Over the last 12 months, Times Square in the heart of Manhattan has consolidated its position as the destination in New York for casual American fashion, but there are new stores right across the Big Apple
The phrase a ‘New York minute’ is usually taken to mean that time is compressed in the Big Apple when compared with other metropolises.
And things do seem to move a little faster here than in most other locations. But there is a sense of the permanent about much of the city’s retail offer. Landmarks abound, whether it’s Macy’s (still billed as the world’s largest department store), Bloomingdale’s or even the more recent Apple store at the southern tip of Central Park. It’s hard to escape the feeling that retailers who set up shop here are in for the long game.
A surprise therefore to find that in Times Square, the heart of Manhattan, much has changed during the last year. This is now the home of the megastore and over the last year Los Angeles-headquartered fashion outfit Forever 21 has opened the largest apparel store in Manhattan, while next door, Disney has opened a flagship that leaves what is on view in Europe somewhat in the shade. And to cap things, local talent Aéropostale, a national chain that operates from New York, has taken a site with a long sweeping frontage. The three newcomers join American Eagle, in creating what must be one of the most flashy retail locations on the planet - a destination that features astoundingly large screens on which ever-changing content makes it difficult to work out where to look.
There are, of course, other places to get a fresh retail perspective on New York. Uptown, in East Harlem, Target has opened its first Manhattan store, while the Brit invasion that has seen Topshop, All Saints (mobbed last Saturday), Ted Baker and Superdry setting up store in SoHo over the last two years has continued with the arrival of a Dr Martens shop in the same downtown neighbourhood.
There have also been a fair number of smaller, branded, shops that have taken the plunge, ranging from fashion, courtesy of designer Marc Jacobs with a Bookmarc store, to girl-friendly bike shop Adeline Adeline in the city’s modish Tribeca district.
Back to Times Square and the vast crowds of local and out-of-town shoppers attest to the fact that for a significant number this is the current retail destination of choice.
The largest Disney store in the US opened in November with two floors and about 12,000 sq ft of selling space. The stats are noteworthy in their own right. The six letters forming the word Disney above the door weigh a little over 2,000lbs and the 65 ft-high digital screen above this is “the highest resolution screen on Times Square”, according to Disney spokeswoman Shawn Turner. This means that clips of everything from the Lion King to Toy Story can be shown in almost cinematic quality.
Inside, the relatively modestly sized ground floor is a showcase for plush toys and New York-themed Disney products - which form about 10% of the offer in this store. Head upstairs and if you’ve been to one of the larger Disney stores around Europe of late, there will be much that seems familiar: just bigger. This floor has high walls and where it would have been easy to leave the area above the perimeter shelving blank, a frieze with silhouettes of Disney characters cheek-by-jowl with familiar New York skyline icons ensures that the shopper’s eye will not be allowed to rest easy for a moment.
At the back of the floor is a 20 ft-high castle. This is only about 6 ft high in Madrid and contains magic mirrors that allow shoppers to wave a ‘magic’ (RFID) wand in front of them and conjure up short clips from Disney cartoons. The effect is immersive and even if you don’t care for Disney, you will want to have a look around.
The largest apparel store in Manhattan goes a long way towards disguising the fact that the products on its four floors
(a large ground floor, a basement, a sub basement and a sub sub basement) are inexpensive. This store is about making cheap look upscale. It does this by creating interior vistas that remind you of other stores, although it may be hard to place them. There is, for instance, an area on one of the lower floors where brightly coloured merchandise is displayed on walls where the surface has been covered with wallpaper that takes the form of a thin black on white grid. A cynic might perhaps be inclined to remark that it looks more than a little like American Apparel. Or perhaps you might feel that the bookcase-style fixturing in another part of the store is reminiscent of Polo Ralph Lauren. And there are Topshop references almost everywhere.
The difference in all these cases is that it has been created at low cost and is modular throughout. So what you see in Times Square can easily be exported to Buffalo in upstate New York or, Birmingham, England.
The most impressive point from a design perspective, however, is that each of the very large floors has been broken down into a series of themed open-plan rooms that still allow views across the rest of the space.
A low point though is the enclosed shoe shop in the basement. This looks cheap, over-gilded and a little dull with none of the in-store landscaping that characterises so much of the rest of the shop.
There are two standalone Dr Martens stores in London and one in Leeds. Now there is one in SoHo in lower Manhattan, which has been open for a matter of weeks. The London stores are noteworthy for their rough and ready interiors (particularly the Spitalfields pop-up - now in its second year of trading), but the Manhattan version
is a carefully crafted version with none of the handmade feel of the London outposts.
It does, however, as most of the British retailers in New York do, trade on its heritage, with black and white graphics depicting late-70s punks having a good time and looking suitably time-warped. The store clearly packs a punch for New Yorkers - it is small and was packed.
Finally, a store that aims to provide a non-threatening environment for female cyclists or women who might like to try it out. With a very simple shopfit and stock that is about top-end wicker basket cycling, there is a make-do-and-mend ambience about the enterprise.
It is also staffed by women instead of the dispatch rider manqué more normally found in an independent bike store. By virtue of its position, in the lower part of lower Manhattan, it is clearly also a destination as this is a store that you would not happen upon by accident. Like all the others visited, it opened in 2010.
The East River Plaza, a big-box shopping mall in uptown East Harlem, is home to Manhattan’s first Target store. The Minneapolis-based retailer has opted to take a unit in a development that has been beset by development difficulties and only finally made it away from the starting blocks at the end of 2009, almost 20 years after the idea of creating a mall on the site was mooted.
The outcome is that a Manhattan neighbourhood, where the nearest subway station is almost half a mile away, has a store that many in the area may struggle to reach. If they do make the journey though, it is easy to see why Target is currently big-box flavour of the month in the US.
This very large space has a walkway that takes you past all of the departments, which range from general merchandise to a reasonably substantial food offer, and it is the stock, rather than the store that does the selling.
There are exceptions. The denim shop, which is contained by freestanding walls, has a graphic of piles of jeans that extends above the level of the perimeter and the cookshop has white kitchen tiling that has been applied to the walls. However, for the most part this is about having well-designed and cheap product that shoppers will take the time to seek out irrespective of the interior design.