Cowboy Skirts and Allergenics

Below Houston: 30 Vandam, Steven Alan, Underground Manifestos at A&F

"I'm trying to get something going in this neighborhood—I'm calling it the old printing district," explains Paul Berman, the proprietor of 30 Vandam, a huge, multi-designer boutique in the sleepy environs of Vandam Street just off Sixth Avenue. If Berman has a diffident, laid-back air, he is nevertheless a man with a mission: to ratchet up the hipness quotient of his street, a stone's throw from frenetic Soho. "I want to get it really revved up for the summer," he says. To that end, he's setting up a lounge in the front of the store, an area that currently boasts a leather couch, a coffee machine, and free marshmallows. "I'm going to make it a place where people can come in and chill out."

We come in but get so excited about the clothes that we forget to chill out. Fifty-five designers now rent rack space at 30 Vandam, paying from $225 to $450 monthly for the privilege of having their clothes showcased here. "We received over 1,000 applications a month initially, and I'm still inundated with responses," Berman says. At the moment, the roster includes Mel, who offers full skirts printed with portraits of cowboys; Sarah, who has cotton sateen pants in a design that might have been lifted from the colonial wallpaper of a '50s Levittown ranch; and Slava, who sells sexy fruit-and-flower housedresses tarted up with piping and buttons. Most of the prices hover in the $100-to-$200 range, a lot if you're on a budget but almost impossibly low for designers trying to earn a living and making the clothes themselves.

When we ask a saleswoman about the extravagant beige gown decorated with hand lettering that is fluttering in the vast window—which on this balmy day is open to the street—she says it isn't a dress at all; it's merely wrapped paper and ribbons by a genius called Parrish, who also makes hats for the store. And indeed, we are rapidly drawn to a Parrish cloche of blood-orange velvet with a wing of petals curving up from one ear. It's a chapeau worthy of Isabella Blow, the eccentric British fashion editor known for her outré designer headgear, and it's worth every penny of its $225 price tag.

A few blocks east and south of 30 Vandam, Steven Alan, at 103 Franklin Street, occupies an equally drowsy corner of Tribeca. The prevailing aesthetic is similar to 30 Vandam's, but the brands are better known: A shirt by Rogan, a label with a cult following, sports a rising sun and the slogan "Power to the people" (what? solar power?) and is $55. Just inside the entrance, an old wood-and-glass vitrine that must have started life in a drugstore—it has cabinets dedicated to insulin, vaccines, allergenics, and vitamins—now houses Dyptiche candles and Dr. Hauschka hair lotion. In fact, part of the fun of Steven Alan is the hip eclecticism that pervades the place: It is surely the only shop below Canal Street where you can buy a men's Comme des Garçons herringbone jacket (marked down to $245), a tube of paradise fruit mint Marvis toothpaste, and a $27 pair of camel-colored Fogal lace stockings.

There isn't any fruit mint toothpaste at the South Street Seaport Abercrombie & Fitch, but once in a while the necessity of finding a pair of reasonably priced workaday trousers impels one to visit such a place. This was the case with a friend of ours who recently bought some pants, got them home, and found that the following, printed on a tiny piece of paper, had been slipped into a pocket. It begins, "Did you know?" and goes on to read, "Abercrombie & Fitch won't hire you if you're not cute enough (that's illegal)/thinks racism is funny/Makes thongs for little girls/Encourages eating disorders/Uses sweatshop labor to make its clothing." This miniature broadside is signed, "Women for Healthy Bodies."

A Google search failed to turn up information on these women and their healthy bodies, but whoever you are, a tip of the blood-orange cloche to you: Please continue to sneak your manifesto into the pockets of clothes sold by dark, evil companies all over town.

 
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