“Well, of course, as far as the neighborhood goes, some things are the same—but a lot is totally, totally different,” says Terri Gillis, the proprietress of TG-170, a shop whose name combines Gillis’s initials and its Ludlow Street address. Gillis opened on Ludlow 10 years ago, which might as well be 100 years in this rapidly changing neighborhood, where one of the cheapest things for sale these days is the $18 steak au poivre at a chic bistro called Tenement. “The drug addicts are pretty much all gone,” Gillis says without regret—after all, the addicts were never big customers. “They tended to spend their money on drugs, not clothes—that’s where their priorities were.”
Gillis thinks of her shop as airy, poppy, and friendly—a description that would do as well for many of the new Ludlow Street boutiques. Her merchandise, which she says is “fun, but not too artsy-fartsy,” includes a $181 pink chiffon tea-party dress, which may strain the budgets of even newly arrived Lower East Siders. (They could well be splitting the rent on that renovated railroad flat four ways.) TG-170 also stocks those $25 Petit Bateau French children’s T-shirts that have developed a cult following among adult women. (They’re meant for kids, but they aren’t all that small; Gillis says they fit her, and she’s a normal-sized woman.) The shop’s Freitag messenger bags, made of the heavy tarps that cover Scandinavian trucks—fashionable recyclers are nothing if not inventive—exhibit a certain rough stylishness, but no one would accuse them of being light.
Next door at Marmalade (172 Ludlow), the tag hanging from a $95 coat says, “Looks better on!” and it just might—after all, though the white cotton fabric is a little tired, it does sport a label that reads Givenchy Boutique Paris. By all appearances, this garment dates from the ’70s, when the name Givenchy evoked that master’s creations for Audrey Hepburn rather than the later efforts of Alexander McQueen and Julian MacDonald, both of whom have designed the Givenchy line in more recent years with uneven results.
Marmalade is only one of many vintage outposts on Ludlow, the oldest among them being Las Venus (163 Ludlow), a goofy modern furniture store across from TG-170. If the shop’s bohemian credentials are somewhat tarnished by a sign near the entrance that says, “Also Visit Las Venus at ABC Carpet and Home,” it remains a place where you can buy four uncommonly hideous yet oddly fabulous Liberace-worthy chartreuse crushed velvet and Lucite chairs for $895.
As extreme in their own way as chartreuse furniture are the clothes at Yu (151 Ludlow), where Eiko Berkowitz has gathered secondhand garments from such iconic houses as Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake, and the long-lost Matsuda. Here are garments from the ’80s and early ’90s that remind the shopper of what a thrilling and inventive period for fashion those years really were. Among the museum-worthy items is a rather limp shirt full of holes that looks like an early experiment in deconstruction but turns out to be an unlikely effort by the usually structure-obsessed Vivienne Westwood. (Poor Vivienne recently closed her boutique in Soho; now you have to hunt for Westwood at Bendel’s and of course Century 21.)
Yu is actually even better than a museum, since you can buy the stuff. Current offerings include a striped Yohji man’s top for $40, a Comme sweater with childlike stitching for $98, a heartbreakingly beautiful Fendi Selleria schoolbag for $400, and a sheer Marni blouse with shredded hem and flowery ruffle for $99. At first the tariffs seem high, but Berkowitz is happy to adjust prices downward. (They tumbled even as we spoke.)
If Yu features 20 years of fashion history, there are candidates for some future fashion museum at the Art Fiend Foundation (123 Ludlow), where a group of highly talented if little-known designers show their wares. Prices may be steep, but that’s because, according to one of the three young women hanging out in the shop, “everything is done by hand.” A classic denim jacket with subversive Liberty of London fabric inserted on pocket flaps and back panel is a rhapsody in blue, though the price, $525, is deeply daunting. Still, earrings made of black thread hoops suspending carnelian-colored stones are a mere $65. And then there is the $160 sweater that hangs from the shoulders by near invisible straps and bears a tongue-in-cheek label reading Woodhull and Claflin. This warms our hearts completely, big fans as we are of Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, two madcap socialist sisters of the mid 19th century. (Among their many radical feminist adventures was Woodhull’s bid for the presidency in 1872, long before women could vote.)
The gorgeous silk and satin confections at our next stop, Mary Adams the Dress (138 Ludlow), would have suited Woodhull and her sister. Adams (a longtime Ludlow Street merchant who for years had a shop down the block) makes exquisite wedding dresses in non-virginal shades of cerise and turquoise, and though she is not exactly what anyone would call inexpensive, if you’re on Ludlow anyway you might as well stop in, if only to gasp over the workmanship.
Determined to find something super-affordable, we visit Knots (143 Ludlow), which, despite the surfing video playing, is not called Knots for maritime reasons. “It’s Knots because of the interconnectedness of the designers,” the manager says. In fact, Knots is owned by a Japanese designer named Echan who has a company called 68&Brothers. Every season, 68 commissions artists to design prints for its $28 T-shirts. Right now the pattern has a vaguely Sputnik-1950s flavor and was designed by Rich Jacobs, who happens to be standing behind Knots’ counter. “My print is also on pillows,” he tells us, holding up a cushion ($45).
There are yet more tees across the street at Tees.com (124 Ludlow), where the shirts are displayed along with miniature detergent boxes ($5); instead of Tide and Wisk they say Slut and Kinky and they’re filled with body wash. (Are we the only ones who aren’t exactly sure what body wash is?) With our unerring knack for locating the most expensive thing in any shop, we home in on a tee decorated with a beaded and embroidered chandelier that is $54. But further investigation turns up a variety of appealing $24 shirts, including a vintage-looking homage to Hello Kitty and a black tee showing the four silvery heads of the New York Dolls, the quintessential glam-rock downtown band that was so popular in the 1970s, long before boutiques replaced bodegas on Ludlow Street.