In Fort Greene, above a storefront on Lafayette Avenue, a metallic sign decorated with unlit neon block lettering reads “French Garment Cleaners.” A rickety tangle of wires in the image of the Eiffel Tower extends up the brick edifice of the building. Three weeks ago, the old cleaners became a new store called Stuart & Wright, but the new owners liked the old sign, and so kept it up.
The effect is startling, particularly when passersby glimpse the cool creaminess of the refurbished interior, their eyes slowly focusing on a telltale lump of brown leather. It’s a bag, maybe the perfect bag, gleaming behind a broad, pretty expanse of prohibitive storefront glass.
But the door’s open. Magic. It’s a boutique. A Brooklyn boutique!
Gentrifiers are hyper-attuned to wavelets of gentrification. Grouchy Brooklynites declare, with characteristic condescending toughness, a neighborhood completely transformed after the first five white people invade. But most still obsess over the changes that occur after their own momentous arrival. It’s a preoccupation even now, decades into Brooklyn’s massive absorption of Manhattan émigrés (the trendily tired and poor), who keep scrambling over the bridge, battered futons and pregnancy tests in tow.
So certain bourgeois-ification milestones— the first rehabbed Italianate brownstone, the first French restaurant, the first house to go for a million—inspire endless gossip, pride and, increasingly, a good deal of panic. These days, locals wring hands over even grander things: the first Hollywood celebrity, the first brownstone to go for four million, the first time you spy a red tour bus racing down DeKalb Avenue, loudspeaker blaring God knows what sights to see.
STUART & WRIGHT IS FORT GREENE’S first truly expensive (by Manhattan standards) clothing store, even though the neighborhood has been well invaded by rich people for the last six to 10 years. When a store is hawking $658 boots (Loeffler Randall, brown leather embossed to look like anaconda), something has changed on the street.
Stuart & Wright faces Moe’s, the popular bar. Just down the street is B.A.M., and Frank’s, and what was once the quick and cheap Cambodian Cuisine before it abandoned Brooklyn for a safe spot on the Upper East Side. On a recent Thursday evening, well-dressed people of various colors and only beautiful shapes spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of Stuart & Wright, celebrating its opening, cups carefully filled with clear alcohols: vodka, gin, white wine. A few cases of red had been canceled at the last minute, but the clothes—periodically caressed by the guests like a mother would her child—were still left out on display and vulnerable to drunks.
“I can’t believe this party is happening in Fort Greene,” said one of the owners, Alec Stuart, standing outside with the smokers. He’s slight, wears thick-rimmed glasses and recalls a cuter version of the cute, young Woody Allen. His partner, Celeste Wright, dressed in a black-and-white-striped dress and enviable heels, her black curls boinging about her head, was inside greeting the large crowd of friends, well-wishers and fashion types. Two women, not together, wore black stockings in exaggerated fishnet under white cotton dresses. Men wore hoodies and hairstyles. Later, Mr. Stuart said that the partygoers, a merry bunch, came from as far as Atlanta, Philadelphia and Manhattan. A WWD reporter was rumored to be in the mix.
Together, the owners accurately represent the population—Fort Greene evangelists would also say spirit—of this neighborhood, where detail-oriented hipsters and blasé sophisticates enjoy almost remarkable (and aesthetically pleasing) racial diversity and economic homogeneity. (Except, perhaps, when the bad kids smoke weed on the corner and the Fort Greene moms’ listserve erupts in e-mails of despair.)
The proprietors exhibit a pointedly friendly attitude—as they explained, they live in the neighborhood, they like the neighborhood, they want neighbors to feel comfortable in their obviously upmarket space. “No doorbells or anything like that,” said Ms. Wright. Many of the labels are Brooklyn-based, too. Elsewhere, though, in Brooklyn boutiques with dramatically simple names (Bird, Butter, Diane T.) undoubtedly meant for hushed tones, the shopgirls palpably strive for Manhattan’s special brand of haute-consumerist frigidity. What a relief for Fort Greene that they got Stuart & Wright.
“Welcome to the neighborhood,” said a female customer in red fashion-sneakers and straightened hair to Mr. Stuart. “We’re happy to have you,” the customer also said, breezing through the store.
“A.P.C.—they have this in Soho,” said another shopper, appropriately disheveled, a baby slung around her neck. A.P.C. is a store on Prince Street. An A.P.C. winter cap at Stuart & Wright costs $84. An A.P.C. scoop-neck sweater costs $209. “And now it’s here,” replied her male friend/husband with ho-hum satisfaction, leading her out the door.
RELIEF IS ONE REACTION to a boutique. The other might be anger. And somewhere in between lies pure anxiety: For a certain type of Brooklyn renter, $200 black-and-white flannel dresses (Samantha Pleet, the I Woke Up With a Lumberjack), $410 forest green silk-chiffon café dresses with puckered sleeves (Lyell) and $378 wedges (Loeffler Randall again—so pretty!) are merely a reminder that the party is over.
Women who live in Brooklyn chose “creative fields” over law or Wall Street. The boutiques make them regret that decision, even though they tailor themselves to the tastes of those who made it. From the lushly lit storefronts of Smith Street, Seventh Avenue and now Lafayette, the message is: Even freelance graphic designers deserve Diane von Furstenberg.
Ms. Wright’s retail philosophy suggests that most Brooklyn shoppers will select two or four items a season that they’ll splurge on. She’s probably right. But many of those doing the splurging on just one item—say, that $550 Lyell navy peacoat—likely can’t afford it. They just tell themselves that living in Brooklyn, an ostensibly money-saving venture, entitles them to some pat-on-the-back spending, a reward for having relocated to this special place.
“I heard 80 percent of the customers live on South Portland Street,” said a long-time Fort Greene resident with frustration. Her claim was confirmed only jokingly by Ms. Wright, who acknowledged that it sometimes seems that way. South Portland Street stretches from Fort Greene Park to Flatbush Avenue, a wonderland of trees and quiet and multimillion-dollar brownstones with ground-floor rentals that can cost as much as $2,500 a month and whose owners require prospective tenants to make more than $100,000. People who own on South Portland can afford the $800 Olivia bag by Gryson, with its braided handles and large front pockets made out of “slightly distressed” calfskin worked into the shape of large cannolis. Those shelling out all of their salaries for rent—and now, anaconda boots—are lost in the sort of deep denial and self-deception only possible when engaged in en masse.
Speaking of the masses: What’s so great about shopping in Brooklyn is that you won’t look like everyone in Manhattan—just everyone in Brooklyn. (No vintage-store rummagers here!)
Not far away from Stuart and Wright, the Boerum/Cobble Hill shopping circuit wends its way down Atlantic Avenue and over to Smith and Court streets. For years now, Butter and Diane T. have served as the area’s major shopping destinations. Bird, on Smith Street, recently opened to a stunning crowd of anxious women who’d frequented the Bird on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope and were grateful to have their very own Bird branch just minutes from their stoop.
On a sale day at these places, happily, Brooklynites find themselves surrounded by people like themselves—young people without savings, without down payments, but with some really awesome $200 Theory black pants, marked down just a tad. On those rare occasions (holidays, really), the closet fashionistas—women who can’t afford expensive clothes, know only vaguely the difference between See by Chloé and Isabel Marant, yet work in industries where they’re subjected daily to cruelly trendy rich chicks—bare their teeth and wield their credit cards. (They could cut you with those things.) Otherwise, they’d have to wait until Mom or Dad pops in for a pity visit.
“Bird’s a great place to meet women,” said a male friend at a house party in Prospect Heights where fig tart was served.
THE WOMEN ENDURE MORE THAN male attention in their quest for expensive-looking pants. In a neighborhood so small, shop owners can deduce immediately—maybe after you’ve visited once or twice or three times—whether or not you’re a buyer. At least in Manhattan, you have anonymity on your side. But in Brooklyn, as the real-estate agents say, you sure are treated like a familiar face.
“They have this great black dress,” said a friend on the way into Bird in Park Slope. “But it’s like $600 or something. They never used to have dresses that expensive.”
In the store, the black dress was on the mannequin—short-sleeved eyelet, fitted to the knees, flesh revealed in all the right places, the sort of “teaspoon of skin” sexiness that fundamentally conservative women wear to feel bold and kicky. It was made by Mayle, said the clerk, a label based on Elizabeth Street. Instead, Elizabeth Street came to me.
The Park Slope Bird is friendlier than the Smith Street Bird, but they say hello. The women at Diane T., on Court Street, a hodgepodge of Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenberg and other things you can get at Bloomingdale’s, won’t even assist you in the dressing rooms once you’re classified a promiscuous browser with shallow pockets. There are exceptions: the owner of Dear Fieldbinder on Smith Street exudes sweetness; ditto the overworked, admirably all-business duo at the shoe store Soula, and the complimentary ladies at Sir, on Atlantic.
And then there’s Butter. Butter, a seven-year-old Atlantic Avenue shop with frosted glass, a doorbell and, now, an outlet store down the street, is the most intimidating of all. Step inside and hold on tight. One death stare from a Butter employee can make you feel like a servant with chocolate-smeared fingers fumbling in the Queen’s closet. It is worth noting that Times critical shopper Alex Kuczynski wrote that the owners, Eva and Robin Weiss, “could not have been nicer.” According to the first Ms. Weiss, the most popular labels are Dries Van Noten, Rick Owens and Kristensen. Rogan is the top-selling denim. Many of the dark clothes hang formlessly, drapily, like funeral shrouds. When you put them on, they suddenly take shape, and it feels like a favor.
The evening I spoke with Eva by phone (she was about to take off to Milan), she said that three celebrities had been in the store that very day, but she wouldn’t disclose their names (“I want to respect them”). She disagreed that the store was daunting.
“We’re the same people we always were. We treat everybody the same,” she said. “It’s a nice store—my background is in design, and I want my store to look perfect. But I’m still the same person. I’m still wearing the same jeans I was wearing two years ago.
“I want the store to be fun,” she continued. “Some of my customers say, ‘Oh, I feel so underdressed’—but they’re kidding, you know?”
A shopgirl’s scorn is a shopgirl’s scorn; that’s what high fashion is for. But that scorn might also reflect the shopper’s shame of aspiring without means, of the folly of believing that consumption in Brooklyn is somehow different from the rank materialism of Manhattan. The excitement that surrounds the arrival of a new Brooklyn boutique masks a lazy entitlement particular to the expensively educated but professionally romantic: Thank you for bringing the rewards to my doorstep; maybe someday I’ll afford them. Then these rich people with no cash continue to rent and have brunch and shop.
“I live in Ditmas Park,” Ole Sondresen, the architect who fixed up Stuart & Wright, had told me at the party. I said he should prepare for an onslaught of new neighbors fleeing brownstone Brooklyn for cheap housing. He looked at me, raised eyebrows telegraphing the message: There, too, it’s already too late.