While talking the philosophy of self-oneness and at the same time furtively scanning clothing piled up in a glittery accumulation of fabric, Williamsburg boutique owner Malin Landaeus has a wink of inspiration.
“Woah, this is really a unique piece. And if you’re a designer, you just see this little…the studding here, these lines, that’s what they look for.” She zeroes in on a dress on a far rack. “They might just take this idea because it’s an interesting kind of flurpy…Look at me, this idea, this interesting thing. If you were a designer, you could put that on everything.”
So moves the mind of one of fashion’s most subtle contributors – in permutations of accoutrement and miniature, but consistent, swells of creativity. At her small shop off Bedford Avenue, Malin Landaeus Select Vintage Collections, Landaeus has been redefining the role of a clothing reseller by inadvertently advancing modern fashion. She is not the only one who has fomented a particular kind of sartorial subversion; Landaeus is very much symbolic of a neighborhood’s rise in the fashion world. And some powerful players in the industry have taken notice. But then, you already knew that the kids in Williamsburg dress cool.
Williamsburg is not a hidden mecca for many things anymore. The price of real estate is sky-high. Its music resounds loudly in ears and minds. The restaurateurs are celebrities and get Michelin stars. Still, Williamsburg’s sway on style is felt more delicately.
In fashion it has been a street renaissance. Stand on the main strip off the first L-train stop on a warm Saturday and try not to be shocked and intrigued by the endless looks sported so nonchalantly. “The Bedford strut,” comments Ruffian fashion designer Brian Wolk.
It is an internal style revolution, one that emerged from the need for individuality and self-reliance, and a growing disillusionment with fashion as a whole. “All the kids that live in Brooklyn and Williamsburg now … are people that grew up in that grunge era, and went to garage sales and thrift stores,” says Sophie Buhai, one half of clothing design team Vena Cava.
“Once you realize you don’t have to spend money on your clothes to have them look cool, and its actually better to have something that no one else will have that you bought for three dollars, you kind of just continue to dress that way.”
The storeowners in Williamsburg have mirrored this epochal shift in attitude with a change of their own—or at least of their industry’s—business model.
“People don’t want to just go out and buy what everyone else can buy,” says Landaeus, commenting on what she feels is an outdated approach to selling clothes. “There’s no sport in that.”
So with the warmth of a den mother and the acumen of a lobbyist, Landaeus takes her customers on a stroll through their own stylistic whims, letting them “talk about what it’s like, and where they get inspiration from what they wear.”
CC McGurr, fellow Williamsburg boutique owner, fashion writer, and colorful neighborhood staple for over two decades, echoes Landaeus’ proclivity toward mindset, rather than wardrobe, alteration. “My approach is more insidious, more fun,” says McGurr. She brazenly compares her work at her store Fille De Joie to writing poetry. “Telling a story that is funny and entertaining about yourself, to yourself and others,” is what she hopes her shoppers appreciate. “It’s not just about me educating the customer; it’s really an act of creativity and entertainment.”
Landaeus and McGurr both deal in vintage clothing, but in novel ways. Landaeus especially has pushed her practice off the radar that usually defines vintage shopping. She assembles collections, just like any modern designer, and that means meticulously thought-out seasonal groups of…old and existing clothing. It’s not exactly what you’d expect to see unfurling on the runway during fashion week. Perhaps it should be though, because her trend-making prowess is acknowledged in the business. “Malin has a keen eye for what’s about to happen,” says Liz Richardson, executive design director at Urban Outfitters. “She’s inspired some best sellers at Urban herself.”
One particular collection Ms. Landaeus released was motivated by Dick Tracy comics. It had film noir overtones and a prevailing sense of androgyny And lots of men’s trousers for women. Other designers caught on quick. “That’s when I started to see a big change in pants,” she says quietly, as if forcefully quashing a prideful response.
It’s an emblematic reaction of Landaeus’ stereotypically holistic nature. She is a Reiki master (a spiritual practice dealing with energy therapy), a devoted mother (she home-schooled her daughter), and a therapist/confidant for the eclectic crowd of younger friends that hangs out on the comfy couch in her store.
“I don’t come to what I do strictly through fashion,” she says, with a relaxed yet pointed keel, over a cup of herbal tea. She drapes words and ideas around an ardent appeal. It is her signature method of persuasion, and it seems to work with the designers and buyers who make their obligatory stops at her store. The statement seems far-fetched – she practically screams fashion at every instance – yet her downplay comes across convincingly.
Even so, style has certainly factored largely in her life. She used to play dress up in her native Sweden, with bold takes on Wild West couture, wearing a ribbed turtleneck with pockets and a studded patent leather belt while playing Cowboys and Indians with her brother. She was the cowboy.
She didn’t get that game quite right, but Landaeus demonstrated early on an ability to think differently with fashion. After watching Diane Keaton in Anne Hall, she wore her dad’s pants to school. Later, she held the duties of a manager at one of Sweden’s hottest clothing boutiques. She eventually moved to California, where she worked as a field researcher for an organic cotton children’s-wear company. Concerned with sustainability since the early 1990’s, she decided to decrease her consumption of new goods as much as possible. That’s how she came to vintage, and she’s been looking back ever since, with the sharp eye of a forward thinker.
About Landaeus’ collections, Richardson says, “They are directional pieces from a multi-cultural perspective, and they are presented as statements. “It’s inspiring,” she says.
Landaeus is compulsively discreet about her interactions with clients (Chloé and H&M were two that slipped away), but when she works with one, she playfully lays out ideas and directional nudges like birdsong. And every time a client leaves her expansive archive down the street from her store, bags full of rare Pollini platforms, Pucci prints, and 1980’s Betsey Johnson ultra miniskirts, Landaeus’ flock of admirers, and her influence, grows.
The fecund soil east of Manhattan has seen modern fashion sprouting from this neighborhood in more traditional ways as well. Amidst the confluence of designers, fashion writers, models, and industry workers now residing here, the design teams behind labels Ruffian and Vena Cava have made perhaps the biggest splash. Vena Cava can be found worldwide at Barneys, and Ruffian designs have a loyal fan base with big-name celebrities like Cate Blanchett, Kate Moss, Kirsten Dunst, and Maggie Gylenhaal.
Growing international stature aside, both the Ruffian and Vena Cava lines emerged as products of youthful Williamsburg creativity. Wolk and Ruffian co-designer Claude Morales take endless stimulus for their stylized Victoriana from the mix of nostalgia and avant-garde they absorb every day in Williamsburg. After a particularly enlightening morning L-train ride, they gush over anorak ski jackets and three girls gloriously adorned in bright colors on a drab winter day. “Williamsburg is a fountain of ideas and youth for me,” says Wolk.
But while Wolk and Morales still make the commute into Manhattan to work, they’ve noticed a trend toward reverse commuting that hints at the fashion world’s growing fascination with an area that was once a sweatshop to the fashion industry. “Retailers or friends of ours who work in the business have to take the trip, to try and understand where we come from and what’s happening,” says Morales.
One notable sightseer was Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, who came to visit Sophie Buhai and her Vena Cava partner Lisa Mayock at their Brooklyn studio. The duo has done a lot to represent their Williamsburg roots, hosting a block party in the neighborhood with notable local boutique Bird last year in conjunction with the global event Fashion’s Night Out. The way they and their friends dress, with that salvage-and-reinvent impetus endemic to the area, largely factors into their consistently edgy output.
Other members of the media have seized upon Brooklyn chic. “When Lisa and I first started our business six years ago, nobody really cared that we were designers from Brooklyn,” says Buhai. “And then it was interesting to see the change. All of a sudden they [the media] kept writing in articles that we were the Brooklyn girls.”
Major retailers are also poised to cash in on a style they would be happy to drum up as the latest craze. In 2007 the Gap re-branded its tapered jeans as “The Williamsburg Skinny Fit.” Now Macys is set to launch an affordable menswear line by Ruffian this March. The collection is directly inspired by Williamsburg fashion, and tapping into that aesthetic was a notable part of the retailer’s business plan. “I do think it [Williamsburg] was part of the conversation,” says Macys VP and Men’s Fashion Director Durand Guion on the collaboration with Ruffian.
It is a big step towards exposure for both Ruffian and the ‘Williamsburg look’ to touch ground on such a wide commercial landing strip. But it is inevitably also a test of how viably a funky, individualized aesthetic can be re-packaged for down-market consumers worldwide. “We have a wide assortment of customers,” says Mr. Guion. “And so it becomes really key for us to kind of nail how do we speak to as many of them as possible.”
At the present, Macys is banking on it talking loud and clearly.
The Ruffian and Vena Cava principals quickly dispel notions that Williamsburg could become a high-end shopping destination like Soho, so don’t expect the glamour and status of luxury fashion to migrate from Manhattan anytime soon. And that’s something comforting to all the players involved in Williamsburg’s rise. They call the neighborhood their gem, and hold it close with a protective grip. “We don’t want it to happen,” says Morales.
For now, Williamsburg will remain a sphere of influence for designers and a trove of potentially lucrative ideas for retailers. But Williamsburg’s biggest contribution to fashion has perhaps already solidified. It is the notion that style can emerge from the bottom up. It is in the development of focused boutiques carrying cutting edge new clothing like Bird and Dalaga in Greenpoint, with curatorial approaches and “unique detail environments,” as Ms. Mayock puts it, and the traction they will increasingly gain within the fashion world. It is in the idea that looking to an obscure past and crossing cultural boundaries can result in new stylistic movements and lasting innovations.
“This is where we can say that grassroots actually worked,” says Landaeus with the metaphorical weight of a minor revolutionary. It’s like Che with a killer boot collection.