“We opened on September 4th and we had a great first week—we thought, we’re rich!” says Sloan Mandell, describing the early days of Exhibitionist, his and Michael Spirito’s shop at 182 Orchard Street, a block that is either completely charming or just about ruined by gentrification, depending on who you talk to. “What a strange ride it’s been. Want to know how we got this space? We were sitting across the street having a drink and we noticed this place, which had been some kind of club, had one of those notices that says, ‘Closed by Police Department for Narcotics Activity.’ It took us three months of renovation. All that’s left is the disco ball.”
That ball now presides over a collection of clothes that have in common a love of irony and a sexuality that is anything but coy. “This dress is by Brick from San Francisco,” Mandell says, holding up an impossibly narrow, stretchy black sateen garment ($280). “Doesn’t it remind you of the last scene in Rocky Horror when Magenta comes out with the laser gun? This T-shirt is from a Japanese company called Lad Musician—it’s made of a fabric called Cool Plus. Supposedly you don’t get sweat stains, but I haven’t given it a test.” The Cool Plus tank ($90) features a cartoon tongue poised between a pair of scissors, an unauthorized homage to the Rolling Stones logo that apparently has not fazed the band. “In fact,” Mandell says, “I heard Mick Jagger has this shirt.”
If that wagging tongue, even between scissor blades, seems slightly less than fresh, Exhibitionist carries a line of T-shirts illustrated with sideshow acts straight out of Tod Browning’s Freaks ($80). Over a picture of, say, Myrtle Corbin the four-legged woman, or a pair of pinheads painted green, are slogans like “Freak? No, Unique!” and “Rethink Beauty.” Arguably more controversial than the shirts themselves is their label: Aesthetic Terrorist by Walter, a line named by Belgian designer Walter von Beirendonck with spectacularly unfortunate timing. “We’re the only ones in the country that’ll carry it,” says Mandell. As if the shirts aren’t enough, Aesthetic Terrorist also offers, of all things, a flight bag.
Mandell’s partner, jewelry designer Michael Spirito, has filled the store with items that wouldn’t thrill airport security either, leaning as they do heavily in the direction of spikes and studs. A sterling silver chain with a tiny garnet-eyed skull ornament is $100; a charm bracelet that has the skull along with a pierced heart, a wishbone, and a rose is $185. When I ask about the sepia-toned photograph of a deceased baby displayed near the jewelry, Spirito says, “That’s Uncle Alfonso! He goes with my Italian funeral collection. When my grandmother died they were going to throw the picture out. I said, you can’t throw out Uncle Alfonso.”
Jelena Behrend at Oxygène Collectif
photo: Joshua Farley
A few doors down from Mandell, Spirito, and Uncle Alfonso is Oxygène Collectif, a jewelry store featuring the creations of Jelena Behrend. Oxygène has been at 188 Orchard for four years, a lifetime in this particular retail landscape. “I loved the street when I arrived here. It was so mellow and unpretentious,” says Behrend, who, with her crew cut and dungarees, is pretty mellow and unpretentious herself. “I learned my techniques from the gypsies. I don’t cast; I work with heat and hammer. I make by hand, myself.” Behrend, who was born in Serbia, arrived in this country 14 years ago with $75 and an ability to create the kind of jewelry that appeals to people like Madonna and Lenny Kravitz—stackable silver rings ($20), sinuous lariats with tiny square charms ($140), and all manner of hoop earrings (from $40). “My father adopted me when I was three days old. I was found on the street. He worked for the Ministry of Children,” Behrend tells me in her workroom behind the shop, where she proudly shows off her equipment: “Here is my coil! My grinder!” When I admire a thick silver ID bracelet whose plate says Baby #1, Behrend says, “Kravitz has that, as a choker.”
Kravitz may be an ambitious dresser, but it’s a sure bet he doesn’t own a World War II ski-troop anorak like the one at Strongarm Clothing & Supply Co., a dark and haunting space at 184 Orchard full of old valises, vintage militaria, faded uniforms, and genuine curiosities, including a tattered gabardine coat with a red Ford embroidered on its back that was once worn by a guy who worked on the line turning out Model Ts. John Gluckow, Strongarm’s owner, who is nothing if not erudite on the subject of old work clothes, dates it from the 1920s, since the label says H.D. Lee Mercantile: “You know it’s early, because the Lee company wasn’t calling itself just Lee yet.” Rather more accessible is a 50-year-old red corduroy button-down Arrow shirt ($75), which now seems ordinary enough but at one time was practically an emblem of incipient bohemia. In James Baldwin’s 1960 novel Another Country, Vivaldo Moore, a struggling writer, explains to his girlfriend the philistine nature of his family: “The last time I went over to the house to see them I was wearing my red shirt and [my father] said ‘What’s the matter, you turn queer?’ Jesus.”
If your father is more lovable than Vivaldo’s, you might remember him this Sunday, Father’s Day, with a silk necktie from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum Store at 90 Orchard Street, a shop that sells, among other things, strychnine beer steins ($9), Ouija board mousepads ($12.95), and books with titles like Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker ($14.95). The tie ($37.50), in predominately red or blue, has a pattern of squares inspired by the pressed tin ceiling design at 97 Orchard Street, the building where the museum proper is located. On the other hand, are you sure Dad wouldn’t prefer a terrorist flight bag or a Baby #1 bracelet or an old Ford Motor Company jacket?