Fashion Freaks Are Losing Their Place in NYC
Astronomical rent and shifting trends are threatening the life of the legendary Allan and Suzi boutique.
All photos by Claire Christerson
There's a time machine on Centre Street in New York City's Lower East Side. It's marked by a glowing red neon sign that reads "Allan and Suzi." If you step through the boutique's narrow wooden doors, you'll immediately feel like you've been taken back to an era when Times Square was still sleazy, Studio 54 was the place to be, and fantastical fashion was all the rage.
Helmed by Allan Pollack and Suzi Kandel, the boutique and its owners are an embodiment of the idiosyncratic spirit that made New York City unlike any other place on the planet. For three decades, punks, club kids, and drag queens have all frequented this wonderland to pillage its overpacked racks for vintage Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier. Famed designers like Alexander Wang and Miuccia Prada have perused its weird wares in search of oddball inspiration. And thousands of New Yorkers grew up watching the boutique's gloriously campy and highly influential public access show, which featured models and street people alike, hawking Allan and Suzi's consignment duds.
But as crucial as the store has been to the fabric of the city's creative class, today the boutique is on its last legs. The woes of Allan and Suzi are part of a broader trend of quirky independent shops and boutiques biting the dust due to the city's rising rents and changing demographics. Over the past decade, we've seen iconic boutiques like Patricia Field and Love Saves the Day close up shop, while punk emporiums like Trash and Vaudeville have been forced to downsize. Unless a miracle happens in the next four weeks, Allan and Suzi could fall victim to similar circumstances and be forced to either relocate or shut down altogether.
When I visited Allan and Suzi in late February, the flamboyant fashion emporium felt unscathed by the news of a looming rent hike. The racks were still overcrowded with incredible one-of-a-kind gowns, the walls were draped with ready-to-wear, and from the ceiling hung stunning archival pieces. The ruched cocktail dress Sarah Jessica Parker wore in the Sex and the City movie and the gold beaded Giorgio di Sant'Angelo bodysuit Goldie Hawn wore on her iconic 1992 Vanity Fair cover were marked with signs declaring their significance.
Amid all the glitz and gaud on the sales floor were the boutique's namesakes. Allan was standing by the front of the store looking like a retired rock star with his eyes hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses, his skin tanned, and his white feathered hair brushing the top of his shoulders. Suzi, on the other hand, was a bit more refined. The fiery redhead was draped in all black with a shimmering gold chain looped around her little neck.
When I asked the pair how they came up with the store's singular aesthetic, Allan replied to me in New York deadpan, "I like sluts." With a laugh, Suzi chimed in from behind a rack of fashion relics. "He does, he loves sluts… I like beautiful workmanship." It's this contrast that epitomizes how the store became a fashion temple that has been revered by people in the industry and on the underground.
"They weren't just a vintage store. Their selection was very edited to their concept, and they stood alone in this concept," said Patricia Fields, the award-winning stylist and designer who picked up pieces at the shop while working for shows like Sex and the City. "It was the most unusually eccentric mix of designer and non-designer, but all extremely eye-catching and iconic to their image."
The rare individuality of Allan and Suzi has also had a profound impact on the several subsequent waves of Downtown creatives and party monsters. Venus X, the founder of GHE20 G0TH1K—a cultural movement that brings together art, music, fashion, and radical politics—is one of those youth leaders who has been influenced by Allan and Suzi.
"I just remember going in there, and Allan asked me to make a mixtape because he was so curious about what Ghe20 G0th1k was," Venus X recalled to me over the phone. "He always remembers me when I come in. That's not the case with everyone; sometimes even with the coolest New York people, they have a barrier with certain generations or styles."
Venus is right. At Allan and Suzi, there is no division between high and low, or young and old. At the store, the music curated by Allan flows seamlessly from Frank Sinatra to Nas. Like a New York subway car on a Friday night filled with wealthy yuppies, street kids, and wayward freaks, the store is both democratic and fabulous. Unfortunately, this sanctum for style could fall to the dust in the coming weeks and take its vibrant culture with it.
"There is a major change going on," Allan told me in regards to the specter of higher rents in New York and the way they are wiping independent stores like his off the map. "We speak to a lot of people in fashion who own stores, and they all feel the same way. We are going to lose something very special."
Before opening the first incarnation of Allan and Suzi in 1987, Allan was working as a hairdresser in his Brooklyn salon Maximillion. He'd met Suzi through his wife at the time and eventually asked her if she wanted to run a small clothing boutique that was housed in the salon.
"She was making big bucks in this little boutique," Allan told me. "Here I am working my ass off doing hair, and these ladies are giving her hundreds of dollars for junk."
It wasn't long before Allan quit his job to go into business with Suzi. With little experience in the fashion world, the new partners leased a store a few doors down from the beauty salon on Sheepshead Bay Road. Since they didn't have the funds to purchase all new clothing, they stocked the racks with designer gear from a local department store called Jimmy's. The wife of the owner was a former client of Allan, so they hooked Allan up with past season's clothing by designers like Christian Lacroix and Valentino on consignment.
"My mentality was that people would shop for older clothes in our store if they saw that we had all these big labels," Allan said. It turns out they were on to something. Just six months after opening, business was so good that they leased their first store in Manhattan's Upper West Side on Amsterdam Avenue. At that time, the neighborhood was still littered with drugs. "When we took the store, the following week New York picked our street as the worst block in the city," recalled Allan. But, customers still traveled across the city to check out the "home of retro and modern fashion."
"At that point, we were buying a lot of contemporary lines and not only that, we were dressing them. I'd say, 'I got this for you. Put it on. It will look great,'" explained Suzi about the wealthy women who would spend their days shopping in the store.
"Allan and Suzi started at a great time," explained Emma Rosa, a stylist and instructor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "The 80s were the years of power dressing, so women wanted to show their wealth. They called it the 'age of excess'—women wanted to dress very showy." Rosa also attributed the start of MTV in 1981 to the trend of bold and colorful dressing.
To keep their inventory current, and attract new customers, the pair would purchase expensive designer dresses from department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman and put them in their windows.
"I would take gowns that were like $8,000 or $9,000 and put them on my credit card," Allan told me. "If we sold it or didn't make any money, it didn't matter. I would take it back to the store in two weeks. We kept doing this. People would say where do you get these clothes?"
When women started bringing in their aging gowns from luxury fashion houses like Chanel, Allan and Suzi decided they would start selling vintage designer pieces, too—making them one of the first stores in New York City to carry both new and used designer clothing.
"They are pioneers. People looked down on used clothes back then," Anthony Conti, Allan and Suzi's longtime creative director, told me over the phone. "[Allan and Suzi] are responsible for making it cool and trendy."
The market for secondhand clothing has come a long way since the early days of Allan and Suzi. In 2015, the used selling industry was worth $16 billion. Today, New York City is full of vintage and consignment stores with national chains like Buffalo Exchange and Crossroads. But in the 80s, a decade of luxury and glamour, many people with money looked down on buying worn clothing. And at the end of the AIDS epidemic, some were even worried they could catch the disease from secondhand.
But the selection at Allan and Suzi was just too good to resist. Allan's collection of platform shoes from New York City boutiques like Jumping Jack Flash and Granny Takes a Trip are what caught the eye of many designers and stylists in the early days of the shop.
"Allan and I thought that fashion people were so crazy," Suzi said, laughing. "They were so serious, but we wanted a sense of humor. So we paired a suede dress by Christian Lacroix with these ugly platform shoes, and [photographer] Steven Miesel's assistant walked by. She saw it, and she loved it." The boots ended up in a spread in Italian Vogue, which helped put Allan and Suzi on the map just months after opening.
To continue to spread the word about their store, Allan and Suzi became involved in the thriving New York club scene. Every night, they went to parties thrown by the "Queen of Clubbing" Susanne Bartsch or the "King of the Club Kids" Michael Alig, where they rubbed shoulders with John Galliano and George Michael.
"We saw things, and went to places, and met people that neither one of us thought we'd ever meet in our lifetime," Allan said. "There were a lot of interesting people back then—I am sure there are now, too, but there is no exposure."
Anthony Conti, who first met Allan in 1988 and is now responsible for merchandising the store, explained, "You couldn't just pay $20 and walk into a club. You had to stand out front of the club and hope they'd pick you. You could stand there all night long. They were very strict about having a certain type of fabulous person in there."
Allan would dress Suzi in his towering signature platform heels, and they would hang out at hotspots like Jackie 60, Studio 54, and Palladium. "We never wanted people to forget us," Suzi said.
In 1994, the duo even hosted a public television show called At Home with Allan and Suzi that aired every Monday night and quickly gained a cult following. VFILES perfectly describes the grainy home access shopping show as "part QVC/ part TV party."
The 30-minute episodes featured outfits from the store that viewers could buy, from a plaid Gaultier skirt suit paired with red rubber thigh-high boots to a full powder blue tuxedo complete with a top hat. The looks were worn by an array of up-and-coming models and characters like the NYC drag queen the Baroness and a young Tracee Ellis Ross, long before she starred in shows like Girlfriends and Blackish. In one episode, Suzi struts around lip-syncing to Dean Martin's "Do It Yourself" with a whip in her hand. The show was on the air for three years.
"The truth of the matter is that we just had so much enthusiasm," said Suzi. "We knew we were in it, and it was life savings we put in, so it was either sink or swim. We kept swimming. We did the backstroke; we did everything. You name it; we did it in order to stay."
It was in 2011 that Allan and Suzi moved to the Lower East Side, where their single retail space lives today. Until 2013, they also had another location in Asbury Park, New Jersey, but Hurricane Sandy and rising rents forced them to focus solely on Manhattan.
Every inch of Allan and Suzi's remaining store is covered with treasures, and it seems they have a story for each one. When I asked about the wedding gown hanging on the back wall that is covered in words like "slut" and "sex" in colorful paint, Suzi told me it was a dress they designed to be worn at Susanne Bartsch's 1995 wedding to David Barton at the Hammerstein Ballroom. "We got a standing ovation," said Suzi when I inquired about the attendees' reaction to the gown.
When I asked Allan about the crazy array of platform shoes that are showcased around the store, he told me about the time he remembers Tommy Hilfiger coming in. He said the designer paid him $25,000 for a pair of American flag printed platform shoes, after he threw out an extremely high asking price hoping the designer would back down. "I got depressed because I sold the shoes," Allan admitted. "Isn't that ridiculous?"
Being in the store takes you back to a time when people thrived on individuality and the art of getting dressed up, a quality that feels lost among current "normcore" and "athleisure" trends that are more focused on people being comfortable and fitting in than they are about standing out.
"In the [late 80s], the club scene was big, socialization and visualization was huge, up front and in your face," Patricia Field explained to me, when reflecting on the heyday of Allan and Suzi. "Now, the internet has taken over a lot of it and removed the clothes from the actual experiences."
But, while the clothing is certainly unique, it's Allan and Suzi and their stories that put into perspective what New York City is really losing with its incoming overpriced condos and chain retailers.
"The feeling that they created around their business, it was very much a part of it. It was a part of the theater of it all," Field said. "These stores that have disappeared; they all had their imagery and their personalized attention that made them special, but one by one, they are gone."
Despite the continuous flow of stylists from shows like Empire and celebrity customers like Vanessa Hudgens, Allan and Suzi have found it increasingly harder to make sales—even with the extra 50 to 80 percent discounts they offer.
"People have priorities, and everyone is very insecure right now, because they don't know how long they are going to keep their jobs or what is going on," said Suzi. "When there is an insecurity, people don't feel comfortable letting go of their money."
"Fashion is part of the zeitgeist of culture, the whole lifestyle has changed. It is not only fashion; it is music, work ethic, the economy, the international situation," explained Patricia Field, who chose to close up her own shop and sell her storefront last year after 50 years on Bowery Street. "New York City is experiencing the effects of globalization… It's all part of 'progress,' and you can't really go against the tide. Unfortunately, one of the prices you pay is the expression of individuality; it stifles it because it makes it unable to exist financially and creatively."
That insecurity mixed with the city's rising rents have made it impossible for Allan and Suzi to pay the $15,000 rent that their landlord will be asking for come June 1. Sadly, the duo isn't sure if they will try to reopen somewhere else.
"If you are used to the old New York where real estate was really affordable, it just isn't anymore," Venus X explained to me. The founder of Ghe20 G0th1k recently opened her own vintage boutique called Planet X in Brooklyn, which carries on a bit of the eccentric spirit that Allan and Suzi tried to bring to the forefront. "We all have to adapt. To be completely honest, it is an issue I have every day about how to stay open and how to make it worth while when rent is so expensive."
While hanging out in the store with Allan and Suzi, only a couple curious customers wandered through the double wooden doors. Suzi was eager to help them, but they ultimately fingered through the racks and snapped a few pictures (something that is not allowed) before walking back out into the street.
"I think it is going to be a very sad day [if they close], because Allan and Suzi are the last standing creativity there is in fashion in New York," said Conti. "There is no where else you can walk into a store like that."
Ever hopeful, Allan said to me before I left the shop, "Something will find us. We aren't finished yet."
Allan and Suzi is located on 237 Centre St, New York, New York. Visit AllanandSuzi.com.
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