashion star.
Up-and-coming designers who loathe presenting their collections in midtown showrooms or moving into what has become the mall-like atmosphere of SoHo, have opened whimsical shops with clothing of the limited-availability variety and customer service that is more personal than can generally be found at a name-brand boutique or retail chain.
Known primarily for its vintage clothing boutiques, which can be found on nearly every corner, and feature stacks of faded Levi’s from the Seventies and retro Eighties’ ruffles and polkadots, the neighborhood’s shopping options range from tiny jewelry and accessory stores to dress and sportswear establishments with prices up to $5,000 for eveningwear at Angelo Lambrou’s boutique on East Seventh Street.
“There is no stigma or no aversion to going there to shop versus somewhere else,” said Faith Hope Consolo, vice chairman of Garrick-Aug Associates, a real-estate brokerage that helped the Gap find its Saint Marks Place and Second Avenue locations. “It used to be people were slumming to go to the East Village.”
Testament to that, several store owners along East Seventh and East Ninth Streets said their customers come not only from surrounding neighborhoods, but as far away as uptown Manhattan and New Jersey.
“I was struck by the number of people+who venture to the East Village to shop,” said Lambrou, who opened his ready-to-wear shop at 96 East Seventh Street in December. “The Village is an escape from the usual midtown, Upper East or Upper West Side scene. It awakens at night to become an exciting atmosphere, reminiscent of a European town, yet with a strong American presence.”
Another key factor for the neighborhood’s popularity with young designers is rent prices. While still accessible via public transportation, yet off the beaten path enough to be cool, East Village retail rents have not approached the levels of the other trendy downtown locales, Consolo said.
With prices hovering at less than $100 a square foot, prices in the East Village are a third as much as SoHo locations and half as much as NoLIta, which makes it a Manhattan rarity.
“Even on the river at 43rd Street and 12th Avenue landlords are asking for that magic number of $100 per square foot,” she said. “There are very few choices left in Manhattan for people with individual thinking.”
Boutique owners said affordable rents help, especially for those just starting out, but what also sets the neighborhood apart is the type of stores and the customers who flock there.
“I like to have my niche,” said Nicole Vaughn, owner of a signature boutique at 110 East Seventh Street. “It’s funky, it’s hip and the girls who shop here are creative and they want something different. They come here because they can’t find this at Macy’s.”
Vaughn has been on East Seventh Street since 1996, when she opened at 112 East Seventh.
“Seventh Street [between Avenue A and First Avenue] is a pretty block,” she said. “The people who shop here live around here for the most part.”
After trying her hand at wholesaling her “funky, casual” sportswear and dresses and having orders cancelled at the last minute or having retailers “tell me how to design,” Vaughn said, she opened her shop and now works close to the season.
“I feel like the clothes that I have here are on target,” she said. “We’re into real people here. That’s the thing about the Seventh Avenue scene, everybody is trying to impress everybody.”
The need to set themselves apart from the perceived mainstream nature of the Garment Center and major retailers seems to be a common thread among downtown — especially East Village — designers and store owners.
Jill Anderson, who opened her self-named dress shop at 331 East Ninth Street five years ago, said she makes a concerted effort to not get “too involved” with the fashion industry.
She said she lives a block from her boutique and her production space is on East 11th Street, two blocks to the north.
“I don’t leave this neighborhood much,” she added. “When I go to the Garment District, I say I’m ‘going to town.”‘
While the neighborhood has made some dramatic changes over the years, it still has its bizarre moments, Anderson said, noting the summer when a homeless woman walked down East Ninth Street naked while talking to herself or when a man, who Anderson surmised was mentally disturbed, charged into her store wielding a baseball bat. She was not hurt in the incident, which ended when a neighbor safely talked the man out of the store.
“It keeps the neighborhood a little bit more edgy,” she said of the incidents. “That’s what I moved here for. I don’t want to live in suburbia.”
Although the large East Village artist community may have, for the most part, moved on to other locations where studio space is more affordable, some designers like Mahwish Syed make an effort to continue the artistic tradition through their designs.
“For me, moving to the East Village was really about setting myself apart,” said Syed, who opened her brightly painted boutique at 96 East Seventh, next door to Lambrou, in September. “I’m not a merchant, I’m an artist. For me, this is a concept space.”
She said that she has used her boutique for dance performances and as a workshop space.
Despite the East Village’s growing popularity as a shopping destination, it is still not as recognizable as SoHo or NoLIta, shop owners said. In an effort to change that perception, several dozen neighborhood store owners teamed up to form the Designers of the East Village Association or DEVA, to increase awareness about the district’s shopping possibilities.
On the drawing board is a DEVA fashion show scheduled for early May. The runway presentation, which they plan to hold outside on East Seventh Street, will feature designs from area stores, Syed said.
Boutique owners and real-estate agents all said the neighborhood has a promising future, but they all caution — and some hope — that it will not turn into a new SoHo.
“That is not going to happen because there is not that much space here,” Vaughn said. “They’re not going to knock down the apartment buildings.”
Added Lambrou, “I am sure that the neighborhood will protect [its] unique atmosphere. I sincerely hope that it will grow, yet maintain its wonderful character.”
Selia Yang opened a small shop at 328 East Ninth Street four years ago with minimal expectations. Yang began building a secure customer base by selling her rtw collection in her self-titled small shop, but it wasn’t until customers asked her to design their wedding dresses that she began to consider herself a bridal designer.
“I never thought of doing bridal,” she said. “But now, I am very happy I decided to do so.”
While she still implements some rtw in her collection, Yang said her main concern has become the bridal part of her business. She said she has seen the business grow “tremendously” over the years and has begun plans to expand.
Yang is set to open a studio in TriBeCa to house her bridal collection, while her rtw line will remain in her shop. Customers can make appointments to meet with Yang in the studio so she can custom design the exact dress she wants. Eventually, Yang said she would like to sell some of her gowns to other select specialty stores.
“My customer does not want to look like the traditional bride,” she said mentioning that most of her loyal customers travel from the Upper East and Upper West Sides of the city. “She wants something a little different.”
In the eight years that Meghan Kinney has been in business, she has seen many shops in the East Village come and go.
“The East Village has defiantly grown since I came here,” she said. “There are many more small shops.”
Kinney believes her well-defined customer profile is what keeps her 312 East Ninth Street shop, called Meg, in business.
“My customer is between the ages of 25 and 35. She is successful and has a distinct style,” she said, pointing out that her customers work in professions that allow them to wear what they feel comfortable in. “She comes here for her everyday clothes and enjoys unique shopping experiences.”
So, while Kinney carries many items of clothing and accessories in her shop, the bulk of her merchandise is dresses.
Kinney is also in an expansion mode. She already opened a shop in Toronto and is hoping to open a third shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side within the next eight months.
“I believe there is a tremendous customer base for us in that part of town,” she said, “and I think I would do very well there.”
While business for some East Village vendors has been thriving, for others times are a bit difficult. This is especially true for store owner and designer Cherry Bishop, whose shop has been located on East Seventh Street for 10 years.
“Opening up shop here is not something you do to get rich,” cautioned Bishop, who moved to New York from Australia to start her business. “I think the hair dressers around here make more money than the clothing shops.”
But Bishop has managed to survive and still takes pride in what she does, designing clothing that “fits real women.” She has lasted through periods of a slow economy, continuous rent raising and even a clash with a former landlord.
“I’ve seen this neighborhood change a lot over the years, but what still remains is the amount of talented people in the area,” she said. “There are always new people willing to work very hard just to pay the rent.”
Added Yang, “I have seen a tremendous growth in my business because I believe that there is something about the Village, which gives customers a cozy atmosphere to shop in. It’s the complete opposite of department store shopping.”