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Discovering Downtown New York

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.

women's fashion

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.

something old

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.

for men

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).

accessories

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?

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