From the Pop Shop to Supreme, the stories behind the coolest downtown shopping strip ever.
As told to Zandile Blay (@zandile)
If the weather’s right, just one look down the long corridor that is Lafayette Street may compel you to walk all 22 blocks of this Lower Manhattan thoroughfare.
If you do you’ll be rewarded with a trek that's also a treat. From its very top—Astor Place—to its very bottom—City Hall—Lafayette is less a street and more a cultural experience-cum-social experiment. As you stroll from the East Village through NoHo, NoLita, Little Italy and China Town, boutiques blend into insider restaurants which melt into hardware stores that bleed into hipster hangouts punctuated by parking lots. By journey’s end, you’ve not only walked two miles, you’ve experienced a true anomaly: a street that’s as much a home for locals as it is a destination for tourists; an address for both Middle America’s biggest brands and New York City’s boldest labels; the geographical heart of downtown style, which has played host to some of the coolest retail establishments in NYC, from Keith Haring's Pop Shop to X-Large to Triple 5 Soul and Supreme.
Over the course of nearly three months we researched, tracked down and spoke with a wide range of residents, landlords, business owners and employees who helped to make Lafayette Street what it is. And while it's changed a lot over the past 35 years, there remains something uniquely inimitably fly about this great street in this great city. We’d try to explain this better—but better let the experts tell you, in their own words....
Vahap Avsar - Co-owner, Brooklyn Industries
Matt Barolo - Former assistant store manager, Keith Haring Pop Shop; current Operations Manager, Keith Haring Foundation.
Guido Campello - VP of Sales, Branding and Innovation, Cosabella
Alex Corporan - Skateboarder 4 Life, former manager at Supreme
Fernando Dallorso - Manager, Puck Fair
Jean-Marc Houmard - Co-owner, Indochine
Dean Jankelowitz - Co-owner, Jack's Wife Freda
Tatiana Johnson - Representative, Liebeskind Berlin
Charlie McCorkell - Owner, Bicycle Habitat
Ed McFarland - Owner, Ed’s Lobster Bar
Shayni Rae - Director of Retail, G-Star Soho
Dante Ross - A&R rep, owner Stimualated Records
Steve Schul - Press Director, BESS:
George Schwarz - Owner, Noho Star Restaurant
Shana Tabor - Owner, IN GOD WE TRUST
Laura Wills - Owner, Screaming Mimi's
THE EARLY YEARS: 1978-1990
George Schwarz: “I think I moved here around 1978. Needless to say, the neighborhood was not this crowded and busy as it is now. In fact it was totally deserted, so much so that when people passed by my wife would call me and say ‘Oh look, there’s somebody here. Do you know who it is?’ At that point there was a liquor store which basically sold Thunderbird, a sweet wine that you could put in your back pocket. There were people lying on the streets from the Bowery, drunk from large amounts of it.
There was a lot of drug traffic in the street, and until Mayor Giuliani arrived there was no way to stop it. The specialty was crack. The neighborhood was so scarcely populated it was pretty easy to buy and sell it. For example, right here off the corner - just twenty yards west of Lafayette Street - was a pickup and drop-off place. Usually a big car, a Lincoln or Cadillac, would pull up and in thirty seconds five or six people who come out of nowhere would crowd the car, and thirty seconds later the crowd would disappear and the car would move on. This went on for years.”
There was a lot of drug traffic in the street, and until Mayor Giuliani arrived there was no way to stop it. The specialty was crack.
Charlie McCorkell: “When we moved here in 1978 too and frankly it was all we could afford. This was really cheap retail back then. This whole area was much more commercial. If you wanted to buy a drive chain for a tractor or a motorcycle, you could come down here and find it. There were a lot of hardware stores, a lot of people who sold compressors, sewing machines, and that kind of stuff. At that time, the city was no longer desirable. [Readers] may be too young to remember but around that time the city had asked the Congress and the President for help to get through a couple rough years and there was a big headline in the Daily News that read ‘President Ford to New York City: Drop Dead.’ ”
Jean-Marc Houmard: “I arrived in New York in ‘85 and began working at Indochine shortly after. It definitely felt like a no-man’s-land then. There was very little activity especially at night and even during the day. There weren't very many stores at all. It felt very far from Soho. Even Broadway had very little activity then. So at night when you arrived on Lafayette you kind of wondered where you were arriving. Then there was this door with no name really, just tiny neon lights and you enter the room and there was like all this activity blossoming inside. Indochine literally felt like an oasis on Lafayette. It was a lot of energy and a lot of glamour in what was then the middle of nowhere.”
Charlie McCorkell: “It may have been deserted but we’d still have people like [Sex Pistols bassist] Sid Vicious come in here stoned and kind of wobbling around in the store.”
Matt Barolo: “Keith’s shop opened in 1986 and I remember it being the only store on that strip. I didn’t start working at the shop until 1991. There was our Pop Shop, which was across the street from the Puck Building, and down from the Puck Building but on that same side was a movie prop shop. Do you remember the big topiary bushes from the Edward Scissorhands film? Those were all lining the street. They were huge! It took up the entire block.”
Fernando Dallorso: “I remember the space where the restaurant Delicatessen sits was literally a Greek deli. I used to buy a bagel with butter and a coffee from there all the time and I remember the shop was run by one Greek man. ”
Jean-Marc Houmard: "When I first started, I waited on Andy Warhol, that was a little story in our book (Indochine: Stories Shaken And Stirred) and I was completely nervous. He ordered a mint tea and when I put the cup down I slightly brushed his hand and I thought ‘Oh my God! I just touched Andy Warhol!’ it was like a thing! I still remember the excitement.”
A STYLE SUPREME:
The First Wave of Modern Retail (1990-2000)
Laura Wills: “We came down to this space twenty-one years ago in 1992, but even then it was pretty desolate. There was the the Noho Star and this one diner across the street that’s now gone. You had to to be careful on these streets. People definitely were like ‘Why are you opening there?’ But we were fueled by what we could afford and there was not much we could afford except this little neighborhood. I don’t even think they called it ‘Noho’ back then, because you know realtors penned that later on. We knew NYU was around the corner, which was good and even back in those days. There were photo studios down here; there was an interesting scene. There were lots of artists working down here, and it just seemed like a good fit for us. We believed in the neighborhood. We loved the neighborhood. We knew it was just a matter of time.”
Alex Corporan: “I started working at Supreme around 1996, about four years after it opened. By that time all the other skate shops had shut down. Benjis had closed. O.D.S had closed and Blades—well, no one wanted to go in there. I’d definitely say there was a depression in the skateboarding world. It wasn’t making money, especially in New York. But Supreme was thriving. At that time, the block was full of furniture stores. On that strip of Lafayette, Supreme was the only clothing retailer. Then pretty soon after X-Large and Triple Five Soul opened up.”
Dante Ross: "I had an office around the corner in 1998—I was at 580 Broadway. It was pretty cheap rent back in those days. Shady Records was on 151 Lafayette Street, right next to Supreme. Theo Sedlemayr’s [hip-hop attorney] office was also there. There was Label Whore, I think another store called Stackhouse, a place called Sur and another one called Kinky. At one point, my friend had a store called ‘The Cutie Room' and I’d visit there a lot because she was cute. Later on, Clientele was there too and they were in business for a long time. Lafayette was like a little strip of street wear retail...”
The majority of us were in Kids. Me, my friend Giovanni, Hal Hunter, Justin Pierce—rest in peace—and a lot of people who hung out in Supreme were in it. It was pretty much a script based on us.
Matt Barolo: “When I officially started working on Lafayette in the store in the '90s the shop and the area had an overall sense of fun and play that very much came from Keith. He actually set the shop up like a fast food shop for art. The space was divided in the center with a curved wall with two windows and all the merchandise was stapled to the walls and each piece of art had a number. Customers would grab a clipboard, write down their order and have it processed by the first window and pay for it in the second one. Everything we sold was affordable—pins for 50 cents, posters for a dollar. I remember when Nelson Mandela was released, 'Free South Africa' became a big slogan and Keith had 4x4 posters (of his original artwork featuring it) printed. He was selling them for a dollar! It was very easy for people with very little means to come in and get something. The store and street was overflowing with a very diverse downtown crowd. It was a happy place.”
Alex Corporan: “Eating was integral. It’s like you couldn’t just shop and work retail—you had to eat. Bubbas, a diner which was where Delicatessen now is, was the stomping ground for breakfast, lunch and early dinner. It was a very regular diner—nothing fancy. And the owner would call everyone Bub. There was also a place called Mei Kong in the neighborhood. It was a really good place for Vietnamese food. You’ll be sitting down next to like Iggy pop and no one would give a damn. There were no paparazzi.”
Shana Tabor: “Everyone was definitely young. Not even 20-something young, younger. The Lafayette street I discovered in the 90s just reminded me of [The Larry Clark film] Kids, since there were a lot of young people around, I think people and businesses sort of just followed that energy a bit - it attracted them to this area.”
Matt Barolo: “It’s funny because I remember that. Supreme the first store I could remember coming after us. I never forgot it because opened right around when 'Kids' came out - and literally all the kids from Supreme were in it. ”
Alex Corporan: “It’s surreal. The majority of us were in Kids. Me, my friend Giovanni, Hal Hunter, Justin Pierce—rest in peace—and a lot of people who hung out in Supreme were in it. It was pretty much a script based on us and a lot of us were in there as ourselves except for Rosario and Chloe and Harold who were the leads. Everything was organic. We’d all been family since like 1992—and Supreme was the meeting point. Our block was skaters, models and locals. No tourists at all. It was like we had a little secret street between Prince and Houston.”
Charlie McCorkell: “By the early '90s more people started moving here. It started with Broadway, which at that time was almost all places that sold wholesale, textiles and had really cheap prices and had signs that said 'We Speak Spanish.' Then Dean & Deluca moved on the corner of Broadway and Prince, the Guggenheim opened on the corner of Broadway and Prince—which is now the Prada store. Bloomingdale's opened on Broadway. It worked its way from West Broadway all the way to us.”
A CHANGE IS GONNA COME:
Real Estate vs. Retail (2000-2005)
Steve Schul: "I’ve seen a lot of the independent stores move away. When we first moved here there were some great vintage shops on this street. I know we have Screaming Mimi's and there’s still Amarcord, but there used to be these great shops where you could dig through jeans and piles of clothes and buy them for cheap. I don’t see those anymore...”
Laura Wills: “We’ve been lucky, [Screaming Mimi's] has a very supportive and very amazing landlord, which is completely unusual in these times. He loves small business, supports small business. He never wanted the space to be taken over by any kind of a chain store or like a big restaurant, so he really made it possible for us to be here and to still be here.”
To be the center of the punk era in the '70s and '80s and now home to K-Mart and Starbucks and that huge glass apartment building... It’s a bit of a shame, but they are the only ones who can afford rent.
Matt Barolo: “Unfortunately [Keith Haring's Pop Shop] became one of those stores that ended up having to leave Lafayette. Our landlord was actually a great guy. He was an artist himself and was totally supportive of Keith and he kept our rent at a much lower rate than the surrounding spaces. But the shop actually never turned a profit and rent was continually going up because of the overall market. Finally in 2005 we were like we’re hemorrhaging money in order to maintain the Keith’s original vision of inexpensive, accessible art for all—$20 t-shirts and $1 pins. But by 2005 rent was over $10,000 a month for our 500-square-foot store. We had to shut down, but that’s the story of retail in New York....”
Jean-Marc Houmard: “Big box stores are part of the problem. Thanks to them, Astor Place (at the very top of Lafayette Street) has lost its grittiness. To be sort of the center of the punk era in the '70s and '80s and now home to K-Mart and Starbucks and that huge glass apartment building... It’s a bit of a shame, but they are the only ones who can afford rent...”
Fernando Dallorso: “Unfortunately that comes with the territory. I’m not sure if there's any good to a Duane Reade or K-mart or Starbucks. It’s possible that that’s when you cross the line. But how could you stop someone from opening a Starbucks if they want to? Fortunately there’s places like [Puck Fair], like Indochine, like Noho Star, places that have stood strong. Hopefully we can remain that way and maintain Lafayette’s character.”
Shayni Rae: "When this location opened in 2004, it was the first G-Star Store in the U.S. There weren't many shops on in this area yet. It was in between the big stores on Broadway and the very small boutiques of Nolita—niche brands set the tone for those who stopped to shop, making it a street with unique character. SoHo is one of the best shopping districts in the world. This corner space seemed massive with its floor-to-ceiling windows. There is a lot of traffic that drives up Lafayette as it heads north while Broadway heads south. Broadway is the most trafficked street for tourism and big box chain locations. Lafayette is two streets over from Broadway and the stores have a more independent flair."
Dean Jankelowitz: “The thing is, I use Duane Reade like three or four times a day. So as a small business owner on one hand you want small businesses to survive and you want the community to support small business. But on the other hand, the convenience of a Duane Reade is unparalleled. I would love to go into a deli and get all that stuff but unfortunately those kinds of delis died. It’s mixed feelings. We wouldn’t want some big box store over here like JCPenney, but the traffic it would bring is good.”
Vahap Avsar: “The space [Brooklyn Industries] currently occupy used to be a furniture shop. We decided to take it when it became available in 2003. Even back then, there was just a handful of stores including Triple Five Soul and Supreme. After we opened, then a slew of European street wear stores jumped on our block. We had great friends, neighbors, and customers. Savion Glover, the tap dancer, used to live upstairs and he was actually a great neighbor. By that point Lafayette street felt really safe.”
Matt Barolo: “The bottom line is, by the time we closed in 2005 I think Lafayette had changed a lot. The G-Star’s and Kmart’s and Duane Reade’s had arrived. At that point, the people who were shopping in those other shops maybe didn’t totally have the same spirit as the generation of shoppers before. The vibe had shifted.”
Dante Ross: “You know, the vibe on Lafayette is not in danger of becoming Broadway—it’s already become it. It’s like Broadway Junior. But that’s the story of everything in New York, especially downtown.”
LEADERS OF THE NEW COOL:
The Second Wave of Modern Retail (2005-Present)
Ed McFarland: “I think I got in right when the transition of this section of Lafayette Street was happening around 2006. There were low-end restaurants and diners but La Esquina was here and Spring Natural was already on the corner.”
Lafayette represents the heartbeat and the mecca of it all. We have Broadway right behind us. Supreme is right next door. Everything is right here.
Steve Schul: “By the time we moved here around 2006 it wasn’t dangerous anymore or really that dirty. It was pretty safe and it seemed like it would eventually evolve into something.”
Tatiana Johnson: “For us, there was no other location we could have opened in last year. Lafayette represents the heartbeat and the mecca of it all. We have Broadway right behind us. Supreme is right next door. Everything is right here—and all these other retailers complement (instead of compete with) what [Liebeskind] has to offer as a brand.”
Alex Corporan: “Everything started getting high between 1999 and 2000, more customers and more foot traffic. For us that’s when the name got stronger and the brand got bigger. It’s almost like everyone got a memo that said, ‘Skateboarding is cool now and theres a skate shop on Lafayette. It became the place to go and all these bars and restaurants and New York nightlife was connecting with us. Skateboarding felt like a new phenomenon for everyone but it's an old thing to us.”
Shayni Rae: "The street has really maintained its unique character, with a nice mix of some international brands, niche stores and local entrepreneurs, plus David Bowie and Iman keep a residence on the block. The boutiques are still original. The restaurants are international. There still isn't a Starbucks on the block, but instead a very cool coffee shop; La Columbe."
Guido Campello: "Having a [Cosabella] flagship in New York was key for us. We found our building by walking around the neighborhood and we looked for about a year in this neighborhood before opening in 2011. This building was a mechanic's garage and it was this old red brick building, not very attractive but unique. It was a space we could personalize. We are an Italian company and since Lafayette Street is between SoHo and Little Italy, for us it was the best of both worlds.”
RIGHT HERE. RIGHT NOW:
Lafayette Street: Present Day
Ed McFarland: “From blue-collar workers to high-end Wall Street families, they all live on this street. There’s also loads of nontraditional workers in the neighborhood - writers, agents, and other creatives - and they all eat at the same restaurants and shop at the same stores.”
Charlie McCorkell: “A lot of people who own businesses here ride bikes and so they come here often. And when I need a product or service they sell, I usually go see them. So, there’s still that small community feeling to this street. It tends to be a little more neighborhoody.”
Shayni Rae: "G-Star has a core following of international travelers, who also pay us a visit here in the Lafayette store. The foot traffic has increased over the years, but maintained its sense of style. We have two other G-Star stores on Broadway, and they see different customers. The Lafayette flagship store has a hard-core following. At any given time the store could be filled with musicians, artists, actors, and creative personalities from all around the world. We've seen everyone from Calvin Klein to Joe Manganiello to Ashley Benson to Usher shop in the store and they are always very pleasant to work with."
Heidi Klum and Seal once walked by and saw our window display, which at the time was decked out with those rubber Barack Obama masks that go over your head. (2008 was the election year.) Seal ran inside and asked us about buying one of the masks off our display piece. He was ecstatic when we gave it to him for free.
Steve Schul: “You still see the people who actually live here. Its not like your Broadway where it’s only tourists. You can breathe while you’re here; its not always packed. Lafayette is just so Lafayette. And it's not Soho and it's not Nolita. I would never tell someone the store is in Nolita even though its like five feet away from there. ”
Dean Jankelowitz: “It’s strange to find in New York City, in downtown, a street that is actually very neighborhood friendly. What I enjoy about it also, being a foreigner, the demographic is mixed. People from all over come here, they have kids here, and the kids grow up here and become part of this culture around us. You go most other places in the city and there’s a more homogenous culture. But here you get a bit of everything.”
George Schwarz: "Everybody recognizes everybody. Now we are in the next generation. Somebody comes and says, ‘My parents used to bring me here and now I’m bringing my daughter!’ Sometimes we have even three or four generations come and they all came from the beginning. They will say ‘Remember in your second year you had this duck on Sunday night? Do you still make it?’ and I say ‘Well we haven’t made it for a few years but if you want it, we’ll make it for ya.' [laughs] We are not corporate. If this were corporate I would’ve sold this whole business a long time ago.”
Jean-Marc Houmard: “We’re also serving different generations now too. There are people who used to come in the 1980s and now it's their kids who come more than them. The age group has remained the same. It’s not just older people with nostalgia of their young days, it's very vibrant with a lot of different kinds of people—including those who have never been and are discovering it anew. It’s amazing.”
Vahap Avsar: “Today it's a more diverse crowd of people. Our part of Lafayette Street, above Houston, just ten or so years ago used to be only hardcore street-wear guys, mostly men. Now it's many more people, more genders, all walks of life.”
Steve Schul: "In the beginning it was just our customer base, that's it. People wouldn't even walk down this street. It was either Broadway or some other street—it was rare to see this much foot traffic. Over the years more people have filtered through as this has become more of a shopping street. The foot traffic alone has increased tenfold I would say."
Vahap Avsar: "That foot traffic also involves celebrities. We don't want to name too many names but many people have come by the SoHo store. Although one good recent story is in the October 2008, Heidi Klum and Seal once walked by and saw our window display, which at the time was decked out with those rubber Barack Obama masks that go over your head. 2008 was the election year. Seal ran inside and asked us about buying one of the masks off our display piece, of course he was ecstatic when we gave it to him for free. The paparazzi pictures are still floating around out there somewhere."
Dante Ross: “I still walk around downtown. I still stop by Supreme. I’ll go by WESC or stop by Blackscale to see friends, grab a bite at La Esquina or see my friend Jimmy who owns a restaurant in the area. But it’s not where I want to walk around so much anymore. It’s too many people now.”
Alex Corporan: “The block has definitely become more touristy, but also more adult. Seeing it now, it’s hard to believe that this was the same street where we would skate up and down the block and inside and outside of the store. It’s hard to believe it’s the same place where there’d be like twenty of us watching skateboard videos at the store with like fifty or sixty kids watching through the window. There’d be no cops or no one to bother us. That could never happen today.”
The Future of Lafayette
Dean Jankelowitz: "I would love Lafayette to be vibrant and bustling all the way south to the courthouse. In my best imagination when the Freedom Tower is finished there will be stores all the way down the street, a nice sense of community and people putting energy into the environment. I would love Lafayette to be from beginning to end to be comfortable and perfect."
Ed McFarland: "I think it's only gonna get better because the neighborhood still has room for improvement. There's still a lot of space and I hope they keep it somewhat on the smaller side. I hope (developers) don’t go too crazy building up. But I'd like to see new retail as well as restaurants because the more people we drive to the neighborhood the more it benefits everyone here from the businesses to the people who live here."
I just hope this doesn't become Broadway. I just hope there won’t be a McDonalds across the street.
Shayni Rae: "G-Star is an international luxury denim brand, focusing on denim innovation and craftsmanship—yet there is something anyone can afford. Our customers know this and keep coming back to see what is new. Next July will be the 10 year anniversary for this location. The only constant in NYC is change, and we can only hope that LaFayette Street changes for the good and maintains its unique creative flavor."
Fernando Dallorso: "I hope Lafayette is able to keep that thin line between progress and character. In between the fine restaurants and fine retail, there’s still a store that sells leather, theres a store that sells flooring supplies, there’s a hardware store. You wouldn’t see that on Broadway, or on West Broadway, or on Park avenue. As long as those little stores remain Lafayette it will stay the same."
Matt Barolo: "Who knows what Keith would be interested in doing with the store now if he was still alive? I can't imagine. But personally, I can't help but be nostalgic and think about the old days on Lafayette Street when the shop was at its peak.”
Jean-Marc Houmard: “Lafayette has preserved its character and I hope it will stay that way. Hopefully it will maintain its specialness and the big box stores on Astor Place will realize they are out of place and go somewhere else. Then we'll only have beautiful boutiques like Screaming Mimi's up around. It's the individuality these stores represent that New York—that Lafayette—is all about."
Laura Wills: "I would like to see my boutique here after ten years. I know there will be more renovations and changes, but now that it's strictly landmarked they say there won’t be any demolitions or overbuilding. But we will see. I just hope this doesn't become Broadway. I just hope there won’t be a McDonalds across the street."
Dante Ross: “Lafayette is not in danger of becoming Broadway—it’s already become it. It’s like Broadway Junior.But that’s the story of everything in New York, especially downtown—not just Lafayette. Unfortunately, you can't go back to another era. Theres no time machine and once things are discovered, they are discovered—and they change.”
Alex Corporan: “It’s true. But Lafayette still has a lot of pluses. It still feels special, it still has an energy. But on the other hand, I do miss how different things were back then. Very organic. Very just us. The store and the street felt like our clubhouse. We marked a very special time in the history of New York and the history of the street—and now it’s passed.”
Guido Campello: "I’ll tell you this: my first day after I relocated to New York City, I happened to be on Lafayette on Houston and I was able to look down and see all the way down and at the time you could see past Petrosino Square all the way through to the World Trade Center. It was breathtaking. That image of Lafayette has always stuck with me. I hope that’s how it will always be."