Sarah Easley and the
Transformation of the Downtown Lifestyle
By Juan Pedro Cámara
The Bowery Hotel bears the name of a neighborhood that has rapidly changed its tumultuous past for a hip reputation. On its patio, the gentle fall daylight descends heavenly through the glass ceilings into a greenhouse-like garden of climbing plants and ferns. Sarah Easley sits on the edge of a brick red cushion and leans forward to make sure that her soft voice doesn't merge with the background murmurs of numerous casual conversations. She speaks fluent fashion and draws with confidence the picture of a time in New York fashion history she helped to shape.
In 1999 Easley opened, along with best friend Beth Buccini, Kirna Zabete, a SoHo boutique that became a game changer for the Downtown area at a time where Manhattan's retail landscape was in need of a transformation. “I had moved downtown and there wasn't anywhere good to shop,” she explains. “If you wanted to buy luxury goods, you had to go to Midtown to Saks Fifth Avenue or Bergdorf Goodman, and my friends and I didn't think that was a modern way to shop.”
Kirna Zabete became a brave example of the future of commercialization, not only in its bold decision to inaugurate SoHo as an enviable shopping destination, but in its capacity to understand the stylistic changes of the times. “We wanted an irreverent mix of brands. We sold jelly beans next to the first collection of Nicholas Ghesquière for Balenciaga, and dog products by Burberry. Jelly beans. Balenciaga. Dog trenches. Same store.” In this seemingly incoherent stock enumeration, Sarah Easley exposes the understanding of major trends in the fashion sphere that fostered the transition from 1990's fashion into the new millennium. “We had come full circle. The 1990's were a sort of postmodern reaction to the maximalism of the 80's with its colors, and the shoulder pads and the hot pink. So the 90's were a palate cleanser time,” she explains.
Easley points out, however, that these shifts towards a simplified aesthetic were far from homogeneous and that other major forces in cultural production quickly complicated the clean narratives of 1990's minimalism. “Then that mixed with what was coming out of Seattle with grunge, and Nirvana, and the music influences got it messed up a little bit.” The contradictions that had always accompanied fashion became more evident than ever in the emergence of new eclectic dress practices resulting from the expression of fragmented identities that the postmodern explosion had created. Easley herself, in her early twenties during this movement, built her style through experimentation and pastiche. “I embraced this Hussein Chalayan avant-garde fashion moment. One day I am borderline performer hooker in ripped stretched fabric, and the next I'm all black, avant-garde Belgian girl.” The corners of lower Manhattan that had seen the emergence of punk were the perfect broth to cook the proliferation of new styles. And if the traditional almighty authorities of fashion were constantly being contested by the streets, then the retail experience needed to change. Kirna Zabete started filling that void. “Now we call it a lifestyle store, but back in 1999 the concept did not exist.”
At the time, SoHo was not the mecca of fashion it is today. “It was more about vintage stores, antiques and art. There were a lot of great furniture stores, but it wasn’t a tourist destination. It was considered very indie. And people didn’t go there the way they go now. You would never see anyone on the streets before 11,” she explains. Downtown Manhattan was transitioning from the hangover of excessive decades of chaos into the articulating space of experimental arts.
Sarah Easley has now found what works for her, and she still plays around with mixing styles, but in a way that feels more realistic. “I still mix moods, like tomboy and glamorous, but in a much more realistic way. That has become my formula.” Much like Easley's formula, the Downtown area of Manhattan has also found a refined way of comprising different styles and marketing them to various audiences. The streets of SoHo now manage to accommodate the masses of tourists parading each corner in search of the next big sale, and the popular ambassadors of New York style. It is now a mainstream space that still lives up to the hype of its trendy boutiques, cool restaurants and itinerant fashion bloggers. Much like the rest of the city, these neighborhoods understand how to move and change their skin as time goes by. It is a metamorphosis partly driven by the voracious fashion industry, and this is something that excites Easley. “I believe in change, and fashion is about change.”
Favorite restaurant: My husband and I got engaged at BABBO in the West Village. So many happy memories take place there.
Favorite place to walk around: East Village
Favorite spot for coffee: It is a tie between the garden behind the Bowery Hotel and the Crosby Hotel for a long sit down coffee
Museum you visit the most: The Whitney
Weirdest thing you’ve seen or experienced in New York streets: When I moved to NYC in the 90s I thought everything that happened on the streets of NYC was just unbelievably crazy. But now that I am a real New Yorker nothing seems crazy at all!
Perfect getaway destination: I love the beaches in Southern California. For many many years I’ve had a beach house in Montauk, so I like Montauk beaches. And then I do love Barbados.
What is the one piece of clothing that makes you feel free? I absolutely cannot pick one. I love putting together unexpected pieces. I like to elevate the ordinary to make it extraordinary: add a vintage camo army jacket to a silk chiffon leopard Yves Saint Laurent dress. Or ground glamour pieces: wear ripped jeans and a vintage Gaultier jacket with a sexy Sara Cristina Wrap Top.
If you were to start all over again in a new city where would that be? Paris
Photography by Conrado Véliz, Creative Direction by David De Lima.