Some people are never happy. They hated Soho when it didn't have any stores or services (no Laundromats, you had to walk a mile for a pack of Camels), they didn't like it when the new boutiques moved in (too trendy). They abhorred the arrival of mass marketers like J. Crew and Pottery Barn (the malling of Soho), loved it even less when big names like Louis Vuitton and Yves St. Laurent showed up. What's a "gallerist" to do? Why, pack up those elegantly scuffed duffel bags and move out of town, or in this case, uptown, to the far reaches of West Chelsea.
The newly gallerized block of West 22nd Street between Tenth and Eleventh avenues was free of places that sold things (well, of course, the art is for sale . . . ) until four weeks ago, when Comme des Garçons, the artiest of arty clothing stores, opened in a stunningly renovated space: "something to go into the new millennium with" in the words of one besotted staff member. (Comme's former home, a bi-level store on Wooster Street off Prince that was notable for concrete walls and flat lighting, was immediately taken over by Prada, who didn't alter a thing: just moved in its $900 nylon pants and $600 fanny packs, like a new lover flopping into a discarded spouse's boudoir without changing the bedclothes.)
Comme's 22nd Street venture announces its high aesthetic ambitions before you even cross the threshold. The entrance is an aluminum tunnel illuminated by red and white footlights; the recessed door is shaped like an egg with the ends snipped off. Nowhere out front does it say Comme des Garçons. Instead, a sign left behind by the former tenant, an auto repair shop called Heavenly Body Works, is still hanging outside of the building.
The 5000-square-foot space is divided into separate chambers by way of enamelized white modular units that were made in Japan, shipped over, and painstakingly reassembled, and the back wall of the store is covered with a spongy sculpture that looks a little like pointy egg crates. ("If one more shopper touches that foam wall . . . " mutters a salesperson dressed in a wrapped Comme jumper and thick Comme clodhoppers, worried that the piece is already showing telltale fingerprint evidence.)
There's no question that the store oozes art world cachet, but does Comme des Garçons also offer heavenly body work? Lots of people who pride themselves on perfecting an off-kilter avant-garde appearance seem to think so. Since the early '80s (the first place anyone ever saw Comme clothes in New York was at another Chelsea institution, the now defunct Barneys on 17th Street), Rei Kawakubo's somber raiments have found an audience among the kind of bohemians who would never think of shopping on Madison Avenue but are not averse to dropping close to $1000 on a single item of clothing.
This season, incongruity is once more center stage: a man's windbreaker that has been lavishly decorated with rows of vertical eyelet ruffles ($960) looks like it would suit a modern-day Tadzio lounging at a video arcade on the Lido; women's dresses in 1930s prints ($695) have a certain Jean Arthurish charm, until you notice the telltale lump in their upper backs. "It's not meant to stick out from your body, but there is a fullness," the saleswoman admits. (The frocks are faintly reminiscent of Kawakubo's notorious bump collection a few seasons back, when she contorted dresses with tumorlike humps.)
The least accessible but perversely the most appealing item in the shop (maybe that's why it costs $770) is a purple velvet dress which on closer examination turns out to be half a purple dress. It's the vertical half, and it has been unceremoniously married to a black muslin garment (well, actually half a muslin garment). It seems like a startling idea, but in fact it has a little-known art world antecedent: in the mid 1920s, Man Ray gave two Schiaparelli dresses to his lover, the famous artiste-chanteuse Kiki. She slashed them vertically, switched the halves, sewed them up, then donned one and hit the streets of Montparnasse or Montmartre or whatever the circa 1925 equivalent of West 22nd was.
A short walk East, to a more populous neighborhood that might be called Central Chelsea, there's a retail pioneer of another sort: the flagship store of the Tom of Finland clothing company, which also has deep roots in the Downtown art community (or as deep as roots can be for a concern founded in 1996). The business is named for, and avowedly respectful of, the Tom of Finland legacy, and scrupulously incorporates Tom of Finland iconography in its clothing designs.
And just what is Tom of Finland iconography? It's a strange story, at least as it concerns a fashion house: Tom of Finland was a real guy, Touko Laaksonen, who contributed erotic artwork to a variety of body-building magazines in the 1950s. Touko's specialty pictures of burly, no-nonsense guys wearing construction uniforms, biker gear, leather cop caps, and assorted militaria, all of which strain against bulging muscles and bulbous crotches was at first considered softcore porn but eventually landed in museums and in the hands of serious private collectors.
Now a couple of designers working in conjunction with the Tom of Finland foundation, intent on keeping the flame of Touko-Tom fashion alive, have opened their first retail store, diagonally across from the Sam Chinita restaurant, a metal roadside diner parked at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 19th Street.
The Tom of Finland store has huge floor-to-ceiling front windows, which are very reassuring when you're selling vaguely homoerotic merchandise that might intimidate potential customers. This way, they can look and see a perfectly nice collection of heavy denim and Lycra "Tom" fit jeans ("low rise, snug in the legs, boot cut") for $88, belts with massive metal buckles that say "Tom" ($67), ribbed Ts with horizontal laces meant to restrain bursting chests ($42), and other tough-love necessities. Fiendish Finnish fellows decorate T-shirts and march up the sides of baggy shorts; a classic leather motorcycle jacket has been individualized with a lining that's decorated with a drawing of two hunky Toms.
The merchandise fairly screams Pavilion! Botel! Sayville ferry! and indeed, some Tom items are available at Island Specialties, a boutique in the shop-deprived hamlet of Fire Island Pines. But Tom of Finland is ready to break out of its niche: "There's no such thing as heterosexual or homosexual clothes, after all," says Gary Robinson, one of the designers, and at least one behemoth department store agrees: Tom of Finland is for sale this season at the Los Angeles branch of Bloomingdale's. "It's in the Beverly Center, in West Hollywood. We think we'll do fine."
To the Finland station: Tom takes on jeans. (photo: André Souroujon)
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