I am not the best of dressers.
I still possess a black Nike drawstring bag from secondary school as I’m sure it’ll come back in fashion one day. My first pair of trainers were courtesy of Kappa, in an ecru and navy colour way. And you know what? I have no problems wearing blue with green. Who said they ‘should never be seen?’
Arriving in London five years ago, armed with said drawstring bag and lashings of government money, my student loan was promptly seduced by the likes of ‘Size?’, quirky T-shirt brands and perennially-popular wardrobe staples. I am getting better. Every day is a struggle but I am slowly navigating my way through this sartorial minefield.
So the prospect of milling around with some of the world’s most pretentious, fashion-forward folk was enough to make even the most cynical writer dry heave, but in the interests of journalism and bringing you guys a sardonic slice of literature on this ‘nuuu meedja’ platform, I took to this task with a mixture of glee and great trepidation.
This is what happens when you put a sartorial sinner in the fashion capital of the world.
Stepping out of an iconic yellow cab after giving my driver the wrong cross street, I found myself stranded in the fashionable Chelsea district. Vexed, and shuffling down the street with a heavy case in tow, I came to a halt when I observed a group of guys and girls congregating around the subway entrance.
Momentarily tranced by their presence, this collection of futuristic soldiers were ready to hit a club; dressed in a uniform of spray-on skinnies, fitted white shirts, over-sized red glasses (the same from school woodwork lessons), over-the-top accessories and studded high-tops – one was even sporting what looked like a structured titanium glove – these five guys illustrated why New York is regarded as the fashion capital of the world.
The clothing industry based in the city generates over $14 billion in annual sales and its trends and designs are copied the world over. The city’s Garment District spans from Fifth to Ninth Avenue, between 34th and 42nd Street and here, you’ll find showrooms from the great and the good, production spaces and vast warehouses.
So here we have an unstoppable corporate machine, pumping out high fashion and high street in non-proportional measures, but just who is buying the clothes? Are New Yorkers really that vain?
I’d heard horror stories of New Yorkers spending $300 on a sweater or a pair of shoes, and then having to sheepishly pass the pomegranates and rustic breads at Whole Foods in favour of Hamburger Helper and maize snacks at Food for Less.
My trip now had purpose; I wanted to see who was buying what, and where they were buying it from. New York has long been dubbed as a ‘melting pot’ and quite rightly so. The many different ingredients that give each neighbourhood its idiosyncratic flavour is evident from first glance.
Visit the Upper East Side and you’ll find the archetypal Manhattanites, stomping along the exclusive sidewalks, dripping in expensive designer threads with their dogs in matching jumpsuits. Inside the vast Bloomingdales emporium shoppers peruse rails-upon-rails of luxurious labels, clothes that make the culture of shopping a till-ringing reality.
Hop on the 6 to Harlem’s historical 125th Street and witness the evolution of street chic; fashion-savvy youngsters mixing the old with the new, reinterpreting past trends and sealing their stamp on re-invented street styles.
Slide to the Lower East Side for a fresh take on urban street style. Visit the holy trinity of sneakers stores – Dave’s Quality Meat, Premium Laces and Alfie Rivington Club - for a truly religious experience, then cross the East River to Brooklyn for a hipster fix – think vintage, vintage and trunk fulls of vintage.
Beginning my study in SoHo, I was confronted by an army of marching mannequins fresh from the pages of Nylon. These aspiring scene-stealers were spending some serious cash in the many flagship stores that line this area of Broadway; American Apparel, Levi’s, Zara, Lucky Brand Jeans, New York’s only Uniqlo…the interlocking streets open up to a maze of shops, where chain stores sit alongside pop-up shops and cult apparel brands. Inside, these stores are visually impressive; striking store merchandising and easy-on-the-eye displays have been carefully executed to encourage you to dispense with your newly-acquired dollar bills.
Dubbed New York’s ‘Worst Kept Secret’, Century 21 is the kind of place made for only the brave and the patient; witness sweating and screeching shoppers running amok in this gargantuan site housing knock-off designer threads and you’ll get the picture. And with price tags reaching the upper echelons of abnormality, it would make our very own Philip Green pleased as punch.
In this store near the World Trade Center site, Marc Jacobs takes its place next to Marc Ecko; DKNY looms ominously in the background; Garbstore and Jil Sander are vying for attention whilst Calvin Klein boxers are a mere snip at $9.97 (£6.17).
Uptown in Harlem, the shopping experience couldn’t be more different. A historically black neighbourhood, the fashions are noticeably subtle and not as overt as their SoHo stable mates. On 125th Street, a quiet invasion of the high street was taking place; Gap’s younger brother, Old Navy, is housed in a sizeable store alongside an H&M, but apart from that, that’s it. There’s a smattering of cheaper stores, some flogging multi-pocket jeans and XXXXXXXL T-shirts and others hawking “hood wear” – think Enyce, Pele Pele and Avirex – labels which tie in with the stereotypical Harlem aesthetic.
Upon entering Jimmy Jamz, a silent revolution was gathering pace in an unassuming way. This store was stacked with smart gilets in a variety of colour ways and textures, slim fit dress jeans, sneakers with vivid splashes of colour and floor-to-wall displays of expensive New Era hats…
Over the weekend, I decided to veer away from the well-trodden tourist track, so I bopped over to Brooklyn – Williamsburg to be precise.
Williamsburg is a funny place. Everyone seems to be in denial. One suspects that these overly trendy people were once uncomfortable social misfits, bored with being Goths and the regime of jet black in summer.
Much is made of New York’s sidewalks being the people’s catwalk and you see folk peddling retro looks from yester-year; 1940’s dapper gents in full evening dress accompanying his screen starlet; Chaka Zulu’s great, great grand children having had a one-to-one with Chaka Khan; smattering of 70’s icons – decadent and ethereal creatures ushered in from Studio 54 - furiously wiping an unidentifiable powder away from their noses…
And not wanting to be one of those pretentious ‘freelance writers’ who ride in on tall equine creatures and guffaw at statements of originality (I COULD NAME NAMES) – I was truly fascinated by the combination of innovation, experimentation and homage pounding the pavements of Brooklyn and that was something I managed to capture in the Street Style Sunday posts for Individualism.co.uk. I lost count of the number of vintage shops, thrift stores and warehouse spaces that sell second-hand wares that line Bedford Avenue.
And I’m pleased to report that these Brooklynites have refrained from boring and unimaginative denim shirts, the ubiquitous cuffed skinny carrot chinos, snoods…
Later in the afternoon, I wandered into ‘Artists and Fleas’, a stylish souk where young designers come to flog their wares – be it T-shirts, jewellery, clothing or furniture. In the corner of this bustling bazaar I spied a guy, sitting down, wondering what he had done to be caught up in this organised chaos.
It was at that moment in which I got ‘it’. His name was Alexander Campaz, a designer who makes clothes for all the right reasons. Possessing a quiet and brooding character, this softly spoken New Yorker let me rummage through his designs, allowing me to size up my options by trying them on, all while providing me with a running commentary of how the item was made, where the materials were sourced from…
Campaz told me how his father was involved with textiles and how he had grown up around sewing machines. In front of me was a display of custom made jumpers and T-shirts in a variety of unusual and luxe fabrics. Some were innovatively woven, other garments implored unusual twists on a simple canvas. I settled on a cut and sew jumper in a red, grey and navy colour palette, thanked him and went on my way.
Fashion in New York is a big deal. Like fast food, there are enough clothing stores, outlets and emporiums to fulfil the appetites of the most seasoned shopper, but style and its many associations is prevalent in New Yorkers’ DNA. You don’t have to be rinsing “Daddy’s” credit card to be regarded as fashionable, in fact, going against the norm is the season’s new black. In these austere times it’s wiser to dress to impress yourself and not others. They say fashion has no mercy, and neither will your landlord when you can’t make the rent.
In NY, trends are treated like freesheet newspapers - abandoned soon after they’ve been acquired. In addition to brash behaviour and uncouth cockiness, the culture of silent appreciation is something New Yorkers do pretty well; people are free to rock check-board trousers, statement knuckle-dusters and unusual and uncomfortable designs are worn in the name of fashion and nothing else.
And they aren’t heckled or disrespected either, but encouraged and complimented…something many will say is missing on the stuffy streets of London.
They may not be wearing drawstring bags or sporting Kappa trainers yet, but give it time. Just watch.