Discovering Downtown New York
Published: May 2009
By Julia Szabo
New York City's SoHo has met its retail match in the other neighborhoods south of Houston: Nolita and the Lower East Side, where stylish boutiques lure the young, the not-so-young, and the fabulous.
In New York, there's a particular type of hipster who's proud of never venturing north of 14th Street; a hipster for whom the Petula Clark song "Downtown" is less an anthem than a way of life. These days, it's possible to achieve shopping nirvana all the way downtown in Nolita and the Lower East Side, two neighborhoods that are newly trendy.
Nolita was a wasteland until about three years ago, when a smattering of chic boutiques and cafés ventured onto a cluster of quiet blocks south of Houston Street and east of Lafayette. The area was designated Nolita (for north of Little Italy). The acronym, with its shades of Nabokov, was destiny: Nolita quickly became the stamping ground of the young and avant-garde. Psychic Frank Andrews, a resident for 33 years, said sages had counseled him against moving his business to such a remote location ("Nobody will go there," they warned). Today's visitors aren't only going, they're staying: David Bowie and Iman are rumored to have moved to the area.
Similar developments are taking place a few blocks to the east, on the Lower East Side. Lumped together for decades as "the Bargain District," Orchard, Ludlow, Stanton, and Eldridge Streets were a grungy destination for strictly cut-rate items: girdles, by-the-yard fabric, and cheap luggage. Today, those same streets are home to trendy stores and smoke-filled hangouts for rock-and-rollers with style.
So let other neighborhoods lose their edge under a flurry of sales receipts (that's happened in SoHo; most of the art community has decamped to Chelsea). Entrepreneurs appear intent on preserving the style of these neighborhoods, playing up urban blights such as graffiti-covered walls. The Nolita store of accessories designer Amy Chan (247 Mulberry St.; 212/966-3417) was formerly the Ravenite Social Club--a.k.a. John Gotti's headquarters--and, with its original tiled floor, it retains a frisson of gangster chic. At the center of the action is a sea of tranquillity: the handsome St. Patrick's Old Cathedral (263 Mulberry St.; 212/226-8075). But, as if to bless the retail phenomenon, in January the church opened a gift shop in its rectory basement.
Pioneers include Mayle (252 Elizabeth St.; 212/625-0406), for sweetly feminine dresses; Zero (225 Mott St.; 212/925-3849), a showcase for the Modernist styles of acclaimed designer Maria Cornejo; and Product (219 Mott St.; 212/219-2224), where a mulberry-colored denim jacket looks just as fashionably correct as anything by Helmut Lang.
Every day, more newcomers threaten to steal the thunder: Hedra Prue (281 Mott St.; 212/343-9205), a treasure chest of forward-thinking clothes and jewelry; Malia Mills (199 Mulberry St.; 212/625-2311), which stocks sexy bathing suits and beachwear; Tracy Feith (209 Mulberry St.; 212/334-3097), home to hippie-sleek slip dresses; P.A.K. (229 Mott St.; 212/226-5167), with Corey Pak's designs, reminiscent of Courrèges yet very wearable; and Erica Tanov (204 Elizabeth St.; 212/334-8020), where shopping for clothes and bed linens is as luxurious as a bubble bath.
Groovy little girls will covet the offerings at Calypso Enfants (284 Mulberry St.; 212/965-8910), such as tulle tutus with flower petals trapped between their layers. Brides and their maids can score some of the most novel dresses around at Mary Adams (159 Ludlow St.; 212/473-0237). You'll feel as if you've gained admission to a Belle Époque lady's boudoir: the store also stocks artist Ellen Berkenblit's racy collection of gossamer underwear-cum-outerwear.
Tired of off-the-rack selections?Make a beeline for Da House of Sabbah (180 Mulberry St.; 212/334-4668), where Moroccan-born Claude Sabbah, downtown's couturier of choice, fashions gowns of georgette or Prince of Wales wool plaid, trimming them in industrial-strength nylon webbing. His Halston-meets-hip-hop designs are favored by Lauryn Hill. If bespoke leather is your thing, New York City Custom Leather by Agatha (168 Ludlow St.; 212/375-9593) creates rock-chick looks with a second-skin fit. But call ahead--a sign reads do not disturb unless you have an appointment.
The vintage store Resurrection (217 Mott St.; 212/625-1374) and the designer-resale boutique Ina (21 Prince St.; 212/334-9048) are the sources for many of the getups Sarah Jessica Parker wears in Sex and the City. More secondhand treasures await at Cherry (185 Orchard St.; 212/358-7131), where you'll find Halston Ultrasuedes, Pucci cotton blouses, and star-spangled Levi's in mint condition. At New York's most atmospheric consignment shop, Yu (151 Ludlow St.; 212/979-9370), the incense is as inviting as the Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons hand-me-downs.
How cool is Nova USA (100 Stanton St.; 212/228-6844)?Gwyneth Paltrow and Cameron Diaz bought so many pieces of the men's wear in size small that designer Tony Melillo created a women's collection. And whenever Leonardo DiCaprio wasn't unclothed in The Beach, he was wearing Nova USA threads. Ina Men (262 Mott St.; 212/334-2210) practically gives away consignment Agnès B., Prada, and Dolce & Gabbana. For clothes so new they're positively futuristic, there's Juan Anon (193 Orchard St.; 212/529-7795). Fans of traditional custom shirting, on the other hand, will adore Seize sur Vingt (243 Elizabeth St.; 212/343-0476)--they make women's shirts, too. More-eclectic guys are spotted at Min Lee (105 Stanton St.; 212/375-0304).
Garish uptown baubles don't quite cut it down here. How about precious-stone-dotted rings by Karen Karch of Push (240 Mulberry St.; 212/965-9699); a tourmaline necklace by Kara Varian Baker (215 Mulberry St.; 212/431-5727); or subtle silver drop earrings by Me & Ro (239 Elizabeth St.; 917/237-9215), the favorite jewelers of Julia Roberts?
Check out the polished-calf shoulder bags at Kazuyo Nakano (223 Mott St.; 212/941-7093); satin purses worthy of Empress Eugénie at Jamin Puech (252 Mott St.; 212/334-9730); and Blue Bag (266 Elizabeth St.; 212/966-8566), where every item is so delectable it's tough to choose just one. The milliner's art thrives in the capable hands of Lisa Shaub (232 Mulberry St.; 212/965-9176), Elma Blint (245 Elizabeth St.; 212/965-0494), and Amy Downs (103 Stanton St.; 212/598-4189).
Sigerson Morrison (242 Mott St.; 212/219-3893) is right up there with Manolo Blahnik on every fashionista's short- list of must-have mules--but don't miss the lace-up rubber boots and Audrey-style beaded sling-backs at Shoe (197 Mulberry St.; 212/941-0205), or the ultramodern heel technology at Goffredo Fantini (248 Elizabeth St.; 212/219-1501), where strappy sandals are lined with padding for your pavement-pounding comfort. At Jade (280 Mulberry St.; 212/925-6544), there's a rainbow of lacquered-wood slides, all made in Vietnam. DDC Lab (180 Orchard St.; 212/375-1647) sells super-snazzy footwear like hard-to-find Royal Elastic sneakers. Well-heeled guys stop by Terra Plana (260 Elizabeth St.; 212/274-9000), whose shoehorns have been on display at the Museum of Modern Art.
The merchandise on view at downtown's home-furnishings shops so deftly straddles the vintage-modern axis that it can be hard to tell what's new and what isn't. Area . . . id (262 Elizabeth St.; 212/219-9903) specializes in chairs and sofas from the 1950's and 60's, recovered in millennial fabrics. At Capitol Furnishings (259 Elizabeth St.; 212/925-6760), brand-new Lucite lamps compete for attention with 1960's Kosta Boda glassware and original Biedermeier dining chairs. Fad (262 Mott St.; 212/941-6516) offers iconic specimens by Wegner, Saarinen, and Robsjohn-Gibbings, while at one of Las Venus's two locations (163 Ludlow St. and 113 Stanton St.; 212/982-0608) you might score a gently used Eames desk chair for $165 (the same chair newly made goes for $895).
Shì (233 Elizabeth St.; 212/334-4330) carries satin cushions in jewel tones, while À Détacher (262 Mott St.; 212/625-3380) makes a très chic white felt pillow with black felt appliqué. Kinnu (43 Spring St.; 212/334-4775) has handwoven bedspreads and antique spice boxes from India. For more Asian furnishings, visit Design in Textiles by Mary Jaeger (51 Spring St.; 212/941-5877) to check out table runners made from antique kimonos and silk douppioni pillows.
The dazzling lifestyle stores Zao (175 Orchard St.; 212/505-0500) and Language (238 Mulberry St.; 212/431-5566) rival Paris's esteemed Colette with their slick selections of clothing, home furnishings, books, and objects--not to mention in-store art galleries with rotating exhibitions. Speaking of lifestyle, camouflage turns up on floor cushions at Ssurplus (219A Mulberry St.; 212/431-3152); backpacks and chairs at Alife (178 Orchard St.; 646/654-0628); and urban armor--T-shirts and knit caps--at Recon (237 Eldridge St.; 212/614-8502). In these parts, it's more than a fashion statement.
Manhattan native Julia Szabo writes frequently for the New York Daily News.
While other neighborhoods may teem with spas and calming beauty stores, here you'll have to search a little harder for a place to relax after shopping. Where to go:
Day Spa & Salons
Book ahead for a Thai massage or a destressing facial at Prema Nolita (252 Elizabeth St.; 212/226-3972). Kropps & Bobbers (173 Orchard St.; 212/260-6992) does wonders with manicures, body massages, air-brushed tattoos--and hair. At Dandie (100 Stanton St.; 212/598-4490) you can get an edgy haircut or extensions.
The new Fresh (57 Spring St.; 212/925-0099) sells irresistibly fragrant, inventively packaged products such as candles scented in cocoa, tobacco, or Turkish rose. Brooke Shields and Bianca Jagger are fans of Fresh's Chocolate Milk Lotion. Designer Claire Blaydon (202A Mott St.; 212/219-1490) has bottled the essence of the downtown experience with Nolita, a perfume she created with the neighborhood in mind. It comes in four varieties--hyacinth, rose, orange blossom, and gardenia--that will calm even the most high-strung shopper.
Snacks On The Go
The fashion set finds stylish gelato at Ciao Bella (285 Mott St.; 212/431-3591). For those not watching their waistlines, there's Pomme Pomme (191 E. Houston St.; 646/602-8140), which serves Belgian-style frites. Bread & Butter (229 Elizabeth St.; 212/925-7600) does a mean PB&J.
Restaurants & Cafés
Café Gitane (242 Mott St.; 212/334-9552) is at the center of the Nolita action, and its outside bench is filled in any weather. There's a buzzing bar scene and a fabulous garden at Rialto (265 Elizabeth St.; 212/334-7900). Little Italy is steps away from both neighborhoods--but the culinary adventurer needn't roam that far. Wednesday nights there's a paella party at the otherwise pan-Asian Rice (227 Mott St.; 212/226-5775). Or take a trip to Australia at Eight Mile Creek (240 Mulberry St.; 212/431-4635); to Ethiopia at Ghenet (284 Mulberry St.; 212/343-1888); to Mexico at Casa Mexicana (133 Ludlow St.; 212/473-4100); to France at Le Père Pinard (175 Ludlow St.; 212/777-4917). If it's Italian you crave, head to Peasant (194 Elizabeth St.; 212/965-9511), where everything is prepared the rustic way.