Wearing Athleisure & Reporting on Soho Shopping

Many Sundays in New York start with brunch. This past weekend, I intentionally grabbed my ADAY leggings and top so I could jog to the restaurant and look (mostly) appropriate upon arrival. On the way, I listened to a podcast forecasting a "retail ice age" lasting through 2019, at which point we'll have a "retail renaissance". I don't think the outlook nor the timing is that black-and-white. It won't be an ice age as much as a glacial shift that chills many, while leaving the most evolutionary of consumer companies with a lot to gain. 

But as I jogged and reflected, it occurred to me that 15, 10, maybe even 5 years ago, I was putting a lot more thought into my brunch fashion than grabbing the most versatile of my functional leggings. Even when they're $100+, leggings cost less than what the same customer likely would spend on premium denim or sundresses, both of which I now buy fewer. If I'm spending all day in workout apparel - and this is actually a fashionable, acceptable choice - why spend more on items that are less comfortable? As a clothes horse and collector of shoes/accessories, of course I could be convinced to keep buying more structured pieces. But here's the compounding force:

Innovation in the way of new brands and fresh styles has been infinitely greater in athleisure than in more polished casual looks for the past several years.

And it's not just that I'm running around in athletic shoes (not even designer sneakers) all day, but that my handbag trove is untouched; I slip a credit card and keys into the aforementioned, well-designed leggings-cum-pants. (Phone stays in hand, obviously.) So how many more handbags can an increasingly active lifestyle justify?

Soon, brunch turned into a long walk through Noho and Soho. With the tone for the day set by the awareness of my soundtrack and wardrobe choices, I was in high-alert mode as a friend and I ducked in and out of customer experiences:

  1. Delicious brunch on Lafayette. But before I got to the restaurant, my friends arrived half an hour early and indicated they were expecting another two people later. They wanted to be seated and start with coffee and pastries. They were offered a bench instead of a table, despite the restaurant being near-empty at the time. A manager reversed the decision, but this is a good reminder to empower frontline workers to use best judgement, not just general rules. When I ordered a side of avocado, my friend said he had just seen a t-shirt reading, "I know avocado is extra." Another reminder: Transparency's nice, but when information becomes a t-shirt slogan, we should probably think about how we're getting the point across!
  2. We turned right out of brunch and I was pleasantly surprised to see Awayopen already. I have to admit that I was skeptical about how revolutionary a suitcase could be, but I loved this carry-on. The built-in charger would be just a nice-to-have for me because once I'm carrying cables, the brick isn't a big deal to take, too. That said, power-charging while racing through airports could be helpful at times. My favorite feature, by far, was the patent-pending ability to compress clothes once packed. And I liked the deep blue and green color options that read as neutrals but would set them apart from a sea of black bags. Away's inaugural piece benefits from the in-store showcase, especially because the value-for-price equation becomes clear. But the team must have realized a one-item pop-up shop would fall flat. So they curated some "items found while traveling" in Stockholm and Tokyo and co-branded on some candy that I guess is travel-relevant for those who snack on-the-go.
  3. After I corralled our foursome into the first shop, a friend led the way intoSKU (Save Khaki United), next door. It hadn’t made an impression on me before, but this time I thought the soft men's knits in some fresh colors were great and I really liked the placement of aesthetically appropriate odds and ends like mugs with anchors on them.
  4. One of my friends wanted to run an errand in REI, where we asked several questions and received a lot of knowledgeable help. There’s a ton of (likely too much) apparel inventory downstairs. It was interesting to learn that my friends are members of REI’s coop — wouldn’t have guessed they’re big customers, but evidence in support of loyalty programs mounts
  5. Next up was Pirch, which I sought out in NJ and wrote about last year. Without knowing I knew about Pirch, one of yesterday's shopping companions (victims?) had sent me last week's NY Times article about the store, thinking it would be something I'd want to see. The new Soho location doesn't disappoint and is well-positioned near buyers of downtown Manhattan’s super-luxury condo boom. The staff on the floor was a mix of Pirch employees and representatives from various vendors. Everyone was as nice as could be, but I can envision the dynamic becoming a little sales-heavy. Mitigating the risk is plenty of space to play, including possibly the best use I’ve seen of self-help retail tech, a touchscreen allowing customers to turn on and off shower heads to see them in action. Most of the “showroom” is laid out as one would live. There are rows of certain hardware, like faucets, in certain places. But that’s the minority and they’re spaced in a more visually appealing way than they are in traditional home stores. Hidden in a second-floor corner is a connected home demo that’s a glimpse into the future. The lower level features free cooking classes on weekend mornings (and apparently snacks, coffee and champagne all day).
  6. I had been hesitant about Outdoor Voices’ leggings because I couldn’t imagine the seams and color blocking would be flattering on anything but the longest of legs. But the friendly woman in Away told me she likes them (it came up when she recognized my leggings as ADAY; while some see the two brands as direct competitors, I don’t), so I went into what was a pop-up and now is the low-frills OV store to try them on. I didn’t love them or anything else (except a running skirt that was, of course, sold out in my preferred color/size and is being discontinued) but the store is well-merchandised, the team friendly and the use of the #doingthings hashtag well-done.
  7. My patience for sample sales has waned over the years but when I see a line-free event featuring a brand I like that doesn’t look like total chaos, it’s hard not to check it out. Canvas Home’s moving sale was manageable and the perfect amount of scavenger hunt for my day/week/month/year. Well-organized, well-priced, enough stock in each item and damage-free. No onerous bag checks at the door and they took credit cards
  8. Steven Alan may have been the busiest store we saw all day, though a few people did bail on shopping when there was a Larry David sighting across Elizabeth St. This is a tiny outpost but the assortment is nicely culled and merchandised to reflect Steven Alan well. And they were great about quickly replacing my defective earring.
  9. I had read about The Market NYC several months ago but hadn’t stopped in. While the vendors are different, the layout and vibe reminded us of Artists & Fleas at Chelsea Market. The coffee and pastry stand in the middle is a sweet surprise if you’re not expecting it and potentially a traffic driver if you’re looking for it. 
  10. This was the last weekend of Everlane’s Shoe Park pop-up “event” (as described by the e-mail collector at the door). I didn’t know the basis for the name until I saw the skate park set-up, which I experienced after I had to remove and my shoes to enter. I’m positive this tactic makes entrants more likely to try on shoes once they’re inside. But I wonder whether the e-mail collection and shoe check present a double barrier to entry for others. The shoes looked good. But, for the size of the space, I was surprised there weren’t more options. Like the shower heads at Pirch, I liked the self-serve nature of every size in every shoe being accessible for one to pick up and try on. The bags were a nice touch. I would’ve liked to see some Everlane apparel, too. 
  11. My friend brought me into Peter Lik’s gallery, where he had purchased art last year. Some of the city photographs are right up my alley. Unlike many galleries around, the experience was participatory without being pushy: A consultant brought us into a dark room to show us how a photograph looks in different types of light, as apparently the material’s reflective qualities make this photo-finishing technique distinctive. I noticed that the art piece she was using to demonstrating this was one I saw upon walking in and commented to my friend that I liked. I didn’t think anything of it — until we walked out and I noticed that piece was no longer on the wall where I first saw it. The consultant overheard me talking about the piece and subtly brought it into the dark room before motioning us in. Nice touch, and one that could work well in many retail environments.
  12. It wasn’t my first trip to Birchbox, and I still like the way the store is merchandised open-sell and by product category, doesn’t boast an overwhelming amount of product and features unexpected brands (including, this time, a wall of Korean beauty - very timely). It’s gotten less crowded (with people and energy both) over time and the tech has been removed. Early on, iPads showing online product reviews and video tutorials accompanied product, but I was told it didn’t do anything for customers. For the first time after several visits and purchases, I was given information about Birchbox’ loyalty program. The customer in front of me had made herself a custom box and received a coupon for 15% off a full-size product to be applied if she brings in its empty sample container. It makes sense that Birchbox needs to convert box customers once their cabinets are full of trial sizes and they don’t want another subscription. And the incentive to convert at Birchbox specifically is important even though a brand's participation in a box boosts its sales elsewhere.

In Soho? In addition to the above, check out Tom's, & Other Stories, Stance, Michele Varian, Tokyobike, Clic, Warm, Totkaelo, Zazen Bear, Tomorrowland, The Apartment by the Line, Del Toro, Kit + Ace and Snowpeak.

And, no, the piano pictured above isn't for sale, to my knowledge. But stumbling into a pleasant, free concert and applauding it alongside strangers kept me in the mood to shop. It's hard to say where the consumer experience begins and ends, and the blurriness doesn't just apply to digital.