Byline: Janet Ozzard

NEW YORK — For bargain hunters, Orchard Street is Manhattan’s equivalent of the Nile Valley: This is where it all began. The Lower East Side has been a mecca for cheap goods since the turn of the last century when Eastern European immigrants opened cut-rate textile stores or sold their goods from a pushcart. It has even been designated a “historic bargain district” by the city.
But lately, driven by the skyrocketing rents in NoLIta and SoHo, entrepreneurial upscale retailers are bringing a new kind of merchandise to Orchard Street, with prices that sound more caviar than knish.
And while the neighborhood may be hopping at night with socializers bouncing from Orchard Bar to Le Pere Pinard to Luna Lounge, what’s mostly driving the boom is that rents are, for the moment, affordable.
“What’s great about Orchard Street is that it doesn’t require a major investment, since rents are still around $40 to $60 per square foot,” said Caroline Banker, executive vice president at the real estate firm Douglas Elliman. “You can throw up some sheet rock, roll in a few racks and you’re in business.”
“The Lower East Side is still a comparative real estate bargain,” said Andrew Flamm, executive director of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District. “I can’t think of any place in Manhattan where rents are better.
“What’s interesting right now is the diversity of stores on Orchard Street,” he said. “There are still businesses that have been in the same family for three or four generations, like Beckenstein’s or Harris Levy or Altman Luggage. Then there are the new types of stores, which are attracting a different kind of shopper to the area.”
That new generation might have a hard time finding its way there. One of the Lower East Side’s bigger drawbacks is inaccessibility. The F train stops at Second Avenue and Houston Street or at Delancey Street. But then, say the retailers, the customer who is browsing for a $70 metal mesh throw pillow at Zao or a $4,500 Mark Kroeker leather macrame dress at Seven probably doesn’t have a Metrocard in her Lulu Guiness tote bag, anyway.
The rise in the hip quotient of the area was bound to happen, said Banker.
“NoLIta is so tight right now that the progression is inevitable,” she said. “One of my long-term concerns is that Orchard Street is an area still in development. It’s not that accessible, so it’s always going to be a niche market.”
In the past 18 months, four stores have opened that are changing Orchard Street’s profile. They are the denim-driven streetwear store DDC Lab, the footwear-apparel-stuffed animal retailer Alife and the super-trendy Zao, with backing from Elie Tahari. The most recent entrant is Seven, a spare, streamlined space carrying high-end European designers.
While the leather stores and the fabric sellers aren’t going anywhere soon — “These guys have leases that go on forever,” said Arnaud Delecolle, one of the owners of Alife — the new arrivals say there’s good traffic for their kind of merchandise.
“The traffic is excellent,” said Jennifer Joseph, the buyer for DDC Lab. “On the weekends, this place is packed.”
There’s a growing local clientele of artists, musicians, advertising and dot-com executives and fashion types. A residential loft at 18 Orchard Street recently sold for $1.1 million, and two hotels are planned for the area.
DDC Lab is the pioneer of this group; it opened in late 1998. The store primarily carries DDC Lab’s sportswear for women and men, but other lines include Levi’s edgy Red Label denim, various brands of footwear and eclectically chosen items including Diptyque candles, Comme des Garcons fragrances and Chloe sunglasses. Prices for apparel run from $40 to $800.
“We saw a real potential for this area,” said Joseph. “We established ourselves here not because it’s the trendiest block in New York — although it is, now — but because of that potential.”
DDC started as a design collective and wholesale sportswear business by Savania Davies-Keiller and Roberto Crivello. With the wholesale business approaching $1 million, the store is used as a test kitchen for new styles and fabrics, some of which are done in conjunction with DuPont. It also offers the kind of service one might expect from a store selling $360 Kato jeans. There’s free tailoring, and if a customer needs to shorten a pair of jeans that have a distressed edge, DDC will redistress the cuff once the jeans have been hemmed.
“The designers do it all by hand,” said Joseph. “They sit there with sandpaper.”
Zao, opened last September at 187 Orchard is the equivalent of a celebrity. Not only does it have a well-known, deep-pocketed backer, it has the slickest interior. Zao packs an eclectic mix of home furnishings, women’s and men’s fashion, a concealed video screen, CDs, magazines, art books and a gallery space into about 3,000 square feet. There’s also a small garden in the back with a waterfall. With its mix of gadgety Japanese toys, high tech accessories, cartoon stuffed animals and really expensive apparel, Zao often gets compared to Colette, the uber-trend store in Paris. Castro admits that the founders, Tal Lancman and Assaf Ziv, looked at Colette but emphasizes that Zao reflects its eclectic urban milieu.
“New York is a city where a lot of cultures meet,” she said. The store’s fashion lines include Kitty Boots, Maurizio Galante, Yuji Yamada, Jose Levy, 12 Lbs., Burro, Callaghan, Bloom, Norman Smitherman, Yoshiki Shinoma, Elva, Issey Miyake’s “Egg” shirt line and a few pieces from Theory, the hot bridge sportswear line that is partly owned by Tahari.
Castro said Zao carries Theory not by management diktat but because “it mixes well with our other lines.” Prices run from $35 for a T-shirt to $9,000 for some of the one-of-a-kind pieces.
Alife was opened last October at 178 Orchard by four friends who knew each other from the graphic design and magazine business. Delecolle’s partners are Tony Arcabascio, Tammy Brainard and Rob Cristofaro. The store’s mix includes footwear like Gola and Snipe sneakers at $70, spraypainting paraphernalia, Lacoste shirts and the odd stuffed animal.
“We opened here because we wanted to try a different kind of store,” said Delecolle. “We looked around Elizabeth and Kenmare Streets, but it was totally out of our price range.”
The four friends gutted the 1,400-square-foot space themselves, meeting after work to rip out plywood paneling and acoustic tile. Now in addition to the selling space there’s a loft where Alife runs a design cooperative under the same name, which works on advertising, graphic design and creative concepts.
“A lot of the people we deal with here make their own products,” said Cristofaro. “We’re trying to build their brands. All our T-shirts, for example, are done by young designers trying to get started.” Arcabascio added that the group doesn’t feel it has to stick to conventional definitions. If there’s an intriguing product — the stuffed animals, for example, are made by a two-person Canadian company called Dynamo — they will pick it up.
And last month, Seven opened its doors. The 1,000 square-foot, 12-foot-wide boutique-cum-gallery at 180 Orchard carries women’s and men’s wear from hot designers including Markus Huemer/Unit, Mark Kroeker, Rubin Chappelle and Pierrot.
“First and foremost, we wanted a gallery atmosphere,” said John Demas, one of the four owners of Seven. Demas designed the space, with its squared-off cement facade, curving plaster walls and modified epoxy floors, to set off the apparel and art work. “This was about getting a perfect combination of art and fashion. We think a lot of fashion is art or approaches being art, today.”
“If you only want clothes, you can go to SoHo,” said Esti Castro, general manager of Zao. “If you want to play, to spend the day and discover things, you come here.”
Seven’s other fashion and accessories lines include As Four, Jodi Busby, Perth Amboy, Susan Cianciolo, ORFI, People Used to Dream About the Future, Michelle Mason, Claudia Hill, Morteza Saifi, Benjamin Cho and United Bamboo. The buying and much of the day-to-day business planning is done by Joseph Quartana, who had worked at XOXO and in a now-defunct marketing firm.
Alife and Seven are both owned by groups of friends who see the retail as a springboard for creative projects of all kinds, from photography and painting to video and clothing design.
“The idea was to develop a company that was like a collective,” said Seven’s Demas. “A retail store seemed to be the perfect venture to start with.”
Another common denominator for the stores is that they have one foot in retailing and the other in the art world. Each makes provisions to showcase exhibits regularly; Zao even has a staff curator, Lisa Schroeder, who brings new artists to the store and also has a hand in visual display.
It helps traffic, but it also supports the creativity that these retailers say is essential to their identity.
Zao, for example, will have new shows going up every six weeks, curated by Schroeder, who also runs the Feed gallery on the Lower East Side. Right now, its show is called “The Erotic Lives of Women.” At Seven, artist Denise Fasanello has a multimedia installation through the end of the month. DDC Lab is showing work by photographer Terri Loewenthal through June 25.
How is the neighborhood dealing with the newcomers? Pretty hospitably, said the store owners. There are chance encounters that lead to business; for example, Seven carries a line of bags by Jose Bravo, who happens to work across the street in the vintage store Cherry.
The bargain crowd, say the new stores, has nothing to fear from the new group.
“It’s not like we’re going after the same customer,” said Alife’s Cristofaro. Plus, said Delecolle, the new stores make the neighborhood even more diverse. A greater concern is the inevitable rent hikes. Already, said some of the owners, they’re seeing rents creeping up as properties become vacant.
“Our landlord came to us and said, ‘How can we make people more interested in the Lower East Side,”‘ said Delecolle. “We told him to keep the rents low, because that’s going to drive the diversity of the neighborhood. If you clip the wings of the young creative people before the neighborhood has a chance to develop, then you’ll just end up with another chain store.”