Houses of Style

Lynn Yaeger

NYC is known for well known for style—as you'd expect from a town which hosts Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week twice a year. But holding a coveted ticket to watch high-end models prance down the runways isn't the only way to experience the cutting-edge in New York. All over town, designers at tiny storefront boutiques are presenting their spring collections—quirky and charming and as individualist as the City itself. You won't see these clothes at your local department stores, so you needn't worry that someone will show up in an identical ensemble at your next party. Cookie-cutter chains are fine when you just want to dash in and pick up a little something, but individual shops, built with sweat, vision, inspiration and, yes, sometimes even tears, can turn an afternoon of shopping into a truly exciting curatorial adventure. The five boroughs are full of such places—you just have to know where to look! Here are a few of my personal favorites:

The Kate behind Kaight is Kate McGregor, who stocks her spacious Lower East Side boutique with wonderful fashions that also happen to be, in her words, "environmentally friendly." Say good-bye to the shapeless flax numbers that used to dominate the field: at Kaight, there are flirty dresses made of organic cotton, handbags fashioned from recycled leather and my personal favorite—bright orange plastic Mary Janes created by Brazilian firm Melissa in collaboration with Vivienne Westwood. McGregor searches high and wide to keep the fashion quotient high—in fact, she's in London this week to find still more green goods.

In God We Trust
A prototypically groovy Ludlow Street boutique, In God We Trust has a vintage pressed-tin ceiling, white brick walls and an artfully distressed plank floor. Owner and designer Shana Tabor favors clothes that could be described as both girly and classic and with a distinct mod vibe—you could picture her round-collared puffed-sleeved mini on Pattie Boyd in A Hard Day's Night. Prices are usually under $300, and there are accessories for those who want (or need, in these times) to spend even less. If you can't make it to Ludlow, In God We Trust has outposts in SoHo and in Brooklyn in Williamsburg.

Foley + Corinna
"My boutique is in the Lower East Side, which is one of the most distinctive neighborhoods in New York," says Anna Corinna, describing Foley + Corinna, her popular shop. "You get this eclectic mix of artists, hipsters, musicians and fashionistas that you won't find collectively in any other place in the City. I love the diversity of the customers." Corinna is one half of the line's design team; this season she and Dana Foley feature abbreviated brocades and jacquards with a campy 1980s Dynasty vibe. But unlike true vintage, these frocks are spanking new and are available in your size.

D.L. Cerney
D.L. Cerney, in business on East Seventh Street for decades, is next door to an even older institution—the historic McSorley's Old Ale House, slaking thirsts for more than 150 years. Everything at the shop is beautifully tailored and designed by Linda St. John and Duane Cerney. Vintage tweed has been made up in classic men's overcoats; full-skirted cotton summer dresses are picnic-ready but could also go to the office; gabardine camp shirts, available in a multitude of colors for men and women, are a cult favorite. If I had to pick one thing for myself, it would be the swing coat made from a printed fabric that evokes a 1950s kitchen tablecloth. "We're as close to handmade as you can get, and it's all made locally," Linda's daughter, Suzy, tells me.

More than 50 designers are represented at Eidolon, a Park Slope shop that has been in business for nine years—a veritable lifetime in this rapidly changing neighborhood. (Once a lonely outpost, it's now surrounded by many other boutiques.) On a recent visit, Mimi, the sister of Yukie Ohta, one of the owners, was handcrafting crocheted silver wire jewelry; Yukie's handbags decorated the walls. The other two owners have their own distinctive contributions: Andrea Fisher offers more structured fashions with an edge; Amara Felice's designs have a softer feeling (her dresses combine Missoni-like patterns with Diane von Furstenberg–esque comfort). Best of all, everything can be customized, so if you crave, say, a higher hem, a longer sleeve or a particular fabric, the tape measures are whipped out and your dream can come true.