(Photos by Shao-Yu Liu)
It’d be easy to confuse Asher Levine’s Tribeca basement studio for a special effects laboratory rather than the work space and showroom of one of Hollywood’s favorite emerging menswear designers.
Inside the door stands a cloaked and hooded figure in a red-ribbed death mask. Farther back, there is an assortment of horror-movie ephemera hanging from the ceiling and lying in glass cases: skull-shaped caps, rubbery monster gloves and a gigantic mold of what looks like a tyrannosaurus egg. In the middle of the room, veined human-size bat wings bloom out of slim leather jacket, a grotesquely beautiful Alexander McQueen vision in polyurethane.
On the Tuesday before New York’s Fashion Week, a group of young men joked around in the studio, taking off their clothes to show off tattoos and abdominal muscles. Unlike their female counterparts, these models come in varied sizes and ages: there was a 6-foot-4, soft-spoken Channing Tatum lookalike who was only 16, a 38-year-old with a grizzled two-day beard and a meaty build, and the emaciated blond Beau, who resembled Pete Doherty as rendered by Larry Clark.
In the 31st-floor offices of SWW Creative, the walls are beige, the carpet is gray and the cabinets are standard-issue wood-grain. There’s no Eames armchair, no runway stills splashed across the walls, not even a lucite coffee table with a copy of Grace Coddington’s memoir. There’s not a flower in sight.
While fashion professionals are known to obsess over the color of their pens, SWW Creative’s offices are about as splashy as an insurance agency’s. Stephanie Winston Wolkoff is not concerned.
The first time The Observer met Niki and Shaokao Cheng, it was July, during the opening night of Julio Gaggia’s art show. Mr. Gaggia, the boyfriend of the plastic surgeon Mark Warfel, was preparing his work “Living Art: Chelsea Boy Apartment,” during which he would live for five days as a window display model at the BoConcept furniture store on West 18th Street. He spent the week eating, sleeping, working—and performing other, less-mentionable activities—in a showroom that divided him from gawkers outside with a pane of glass.
While we lounged about on the display furniture, socialite photographer Patrick McMullan brought over a petite woman with short, pixie-cropped hair.
“Niki is one of the few Power Asians in New York society,” he loudly whispered, flourishing Ms. Cheng before us. She smiled shyly and posed for a photograph before excusing herself.
It would be two weeks before we realized that Ms. Cheng and her husband owned the store where we had dropped more than one canapé between the cushions of a $3,000 couch.
In fact, the couple owns all five locations of the Danish furniture store in New York City, and another two in New Jersey. But the stores themselves aren’t the reason Mr. McMullan calls the Chengs “Power Asians.” Rather, it’s the couple’s seemingly innate social instincts, their ability to leverage a fairly cookie-cutter, mid-market design base into a celebrity-filled social whirl. One might say “Only in America,” or (even worse) “Only in New York,” but this wouldn’t exactly cover it. There is a certain type that thrives in Manhattan no matter what they’re selling, no matter where they’re from, no matter how few resources they have upon arriving.