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NEW YORK — You can tell a neighborhood is changing when the hardware stores, shoe repair shops and locksmiths move out to make way for stylish eateries, pricy boutiques and the growing financial ambitions of landlords.

The phenomenon, which has played out in neighborhoods from Chelsea to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is now evident in the West Village on the eastern fringes of the Meatpacking District .

The West Village, a quiet residential area with 19th-century row houses and tree-lined streets, is home to a quirky mix of professionals, young families and free spirits. One sign that may portend the future of the area: Garber Hardware, an institution that occupied an unremarkable corner of Eighth Avenue and West Fourth Street, has closed and some major fashion houses have reportedly shown interest in the site.

The idea may not be as farfetched as it seems. About half a mile south, Marc Jacobs paved the way on Bleecker Street for Ralph Lauren and others. Lauren now operates two stores on the same block. Intermix is reportedly leasing the former Eastern Arts, and Gucci is said to be eyeing the Pierre Deux space in a building that was recently sold. A Gucci spokeswoman declined to comment.

Prior to Jacobs’ arrival, the street had been populated by old Italian restaurants, cluttered antiques shops and small florists.

Greenwich Avenue between Sixth and Eighth Avenues has also amassed an interesting roster of independent retailers over the last few years. OTTE at No. 112 sells fashion from Miss Sixty, Rebecca Taylor and Plenty, while Flight 001 at 96 Greenwich Avenue has a retro look reminiscent of air travel during the Fifties when flying was glamorous, not annoying. There are even signs of new life as far south as Christopher Street.

But most of the new activity is concentrated along Hudson Street between West 13th Street and West 12th. Many of the new boutiques are independently owned and operated by the designers themselves, who often have workrooms at the back of their stores.

“When I first opened, it was all residential customers,” said Juliana Cho, the proprietor of Annelore, at 636 Hudson Street, a showcase for her meticulously cut and detailed clothing. “Now, even people who live outside of Manhattan are coming here. My business has doubled from last year. When I get eight or 10 people here it’s crazy because my store is so small.”

This story first appeared in the January 16, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Big Fun Toys at 636 Hudson Street sells George Bush talking dolls and Jesus action figures, while Yoya, a sliver of a shop in the same building, is filled with finely made baby and toddler clothing designed by its owners.

In a testament to the neighborhood, Yoya’s partners, two husband-and-wife teams, will open Yoya-Mart on the Gansevoort side of 652 Hudson Street, where Catherine Malandrino and Calypso are also opening units.

“This store will be more father-friendly,” said Stephane Gerbier, one-quarter of the Yoya team. The 1,200-square-foot store will carry labels such as Diesel, Antik Batik, Puma and Ray Ban along with original Yoya sport designs. “There will be fun visuals and music. It’s a Mini-Me concept. It’s how I would dress my kids.

“I live in the neighborhood,” Gerbier added. “It’s changed amazingly. Suddenly we are starting to see more young couples with children.” Celebrities such as Julianne Moore, Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Jessica Parker have reportedly shopped at Yoya in the past year.

SoHo House on Ninth Avenue and the Maritime Hotel on Eighth Avenue are providing more foot traffic to the Meatpacking District. This has encouraged retailers to open more stores on the residential streets to the east.

Last month, Elizabeth Charles opened a self-named boutique at 639 1/2 Hudson Street specializing in Australian designers such as Akira, Tony Maticevski, Ben Smith, Zambesi, Karen Walker, Anna Thomas, Alexandra Nea and Sabatini.

“It seemed that some places like NoLIta were past their prime,” said the Melbourne native. “Even if the rents in SoHo are the same price, this is really cool and edgy.

“Stylists have found me already,” added Charles, who had a smaller store on Perry Street. “The stylist for ‘Saturday Night Live’ came in to get clothes for Jennifer Aniston [who hosted Saturday’s show]. I’m hoping that with the Australian connection I can be the wardrober for Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett and Naomi Watts.”

A few steps away on Gansevoort Street, Shelley Steffee’s eponymous shop features her sharply tailored designs. “My store feels like it’s in an Italian piazza minus the Duomo and fountain,” said Steffee, sitting on a curved sofa behind silver curtains that separate the starkly decorated store from her workroom.

“I gear my business to the nightlife,” she said. “A lot of people come for the restaurants in the Meatpacking District, so I stay open until 10 p.m.”

A favorite game among business owners is talking about incoming tenants. Stephen Hanson’s B.R. Guest, which owns Fiama, is opening Vento Trattoria in March in a triangular building that anchors the intersection of Ninth Avenue, West 14th and Hudson Streets. An as-yet-unnamed 8,000-square-foot club is reportedly coming to West 13th Street.

“Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani have been in the neighborhood looking,” said Steffee. “I’ve seen Ralph with his team walking around.”

The impetus for Hudson Street’s retail development is undoubtedly the rise of the Meatpacking District, where many of the warehouses have been replaced by art galleries, spas, restaurants and bars.

Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of the multibrand designer emporium, Jeffrey New York, is often cited as the pioneer of West 14th Street. His store is a Ferragamo boot’s throw away from the highway. Restaurants and bars begat designer boutiques like Alexander McQueen, Scoop, Rubin Chapelle and Stella McCartney.

There were early casualties such as Fressen and Oriont. Stella McCartney is rumored to be closing, although a spokesman for the company said, “It’s the first time I’m hearing about it.

“It’s not true. Everything has been according to plan,” he added, although he said he understands why people might come to that conclusion: McCartney’s parent, Gucci Group, said last month that pretax losses at Stella McCartney Ltd. were about $8 million.

Why are the business economics different on Hudson Street? For one thing, there’s the size of the stores. It’s unusual to find spaces above 1,200 square feet, while many former warehouses in the Meatpacking District are between 8,000 and 12,000 square feet. Of course, sales should be commensurate with store size.

“I was lucky to find a space small enough,” said Charles. “I wanted to create a store as if it were my living room.”

Yoya-Mart’s Gerbier had another reason for choosing the neighborhood. “It’s very branché, as we say in France,” he explained. “That’s very hip and plugged in.”