The Shifting Winds of New York Retail — Part 1: The Rise and Recasting of the Meatpacking District

In a three-part report, BoF examines New York City’s ever-shifting retail landscape. Today, we consider the rise and recasting of the Meatpacking District.

New York's Meatpacking District | Source: Shutterstock

NEW YORK, United States — In New York, where of-the-moment nightclubs and restaurants can fade as fast as they emerge, knowing where to open a fashion store is rarely an easily answered question. That’s because, in Manhattan, the city’s richest and most dynamic borough, the winds of retail real estate are constantly shifting, reshaping and, occasionally, remaking the city’s luxury shopping districts.

Just take a look. At one point, a stretch of West 22nd Street in Far West Chelsea’s gallery zone, home to stark, ultra-modern Comme des Garçons and Balenciaga boutiques, was the acme of cool, while just a few seasons later Rick Owens attracted avant-garde shoppers away to a little-trod triangle near the entrance to the Hudson Tunnel, where the California-bred, Paris-based designer decided to set shop in 2008.

In the West Village, Marc Jacobs single-handedly converted a sleepy stretch of Bleecker Street into a booming fashion destination that now attracts megabrands like Burberry, while uptown, Madison Avenue has recently gone from being the starchy domain of Oscar de la Renta, Hermès and Ralph Lauren to a thriving contemporary designer showcase, with Sandro, Theory and Tory Burch aligned like ducks in a row, alongside quintessentially downtown luxury newcomers Proenza Schouler.

Fifth Avenue, once a steadfast luxury shopping district, is now officially fast-fashion central, with H&M, Zara and Uniqlo megastores surrounding the graceful Cartier mansion. Then, there’s the rise of NoMad, the island’s latest retail enclave, and Curry Hill, an area known for its inexpensive Indian and Pakistani restaurants, that’s set to house the New York outpost of  Comme des Garcons’ Dover Street Market.

Amid the flux, one Lower Manhattan shopping hub remains uncontested in popularity and importance: Soho. After being pronounced passé more than once, the historic district is currently having what is perhaps its brightest moment yet.

But it’s the downtown neighbourhood known as the Meatpacking District — a relatively small patch of land at the western end of 14th street — that’s perhaps the most dramatic recent example of how quickly a luxury retail zone can rise and be remade in this town.

In 2002, Alexander McQueen opened its first US store on a patch of West 14th Street, followed by Stella McCartney’s first boutique in the world just a few doors down. But it was Jeffrey, the luxury multi-brand store that moved to the same block in 1999, that really pioneered the area, paving the way for what would become a flood of designer stores in an area where the cobblestoned streets and pavements were still stained by blood from waning meatpacking operations.

Before too long, the area was heralded as the city’s new epicentre of upscale shopping. At the same time, however, the area’s less constricted zoning laws and distinctive character made it a magnet for a rapidly multiplying number of nightclubs, restaurants and hotels, which turned the area into a full-blown entertainment district, bringing a high volume of foot-traffic to the area, just not the kind that luxury fashion boutiques are after.

In 2009, the opening of the High Line, a park along the abandoned elevated train lines that go up Manhattan’s West Side, quickly turned the area into one of the city’s most popular public attractions, further changing the area’s profile. Stores like All Saints, Patagonia, UGG and Lululemon soon followed, recasting the block’s identity away from high fashion and bringing more tourists and less affluent customers with them.

What’s more, as the Meatpacking District began to expand and change, developers and investors saw an opportunity and started snapping up properties and driving up rents from under $100 per square foot ten years ago to $350-400 per square foot today.

As a result, some of the area’s more exclusive early settlers, whose leases were up, decided to leave. Stella McCartney closed her shop in the Meatpacking district in 2011 in favour of a new space on Soho’s Greene Street, a decision the designer tells BoF was strategic: “I think it was the right time for us to move into this kind of position. Maybe a little more grown up and taking it to the next level really in terms of our neighbours.” Alexander McQueen, too, is trading its long-time Meatpacking District location for a store at 747 Madison Avenue, which used to house Valentino.

But to write off the neighbourhood off as a luxury retail zone is premature. “The Meatpacking District has been a vibrant hub of the City attracting cutting edge fashion brands, technology and a thriving creative community for the past decade. The departure of brands like Stella McCartney and McQueen is a loss as these brands helped to shape our area’s recent past. Still the Meatpacking District continues to evolve… The district is a place of international importance with a thriving fashion community that includes such brands as Moschino, Tory Burch, Hugo Boss, DVF, Theory, Rag + Bone and many more,” Lauren Danziger, executive director of the Meatpacking District Improvement Association, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit business alliance, formed in 2010 by a select group of neighbourhood property owners and key businesses, told BoF.

In 2012, luxury shoe labels Nicholas Kirkwood and Christian Louboutin both opened retail presences in the area. And, in truth, the on-going shifts in the Meatpacking District are much subtler than the often-cited ‘exodus’ that the rapid exit of a few famous tenants may suggest. In fact, upmarket brands are crowding to the south of the area, leaving the busy 14th Street corridor to more downmarket occupants. In particular, the block of Washington Street, just below Gansevoort Street, where both Louboutin’s new men’s boutique and the Kirkwood store are located, seems to have emerged as a corner of the otherwise overrun neighbourhood where luxury can still flourish.

Tomorrow, in part two of our series on the shifting winds of New York retail real estate, we examine the enduring appeal of Soho.