Giant chain stores in Manhattan always seem to be packed: There are lines outside Abercrombie & Fitch most weekends, and visits to H&M are not recommended for the crowd-phobic. They always, however, seem packed mostly with tourists. New Yorkers like big chains for basics and for bargains, but in a city where the small boutique still thrives, the chains never feel like they have locals in mind.
This fall, Big is trying on Small, at least for us. With the help of imported stylish people (or, in the going parlance of stores, “curators”), three familiars from the mall—the Gap, J.Crew, and Bloomingdale’s—are seeking to be as personal, and quirkified, as a Cobble Hill boutique. This is different from guest-designing; here, curators accumulate a variety of interesting stuff, which sells next to the Big’s mass-produced and sometimes mundane.
Starting September 6, the Gap is giving over the small storefront next to its flagship at 680 Fifth Avenue (at 54th St.; 212-977-7023) to Sarah Lerfel, the pixieish creative director of Paris boutique Colette, which often gets the credit for this whole idea of high-low mixing. “I tried to mix what is Gap and what is Colette,” Lerfel explains. She brought in sneakers, sunglasses, nail polish, and CDs that she likes, and commissioned T-shirts that were begun by New York artists (Neckface, Eric Elms) and finished by Paris artists (Andre, Genevieve Gauckler). “It is coming from Dada art, when they were doing this type of thing,” Lerfel says. Duchamp, so to speak, wore khakis. Lerfel also embodies the target demographic: She, with her extreme access to extreme fashion, has found herself seduced. “I am in the middle of all the fashion brands,” she explains. “For me, I wear the Gap only when it is special collections.” So, then. It’s working.
Farther downtown, another experiment in cool-guy curation is happening at J.Crew’s first men’s-only shop, which opened August 21 in what was Liquor Store Bar, that once-popular, self-consciously low-key neighborhood drinking destination (235 W. Broadway, nr. N. Moore St.; 212-226-5476). Thanks to the Cheever-esque, modern-day Mad Men touch of Andy Spade, the occasional oddity appears alongside the piles of cashmere sweaters, like No. 2 pencils chewed by well-known authors (Max Blagg, for example). There are repp ties with logos for the Strand bookshop (and the shop contains a mini-Strand of Spade & Co.’s favorite titles). The sign out front still says liquor store, because ideally the men who used to drink there are the same men who like fleece-lined hoodies and the occasional pair of cheeky madras pants. “We’re making it more intelligent and giving it a personality,” says Spade. “We’re adding another layer to the brand. The idea is to make a personalized store.”
Bloomingdale’s still has its legendary landmark appeal, and for a long while was known for its dedication to the cutting-edge (Norma Kamali had an in-shop boutique back in the day). But like many department stores, it’s fallen recently into the rut of the predictable. This fall, to cut through the uniformity, the store is installing a Space NK boutique on its ground level (1000 Third Ave., nr. 59th St.; 212-705-2000). Space NK is the English specialty beauty shop started by Nicky Kinnaird, who still tests every product (even the men’s) on her own face, so she can personally vouch for each.
Maybe all this store-as-personal-museum will bring these big American brands through what’s shaping up to be a bleak patch for retail. Maybe they’ll feel more like the locals. Or maybe they’re just an excellent chance to buy your pencils already chewed.