Monkeys and Marijuana Sweaters

Seeing It on Mulberry Street

In the mood for some happy news? Wal-Mart, that anti-union, overtime-busting exploiter of workers, didn't have half as good a holiday season as it expected! We like to think this is because fair-minded progressive people boycotted the place, but the truth could be something far subtler and stranger: Maybe they just didn't stock enough monkeys.

We say this after a recent visit to the Paul Frank store at 195 Mulberry Street, where we were staggered by the crowds. While the ritzier Nolita boutiques were funeral parlors, this place was teeming. And why not? Who doesn't love seeing Julius the monkey dressed like a Wagnerian Valkyrie and gracing a baby tee ($24), or livening up a $12 Christmas stocking—it'll be Noel 2004 soon enough—or enhancing a $10 luggage tag whose faux Gucci pattern features Julius's visage instead of those tiresome double Gs?

Or maybe Wal-Mart should have been more mindful of the elf craze. Next door to Paul Frank, the odd but stylish Shoe (197 Mulberry) has footwear that might have been made by, and for, a sprite. Though most of these hand-cobbled, pointy-toed offerings are over $200, a pair in bright red that looks like a cross between huaraches and mary janes is $99.

At Gigi (217 Mulberry), one of the innumerable small shops that have just about vanquished the bakeries and hardware stores you used to find in this neighborhood, there's a zip-front cardigan with a big green marijuana plant front and center for $140—but then again, it's been marked down from $248 and it is made of cashmere, just like those pullovers from Lucien Pellat-Finet, the guy who virtually invented overpriced cashmere pot-leaf sweaters. (His are currently at Barneys for over $2,000—not a misprint). Across the street, Language (238 Mulberry) is having a sale, but the Pucci umbrellas are still $300; you're better off a few doors down at Tina Tang Nolita (230 Mulberry), where you can pick up a pair of those ubiquitous chandelier earrings for $39.

Our good mood (we love $39 earrings) quickly fades when we see the lettering on the window of an upscale housewares shop called Saigoniste, which reads: "Ho Chi Mama say nicest things come to those who are naughty." Excuse us, but didn't this sort of humor go out with 1930s Charlie Chan movies? How chic is it to use racism and revolting stereotypes to move merchandise? Just asking.

We take our rage up the street, where it is dissipated, somewhat, by the Young Designers Market in the youth center of Old St. Patrick's Church at 268 Mulberry. (Saturdays only and closed this weekend; reopening January 17th.) So unpreposessing does this place look that we almost don't go in, but you never know, and in fact we are struck dumb, almost, by the things we find, which are every bit as good—in some cases much better—than the stuff we see twice a year on the runways. A T-shirt we especially like, from Wallcojr Designs, costs $42 and features a tree branch with four swinging plastic monkeys, who surely started life atop swizzle sticks. (It certainly is a season for simians.) SoHung Designs has a sleek gray pinstriped coat with checked pockets that bears a faint resemblance to the work of the young Geoffrey Beene ($150); sleek wool Jean Muir-ish dresses by Dressed are 25 percent off $75.

Though people have a tendency to snort derisively when Ralph Lauren's name comes up, we've always had a soft spot for the guy, a Bronx boy who re-invented himself as a WASP cowboy-banker. (After all, isn't that what America is all about—playing with your identity and living your fantasy?) And it's not like Ralph's lying to anybody about who he is and where he's from. His Double RL shop at 271 Mulberry is a masterful re-creation of a dusty general store out of The Harvey Girls, and it's filled with authentic vintage country clothes and Ralph's own versions of those same garments. (A customer on a recent visit didn't seem to realize that the velvet jacket she was looking at was over 100 years old; she couldn't understand why its waist was so small.)

The cross-cultural references here can be dizzying: A delicate cabled cardigan that is $125 (marked down from $250) in a lovely mulberry color—in honor of the street?—looks like an early-20th-century Scandinavian ski sweater, and it even has a tiny, old-fashioned tag that says "hand knit" nestled in its neck. But look again: Not only is this item mass manufactured and brand-new, those hand knitters live in China.

 
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