small-business stories

A Clothing Store That Eschewed E-Commerce Has an Identity Crisis

Photo: Jeanne Verdoux

In early February, Café Forgot, a roving store that sells appealingly weird clothing, threw a party in its newest location, a sliver of a shop in the East Village. A crowd of multi-multi-hyphenates (artists’-assistants-slash-podcast-hosts) packed the space, drinking wine in Dixie cups and trying on clothes, dressing-room curtains splayed open. Butt after curious butt slid in and out of a pair of jeans with back pockets that had been replaced with clear vinyl windows (complete with miniature tassel curtains); the artist Chloe Wise tried on a Renaissance-tapestry-inspired corset.

Though it’s only three years old, Café Forgot has become the perfect representation of a certain type of store that has always managed, somehow, to survive in New York: without an online shop; devoted to stocking eccentric, one-of-a-kind wares; capable of bringing cool people together in one place. (It’s often compared to the early-aughts Opening Ceremony.) Every other month in the East 6th space, it forgoes selling clothes at all; instead, it hosts free breathwork healing workshops and art installations. It’s easy to wonder how it can stay in business — is it because the tribe it serves buys enough $300 knitted tube tops to support its existence? Or is there a certain (familiar) strain of New York luck, a family-owned building or a generous landlord?

A combination. The landlords, whom co-founders Lucy Weisner and Vita Haas, 25 and 26 respectively, describe as “very old-school New York, like a rock-and-roll East Village older couple” (Mariann Marlowe, the owner of now-closed Second Avenue rockabilly boutique Enz’s, is one-half of the couple), offer them a relatively low rent of $3,500 a month. It doesn’t hurt that the pair have grown up around all the right people: Manhattan natives, they attended Packer and then Reed. Their clubhouse appeal was actually paying off: Haas and Weisner say their monthly gross income was often ten times their usual rent. A significant portion of that was made at their raucous opening and closing parties. Costs were low: They only hired employees a few days a week, and they paid themselves modestly (both had side jobs — Haas in the Issey Miyake store and as a freelance stylist, Weisner for an interior designer). But the fact that they did not sell online made the business shutdown order particularly jarring: Weisner and Haas realized they had a shop full of clothes to sell and no place to sell them.

So they called Christian DeFonte, a photographer who had worked with them on editorial shoots, to see if he could help them get an online shop up and running. A four-day mad dash ensued — Weisner shot the photos, and DeFonte edited “as many as I could before my eyeballs fell out of my head.”

The Café Forgot e-shop launched just before midnight on April 2. Since then, orders have come in from around the world: 67 percent of April sales shipped to states other than New York and 3 percent internationally. On Mondays and Fridays, Weisner makes the pilgrimage to the store to package orders: tiny sunglasses adorned with satin bows, rainbow daisy-chain chokers, and now-sold-out protective masks made with natural dyes by designer Emily Dawn Long, who also works as a stylist for celebrity clients including Elon Musk (though work with Musk has slowed since quarantine: “I mean, we speak,” she says).

Still, it’s yielding less money. In April, the web shop grossed only about 75 percent of what the store had been projected to make that month. And while the shop has experienced losses owing to covid, they haven’t been able to apply for assistance. “It’s difficult to prove Café Forgot’s losses because of its short history as an LLC,” says Weisner. (Café Forgot was originally categorized as a DBA.) They applied for CFDA-Vogue’s A Common Thread grant and are waiting to hear back.

The partners have decided to keep the East 6th space for the moment, at least — their landlords were able to lower the rent by about a third. So their focus is on tending to the shop’s online identity — uploading recordings of fashion-themed meditations, moving the healing workshop they’d planned onto Zoom. Because was built on a “sort of random e-comm back end,” says Weisner, the site (accidentally or not) is somewhat difficult to navigate, making it nearly as challenging to shop as their bottom-baring leather “hula” skirt would be to wear. There are no categories like “shirts” or “pants,” and to find a piece, you have to search for the designer by name or scroll through hundreds of thumbnails. As DeFonte puts it, each item appears “kind of sterile and small, like a pinned butterfly or insect.” Which is pleasurable in a way, like browsing through an art gallery or an old print catalogue. But it could also be just maddening enough to make you close the tab, making it, ironically, close to the in-store experience of Café Forgot: Buy something or not, it’s cool, whatever you want.

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*This article appears in the May 11, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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Clothing Store That Eschewed E-Commerce Has Identity Crisis