The iconic fashion editor Diana Vreeland once said, “Fashion must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world.” And given the seemingly endless parade of abysmal headlines (at a time when we might actually welcome banality), it’s no wonder we’re seeing so many ethnic prints, kimonos, ponchos, and the like on display in store windows this fall. It’s as though we’re all jonesing for not just an intoxicating release, but also a quick, preferably exotic, escape from the debt crisis, persistent unemployment, and Tea Party antics, to name only a few.
Fortunately, we live in a city that’s crawling with sartorial adventures waiting to be explored. Like many of us, though, I’ve long been guilty of not taking full advantage of the global shopping opportunities available here. Curious to see what I could find, I picked several countries I wanted to “travel” to, and with my coach-class ticket (i.e., an unlimited MetroCard), I set out on a journey to parts unknown.
First on my list is Thailand, where I hike through the rugged terrain of Union Square to reach Beads of Paradise [16 East 17th Street, 212-620-0642]. I discover handmade treasures by the hill tribe people, from colorful beaded necklaces to elaborate headdresses. A long black linen coat with a fringe of thick red yarn and embroidered sleeves beckons me. I marvel at its perfect handmade imperfections. Then I spy a pleated wraparound indigo apron that looks like a miniskirt with red beads and pom-poms. The $45 price tag wins me over, and I buy it as my first souvenir.
Next, I jet over to West Africa, where the natives on the street curiously resemble NYU students. Following the smell of burning incense, I head inside Waga [22 St. Mark’s Place, 212-505-5573], which carries wild-colored dashikis, leather saddle bags with long fringe, and dangly silver earrings crafted by the Fulani. I spot a snakeskin purse and ask the shop’s owner, Ouenisongda Sawadogo, who is from Burkina Faso, if it’s real. “Yes, of course,” he says. “But in my country, we don’t kill the snake just for the skin. We eat the snake.”
Somewhat crestfallen that snake isn’t on the menu anywhere nearby, I head to Japan.
At the Kimono House [131 Thompson Street, 212-505-0232], I’m warmly greeted by owner Yumiko Saku, who shows me the shop’s delicious selection of imported kimonos starting at around $60, with higher prices for pieces made of antique silk. She helps me into an orange kimono and ties a blue obi around my waist. The long, wide sleeves drape elegantly at my sides, and I instantly feel chic! Saku tells me her customers often wear the kimono over tights and a little dress. “We also accommodate American sizes!” she says and points to a tag that reads “Extra Large.”
Too intoxicated to stop now, I hop aboard the Mumbai Express (OK, the 7 train) for a trip to India (a/k/a Kalpana Chawla Way in Jackson Heights, Queens). Bhangra blares from a music store; window signs advertise henna tattoos and eyebrow threading. I pop into Butala Emporium [37-46 74th Street, Queens, indousplaza.com], a seemingly nondescript two-level shop packed with beautiful accessories, including sparkly bangles, “diamond” bindis, wooden sandals, and beaded garlands at dirt-cheap prices. Now for clothing, you can’t beat Bombay Bazar [37-11 74th Street, Queens, 718-424-8067]. Here, plastic-wrapped embroidered tunics called kurti lie in a mess on the floor; racks overflow with patchwork skirts and shalwar kameez (the name for a matching tunic and baggy trousers that also typically come with a long scarf). When I head back outside, a woman hands me a card for an Indian astrologer who can remove “evil spells,” which I keep because one never knows!
Saying farewell to India, I cruise to the Ukraine for a stop at Surma [11 East 7th Street, 212-477-0729], which has been in the city since 1918. In the ’60s, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin used to shop here for folksy gems, such as the shop’s hand-embroidered Ukrainian peasant blouses made by mountain villagers. Leather moccasins, embroidered belts, and gorgeous wraparound skirts are also among the shop’s one-of-a-kind offerings. Carrying on the family tradition is Markian Surmach, grandson of the founder, who surprises me with the news that a book on how to embroider your own Ukrainian rose patterns is currently a hot-seller in Japan.
I ponder how long it will take for the DIY Ukrainian embroidery trend to hit Williamsburg as I touch down in Iceland, where I go in search of a lopapeysa—a thick wooly sweater known for its decorative design around the neck. The Shop at Scandinavia House [58 Park Avenue, 212-847-9737, scandinaviahouse.org] is the place to find it and other cold-weather treasures from Björk’s homeland, such as bulky knit woolen socks with unique stitching and Viking-symbol necklaces. While I’m there, I also breeze through Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, which are represented in the shop with items such as Danish felt scarves, Nordic sweaters, Swedish cowhide clogs, and reindeer-skin bracelets with antler buttons made by the Sami (the Nordic countries’ only officially indigenous people—and don’t call them Laplanders).
In the mood now for something sunnier, I head to Mexico to pay my respects to the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose beatific face graces countless items at La Sirena [27 East 3rd Street, 212-780-9113]. I immediately fall for the shop’s huipiles, vibrant, boxy tunics or blouses embroidered with flowers and birds by a women’s collective in Chiapas. Huaraches, frilly dresses, ponchos, handwoven shawls, Day of the Dead jewelry, and—for fun—Mexican wrestling masks and capes are also stocked here, as are sundry items from Guatemala, such as belts and decorative headbands.
To conclude my escapist spree, I wander over to Russia—Leningrad, to be exact, because inside the musty Russian Souvenirs [227 East 14th Street], it seems I’ve gone back in time to the old USSR. The shop is overstuffed with Russian military caps, war medals, nesting dolls, vintage eyeglass frames, jewelry, military trench coats, and rolls of fabric. Alexander Bogatyr, who has owned it for more than 30 years, sees me looking at the necklaces and picks out a thick copper chain.
“Copper is good for circulation!” he proclaims in a thick accent.
I tell him what I really need is a good winter hat, and so we cautiously maneuver down a narrow aisle to a hat stand, where I try on a jaunty military wedge cap for $60. He holds up a little mirror for me.
“You find this nowhere else in New York,” he says. “Don’t think; just buy!”
He sees me thinking and is clearly disappointed. When I opt for a fake fur hat for $20 instead, he waves the wedge cap at me, “This one looks good on you.” He’s right, of course. And I promise him I’ll return for it soon—on my next trip around the world.