Buying Time

Fall '99's New Shops

A hysterically overheated economy has stuffed the streets of New York City with new shops; just when you think a neighborhood can't sustain one more polar-fleece pullover or pair of khaki cargoes, another deli or laundromat goes belly-up and a store with a clever name moves in. And it's not just small shops that are glutting the landscape: three genuine behemoths— DKNY, Polo Sport, and yet another Old Navy— have lately colonized Manhattan. Will these colossi survive and prosper? Or might a downturn in the economy, or a sated appetite for designer labels, leave them panting like beached whales while friskier, less-encumbered boutiques scamper all the way to the bank?

It's bright and peppy and noisy and comfy, like a juice bar for debutantes, inside the ambitious DKNY shop, newly opened across from Barneys at 60th Street and Madison Avenue. The shop has all the hallmarks of the '90s gadfly: paper-thin social activism (prominently displayed copies of the coffee-table book Colors of the Vanishing Tribes, for which Karan wrote the intro); a pricey lunch counter featuring fake health food; and other evidence of cheerful narcissism, chief among them a variety of video screens embedded in a platform on the floor, beaming messages like "Introducing DKNY the fragrance." The clothes, hanging along catwalks that snake around three floors of the building, include pleasant enough Crayola-bright leather jackets, hideous clam-diggers decorated with peridot rhinestones, bulky pastel sweaters with shoulder bags to match, and a spectacular sleeveless gown of pink panne velvet that is clearly intended for millennium eve, though the fact that it's made in Taiwan of rayon and polyester leaves one questioning what justifies the $1155 price tag.

You'd think three floors of logoed merchandise would be enough, but DKNY has gone into the vintage business as well. Karan, a familiar figure on the flea market circuit for years, is no longer keeping the fruits of all that haggling for purposes of "inspiration": an embroidered suede jacket with a hairy lamb lining called an Afghan coat, once the ne plus ultra of East Village style, has been uncovered 30 years later and now wears a $2000 ticket; a fairly pathetic striped poncho from the same era is $300. Still, there's something to be said for having the guts to hang the real thing next to your own interpretations and letting the critical chips fall wherever. On the other hand, who but the very young, the very naive, or the very uninspired would seek to buy a ratty poncho at DKNY on Madison Avenue?

Across the street at 10 East 60th, Nicole Farhi, a London designer, has taken up residence on the site of the old Copacabana nightclub. In an age when regional styles have all but vanished, we're happy to report that there is something decidedly British about the stuff for sale here, much of it available in colors best viewed in the dim light of a drizzly afternoon: thick knit cardigans in bright orange ($308) for that sloppy-chic English girl look, a double-breasted lavender leather trench for a staggering $1750 that looks like something Natasha Richardson might have worn in her role as a British yuppie in the Broadway play Closer. Even the chic black boots on the mannequin in the window look a little like wellies.

If the Madison Avenue shopping district is rivaled by any other area it is Soho, where Ralph Lauren has unfurled a tattered American flag at 381 West Broadway, plunked an aw-shucks bench out front, and crowded a humongous space with his peculiar brand of longing. This is no country for spoiled subdebs: here the politics are strictly Sierra Club. The store even has a woodsy, woolly smell and there are authentic canoes hanging from the ceiling. Lauren's taste runs to between-the-wars Adirondack lodge staples like sweaters with geese, corduroy shirts, jeans with artfully rolled cuffs, and other items that are not supposed to look like you just purchased them for a couple of hundred dollars apiece on West Broadway. To further the illusion, Ralph, like Donna, isn't afraid to mix the genuine with the ersatz: the vintage merchandise for sale here recently included a well-worn canvas gladstone bag, the type of thing a very poor person who couldn't afford leather at the turn of the century might have carried, for $245.

Two blocks east, the oddly named Kirna Zabete, at 96 Greene Street, has filled two floors with high-priced designer merchandise that has the distinction of not looking particularly expensive. Nevertheless, we were somewhat amused by $610 purple cashmere sweaters with little kitty cats picked out in rhinestones; satin evening bags embroidered with e-mail messages for $500; and other such frivolity, no doubt intended for women too young and carefree to be paying their own credit card bills.

The mood is hardly buoyant at Final Home, a Japanese store at 241 Lafayette Street in the space recently vacated by Liquid Sky. The clothes here are printed with advice on how to survive nuclear disasters, germ warfare, or other unfortunate global occurrences. Button-down collared shirts of papery cotton cost $130 and are printed with forms that have spaces for the wearer's name, blood type, and emergency contact; an instructive T-shirt reads, "How to use Final Home: 'For use in emergencies, pockets can be used to hold food and medicine.' " A DJ is on hand to distract the doomed, and there's even a $20 black nylon teddy bear, with the Final Home logo on his belly, to keep you company during those long days in the fallout shelter.

Thoughts of impending disaster are far from the minds of shoppers at the new Old Navy, directly across the street from Macy's on 34th Street and no doubt eating into the profits of that gray lady. (So successful is Old Navy, it is even cannibalizing the profits of its own parent, the Gap.) Though there's no vintage merchandise for sale, the mannequins have a funky '50s feeling and the store's old-timey slogan, "Shopping Is Fun Again," is plastered on the walls in mile-high letters. DKNY may wish to turn you into a giddy coed and Ralph Lauren convince you to gussy up like a country squire, but Old Navy does them both one better— it takes the fantasy of American democracy, equality, and fraternal bliss and makes it real, with prices even a McDonald's salary can handle. The genius of this place is, cheap as it may be, it never makes you feel shabby and broke the way 14th Street or Kmart or Dress Barn can. With its tongue-in-cheek ad campaign, booming music, strange kinetic sculpture (five sets of grinding legs encased in jeans), and shifting mix of merchandise— some merely serviceable (cotton crew necks for $10.50), some peppy (gaily printed flannel pj bottoms for $16.50), some irresistible (tiny Ts decorated with a trio of glittering pumpkins for $12.50)— is it any wonder virtually no one leaves shopping-bag-less?

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