No one embodied the gimlet glamour and decadence of New York City retail quite like the late Manhattan socialite and couture collector Nan Kempner. “I spend way more than I should,” she once said, “…and way less than I want.” She lived and breathed for the glittering blocks of Fifth Avenue close to Central Park South.
But present-day visitors to New York shouldn’t be entirely seduced by the lavish department-store window displays and the ladies who lunch on the Upper East Side – some of the city’s most interesting stores and designers right now aren’t satellites in the orbit of Barneys and Bergdorf’s.
A lot of the more interesting, “only in New York” stuff is on sale in indie operations downtown, a world – or at least a 15-minute cab ride – away from the tourists on Fifth Avenue, carrying bags full of things they could have got back home.
A model walks the runway at a Zero + Maria Cornejo New York Fashion Week show CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
For more adventurous shoppers, the low-rise streets from Chelsea, through Greenwich Village and across to the Lower East Side have more charm, more interesting brands and infinitely nicer neighbourhood bars, cafes and restaurants.
Take a tour of the style mavericks and their wild habitats: contemporary jeweller and sculptor Jill Platner lives, works and sells her work in SoHo, and has done for 25 years. King of the modern fedora, Albertus Swanepoel makes custom millinery (from $400/£300) for men and women, as well as the runways of Carolina Herrera and Phillip Lim, out of his ramshackle Garment District atelier.
Jewellery by Jill Platner
For esoteric edition furniture, as well as collaborations with some of America’s most significant designers, go to Ralph Pucci, close to Union Square. Another big name in interior chic, John Derian has a store full of quirky objets, from decoupage peacock plates ($295) to drawings by Hugo Guinness ($4,200).
Since Raf Simons moved from Paris to New York last year, all eyes are back on the Calvin Klein label. What was old and oh-so-1980s is new again, with Raf on board as creative director. The Madison Avenue flagship store has been refitted by artist Sterling Ruby in industrial scaffolding, coloured entirely taxi-yellow. It’s as much a must-see design space as the new Whitney or the Guggenheim inner spiral.
The Calvin Klein Madison Avenue flagship
The personal shopper:
Many a concierge desk recommends Joan Kaufman as their go-to style consultant and shopping companion in the city. The former costume designer can read a client’s style immediately and has a really expert eye for a sophisticated kind of luxury. From $250 (£190) an hour.
The hit list:
Best Made creates luxury kitchen and camping goods for the kind of design obsessive who would never actually go camping but nonetheless craves the kit, including axes with striking graphic handles, at $348 (£264). Tilda Swinton and Michelle Obama share an appreciation for the draped, architectural, womenswear that’s created by Bleecker Street’s Zero+Maria Cornejo.
Millinery by Albertus Swanepoel
The star buy:
Norma Kamali’s unisex, super-voluminous, ultra-warm sleeping-bag coat, $800 (£607), was first sold by that most Manhattan of fashion designers back in 1973. Along with perennial black and red versions, she creates limited editions each season.
The pit stops:
Of the various eateries of Sant Ambroeus, the SoHo outpost on Lafayette Street is the most “fashion”. It’s an industry favourite, with plates on the wall decorated by artists, and hands down the best pasta in Manhattan. Via Carota is a sceney no-reservations spot in the West Village from Rita Sodi and Buvette’s Jody Williams. The fried rabbit with rosemary and garlic has become a cult dish.
Sant Ambroeus in SoHo
The stylish stays:
A handsome hotel with hospitable staff, the Peninsula New York is a haven for shoppers who’ve run havoc along abutting Fifth Avenue. The hotel’s classically styled rooms come with Oscar de la Renta toiletries, restaurant interiors have been spruced up by Yabu Pushelberg and rooftop bar Salon de Ning offers quintessential Manhattan views. From $686 (£520).
Meanwhile, The TriBeCa penthouse at Robert De Niro’s Greenwich Hotel, by Belgian designer Axel Vervoordt and Japanese architect Tatsuro Miki, is aggressively but fabulously Zen. Rooms from $721 (£542); TriBeCa penthouse from $17,216 (£13,055) for a three-night minimum stay.