Before the fitting rooms were built or the floors painted in their East Village shop, Carmen Ruiz-Davila and Cara Bloch, the proprietors of rocker babe emporium Love Gang, slapped a limited-edition G.Kero David Bowie jacket on the still-naked mannequin in their yet undecorated storefront window. Bright white with a reversible pattern (one side with dancing Bowie illustrations, the other emblazoned with the iconic Ziggy Stardust portrait across the back), the garment acted as a beacon for specific clientele: the downtown girl with a classy take on kitsch, an appreciator of the handmade, independent and unique but too badass for Etsy’s cutesy aesthetic. In short: the quintessential Village dweller. These chic citizens came in droves, not just for that jacket, but for Marques’Almeida frayed denim, Bride and Wolfe lip-shaped housewares, Ksubi retro shades, lightning bolt print pants from Missy Skins, and Suki Cohen’s goth beachwear. Just weeks after the place had opened, the shelves were nearly bare.
“We ran out of clothes!” recalls a laughing Bloch. Ruiz-Davila nods. “We had no idea what was gonna happen,” she says. “We did really well. We had a little bit left, but it was not enough to make the store look like a proper sales floor.”
For both women, running a concept boutique has been an experiment. Bloch is a former rock photographer, having documented festivals and shows and shot magazine spreads for Spin, Rolling Stone, and the NME, where she got her big break. Ruiz-Davila grew up in the Bronx, has an MFA in sculpture, and owned a store in the same location for three years, but she dealt in designer vintage, traveling all over the world to snag one-of-a-kind items and painstakingly restoring them for resale to collectors, stylists, and current designers. In the beginning, the duo were governed by their own good taste and a willingness to take risks. “G.Kero said that only one other company had ordered the [David Bowie] jackets; all their other customers were only ordering T-shirts,” Ruiz-Davila confides. “Because of the price point, they weren’t adventurous enough to order it, [but it] was our bestselling item. They don’t know what they lost. We got all the stock; we just kept ordering until they were gone.”
That curatorial genius is what sets Love Gang apart from the myriad merchants of cool in the roughly five-block radius. Bloch and Ruiz-Davila wanted to stock a store that reflected the neighborhood and its rock ’n’ roll history. “We wanted to have local artists [and] independent designers be a part of it…and just really be able to showcase the independence of the East Village and mirror that,” Ruiz-Davila says. “So that’s what we did. Not that many people in New York even have most of these designers.” Kling, for instance, is a brand popular in its native Spain, with a dozen or so freestanding stores, but relatively unknown in the States. “What I liked about them was that they were vintage-inspired — vintage is definitely my passion,” Ruiz-Davila says. There are authentic vintage pieces tucked into racks all throughout the store, blending in almost seamlessly. There are hybrids, too, like Matières à Réflexion — a line of handbags made in Paris from recycled motorcycle jackets. Bloch pulls one down from a shelf and shows it off, worn leather shining against suede inlays, the hardware utilitarian but thoughtfully detailed. “We actually blew through them,” Ruiz-Davila says. “We’re getting more of them in a week or so. They’re all handmade, and we’re the only people in New York that are allowed to carry them; they only sell to one store in every city.”
Despite these items’ exclusivity, Love Gang succeeds at keeping prices reasonable. Most of its wares are discovered via Instagram. “It’s research, just looking to see what an independent designer likes and maybe finding things that look similar,” Bloch explains. “You kind of get lost in that world. The pictures are very straightforward and clear and you just find what’s inspiring.” At three months in, they’ve struck a balance in terms of ordering. On November 19, they finally threw a party to celebrate their opening, and despite that evening’s torrential downpour it was the “major rager” they had promised their followers on social media. Their friend Blair Bauer, who airbrushes T-shirts and tote bags (and a giant Bowie beach towel) in her kitchen and sells them at Love Gang under the moniker BlairWear, created the current installation in the store’s street-facing window. Their network continues to expand, coalescing under the idea of Fifties girl gangs (which partly inspired the store’s name) and female solidarity.
“We liked the idea of the name Last Gang — like ‘Last Gang in Town,’ the Clash song,” explains Ruiz-Davila. There was already a Canadian record label with that name, so the duo looked to their appreciation for each other. When they were introduced by mutual friends, both admit, they had instant girl-crushes. “I just made myself her friend,” Bloch says. “She was just so stylish, [and] we both liked Miami bass music. She knew Exposé and Debbie Deb and 2 Live Crew; when you meet someone that knows Miami bass music, there’s a kinship there.” Bloch says the “Love” part of the store’s name was inspired by “positive, feminine perspectives.” She points out another reversible jacket, this one with a Patrick Nagel print. “[Women] entered the workforce in the Seventies, and in the Eighties we started to get better jobs. So [Nagel] started to paint women in a less passive manner, more strong and aggressive,” Bloch says. Nagel’s work is recognizable to anyone who’s seen a Duran Duran album cover; the jacket perfectly represents the intersection of girl power and musical reference points that Love Gang strives to showcase.
Their “gang” has swiftly enveloped others in the neighborhood, too. During our chat, photographer Glen E. Friedman stops by. He snapped shots of many Def Jam artists in the mid-Eighties, including the Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C., and L.L. Cool J. Bloch grabs a deconstructed Bad Brains T-shirt off the rack. “Glen gave us this, and Carmen redesigned it,” she says enthusiastically. “It’s fun to have other inspiring people pop in, give us stuff, and then we turn it into something else.”
That enthusiasm appears to be Love Gang’s defining element. Bloch giggles over handmade Dirty Girl soaps from Liberty Puffs adorned with the visages of Debbie Harry and Tina Turner, and Ruiz-Davila gushes about the “Biggie Stardust” pendants from Leroy’s Place — the Brooklyn-based jewelry designer creates little plastic icons (slightly reminiscent of Shrinky Dinks) honoring various rock stars, including one of the late, great Bed-Stuy rapper with Bowie’s infamous lightning bolt makeup. Both shopkeepers love a good pun; they also adore Unfortunate Portrait’s tees featuring childlike drawings of, for instance, TLC trimming hedges with the caption “I Don’t Want No Shrubs.”
“I love to laugh, so I like to have that element,” Bloch says. Ruiz-Davila adds, “We want [designers] that are funny, fun, that don’t take themselves too seriously but are serious about what they do.” They plan on hosting regular events, from readings to product launches to designer meet-and-greets, to keep the Love Gang faithful coming back. But in the end it’s truly all about customer service, as Ruiz-Davila notes. “If you’re nice to people they’ll come back,” she says. “If you’re a jerk, they won’t. They might buy something they like, but they probably won’t come back.”
There’s one salesgirl at Love Gang who has the service routine down pat — Bloch’s French bulldog, Luella. The stylish pooch can often be seen on Love Gang’s social media, modeling the store’s latest looks. “She’s good at sales,” laughs Bloch. “She’ll just sit by the window and people will come in to see her and they stay in here.”