The Real Deal New York

Trendsetters trek Uptown for cheaper chic

By Jen Benepe | November 21, 2007 04:46PM

While it may not have the cachet of Madison Avenue or even the rest of Manhattan, Washington Heights is fashion forward in its own way.

Owners of businesses in high-traffic retail areas like St. Nicholas Avenue in the 170s and 180s say their customers run the gamut from Dominican residents to baseball players who fly in from Miami and preppy shopoholics who buy more than $600 worth of merchandise a week.

At stores like Privada, D’ Locura, Conceptcion II, and Gigio’s, prices range from $10 for a costume jewelry bracelet to $1,500 for a man’s suit.

Elsa Disla, co-owner of Privada at Broadway and 178th Street, worked in wholesale clothing for some 10 years before she began selling fashion door-to-door, mostly to Hispanic women while they were having their hair done in local salons. Five years ago she opened her store to sell brand-name clothing like BCBG, Black Halo, and Miss Sixty.

“Washington Heights is a good place to come and shop we have better prices than Downtown,” said Disla.

A customer in her early 30s, with perfectly arched brows tries on a knee-length $209 jacket that sets off her latte skin. Later on she eyes a matching pair of brown, knee-high, stiletto-heeled boots. The whole outfit cost her about $500, and women here can afford it, said Disla.

The 2000 U.S. Census numbers show median income levels ranging from the low $20,000s to about $75,000 throughout Washington Heights, and much of the highest income population is located in Inwood and the Ft. Tryon Park area. But many storeowners know that their business is largely a cash business, and people are plunking the cash down.

Eddie Cabrera, manager at Chocolate, sells more than 2,000 brands of fragrances and name-brand sunglasses at discount prices on St. Nicholas Avenue between 180th and 181st streets, a busy retail location.

The store’s clientele includes Yankee players Ruben Sierra and Mariano Rivera, in part because the owner of the store is also from the Dominican Republic, Cabrera said.

Good prices also bring clients from all over the region, including the five boroughs, Connecticut, and New Jersey, drawn to deals on popular perfumes like D & G Light Blue, normally $80, which is $55 here. But the store makes most of its profits from luxury-brand sunglasses, like Chanel, Gucci, and Cartier that range from $250 to $750.

Celebrity or the whiff of it seems to play heavily in the success of other stores in the area. Besides Chocolate’s Yankee connection, former NBA players Dennis Rodman, Alan Houston, and ex-Knick Charlie Ward are known to shop at the Top Gun store that sells mostly butter-soft leather jackets at sizzling prices two storefronts north of Chocolate. This location is the number-two performer of the 11-store chain, said manager Blanca Gonzalez.

Ivan Ferreira, who owns clothing shop Probus on 181st Street just west of Broadway, said that, in general, “people here have more money, they’re a little more wealthy than in Harlem.”

Gigio-Raful on the corner of 173rd Street and Broadway is perhaps the single most opulent store in the neighborhood, and where baseball players from the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays shop for $1,500 Moschino Uomo suits.

Dominican co-owner Gigio, who goes by one name only, said doctors, professionals, and restaurant owners are also his customers, and points to a colorful selection of striped silk ties rivaled by the likes of Saks and Bergdorf Goodman Men’s Store. Ask Gigio if his business is successful, and he answers that he’s been here for five years, and has no plans to leave.

Even retailers with plans to open in Soho have wound up in Washington Heights. Juan Carlos Gonzalez worked for 14 years in the garment and retail business before he opened his store D’Locura on 173rd Street and Broadway last year. Four years at Barney’s introduced him to brand-name fashion that you might find on Madison Avenue or in Downtown.

“I was going to open in Soho, but I didn’t have the capital,” said Gonzalez. For a 600-square-foot store in Soho that cost $13,000 a month he would have needed $80,000 a standard sum to cover the first five months of rent for an unproven retailer.

Instead, he bought out the lease of the previous leaseholder in his current space and is now paying less than half what he would have in Soho, with several hundred square feet more space, he said.

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