A strange thing happened over the summer in New York. If you were in the vicinity of the Brooklyn neighbourhood nicknamed Dumbo – “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass” – and had popped into the Brooklyn Roasting Company, you might have received a small free gift with your purchase. Nothing odd about that, you might say, but it was the nature of the giveaway that got people talking – it was a hipsterised version of a Ken doll, Barbie’s plastic male companion, complete with a man bun. There was also a very specific recipient criteria: only those sporting a man bun themselves – that most Brooklyn of haircuts – qualified for the prize.
For years, Parisians have used the term “très Brooklyn”, and that Brooklyn aesthetic – which tends to combine buzz-words such as “small-batch” and “artisanal” with a heavy dose of irony – is now known the world over. The owners of the Brooklyn Roasting Company know their customers have come to expect it. And they’re not the only ones. Today, you’ll find a huge variety of products – from beer to high-end menswear brands – wearing the Brooklyn tag as a badge of honour.
New York has always been rather good at selling itself as a brand. From Milton Glaser’s ‘I ♥ NY’ logo to those yellow taxis, the city is full of examples, big and small, of products, designs and even buildings that scream “only in New York”. And right now, the city is teeming with innovative businesses busy creating a new set of icons for the 21st century. Often, this new breed of makers will tap into New York’s heritage. Prior to WWII, the centre of New York was full of factories, predominantly making clothing. Women’s millinery was a big deal in Manhattan; the island made hats for the whole country. Today, many of those factories are closed, but new-wave milliners such as Albertus Swanepoel are carrying the torch. From a fabulously ramshackle studio in the Garment District, he and his single assistant have created fedoras for the runways of Diane von Furstenberg, Alexander Wang and Phillip Lim, and sell via Barneys and other stockists nationwide. Business is currently booming thanks to the hipster vogue for headgear. “More guys are definitely wearing hats with their daily wardrobe in Manhattan,” he says. “It just kind of goes with modern life in New York.”
Swanepoel’s hats are niche, expensive and statement-making. That’s par for the course for this new generation of makers. Jeweller Derrick Cruz used to run a store called Occulter from an old, slightly run-down tenement on the Lower East Side. This year he launched Betroth from his studio in Brooklyn, creating avant-garde engagement rings. It’s a very New York kind of a design journey. “Proclaiming your love in this place and time is a pure act of rebellion against the zeitgeist,” says Cruz. “The passionate and brave ones that raise a flag to it need the purest and most relevant symbols.” Philosophy aside, his rings are stunning.
It’s not just fashion items that have that New York touch, of course. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, the new architecture of New York was perhaps the most influential in the world. Today, it is interior design that is in the spotlight. It might have started with the Roman & Williams design studio, established by husband and wife Stephen Alesch and Robin Standefer in 2002. Their vintage, dark Gotham aesthetic takes elements of wooden Victoriana and edgy Deco and mixes them with raw industrial fittings, tropical Modernism and antique ephemera.
Interestingly, they are working with Derrick Cruz on a range of wedding ring designs, launching this winter. “We aren’t right for people who want something anonymous,” says Alesch of their high-profile celebrity client list, including Gwyneth Paltrow. You could say the same of the clients of Lindsey Adelman. Her lavish hand-blown glass chandeliers are auction treasures of the future. Gabriel Hendifar and Jeremy Anderson are similarly celebrated for glass lighting design – their Apparatus brand has become an international sensation. “Everything we make is finished and assembled in our studio,” says Hendifar. “No matter what you buy from Apparatus, it will always pass through a number of hands that are in New York.” The Apparatus Studio on W 30th Street (open by appointment) is as much a must-see for anyone interested in contemporary design as the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian on the Upper East Side.
From graffiti art to steam pouring from fractured pipes beneath manholes, New York has a rich history of its own imagery to draw from. You can see it in what Flavor Paper do – it’s the most New York wallpaper company imaginable. Founded by Jon Sherman, Flavor Paper has licensed the imagery of Andy Warhol for a variety of Pop Art wallpapers and even murals, including a 4m-high one of the Empire State Building, taken from Warhol’s notorious eight-hour static shot of the structure, a film he called Empire. They don’t just do Warhol papers. Their Brooklyn Toile paper, featuring imagery based on neighbourhood characters and architecture, was originally created for Mike D of the Beastie Boys for his Brooklyn brownstone. “Many wallpaper companies do not actually produce their own goods, they simply design,” says Sherman. “I think that creates a gap between the hand and the brain of the product. We feel that having our Brooklyn Toile printed right by the subway station pictured in the wallpaper lends a realness that is becoming more influential as the world becomes distant and digital.” It’s the city’s melting pot status that really informs its success. Isabel Toledo – who creates gowns to order for downtown celebrities – is Cuban. Zang Toi, known for the $15,000 red carpet gowns available from the Lexington Avenue store he opened in September, is Malaysian. One of the most interesting new boutiques to open up in Williamsburg is Taiwanese designer Kai D’s store, Kai D Utility, mixing a variety of Asian influences. He works with Hye Sun Mun, from Korea – she handles the womenswear, he looks after the men’s line. Among their signature pieces is the men’s kimono blazer, which comes in rough, weathered twill.
It’s Asia-meets-American mid-west. Very Blade Runner, very New York City 2017. Fashion designer Maria Cornejo, the woman behind the cult womenswear label Zero + Maria Cornejo, worn by Tilda Swinton and Michelle Obama, was born in Chile, grew up in the UK, and lived in Paris before moving to Manhattan and subsequently Brooklyn with her photographer husband Mark Borthwick. She designs her sleek, draped and frequently photo-printed garments here. The bulk of her manufacturing is in the city, and her flagship store is on Bleecker Street, in NoHo. She set up her label 18 years ago in a tiny space on Mott Street. “Back then, everything was made behind the shop,” she recalls. “The idea of an atelier was really key to me – luxury is knowing who made your pieces and to keep the art of the craft of making.”
You have to be tough to make a go of things in New York City. And when life hurls a bunch of lemons at you, you’d better start making lemonade, fast. Wylie Dufresne is one of the best-loved chefs in the city, and when he opened his small, smart, experimental restaurant WD-50 on the Lower East Side in 2003, back when the area was still punk to the core, it began an 11-year run as the hot table for foodie insiders. But the rising rents forced him to vacate. Next, he opened his Modernist dining room, Alder. It lasted less than three years. He is currently sans kitchen, but this spring he launched Du’s Donuts in Williamsburg, in a riot of Pop Art orange branding. One of his old tasting menus would cost you $155 before tax and tip. Now for $3.50 you can pick up a peanut butter yuzu or pistachio tahini donut that Wylie considers the finest and most inventive expression of dough in the country. He was always a little bit Willy Wonka, his new aesthetic is, perhaps, the perfect fit.
As Dufresne can testify, rent hikes and other commercial pressures make manufacturing in New York hugely stressful. So why bother? Jeweller Derrick Cruz asks himself that question regularly, “but it never amounts to a move, because there is no place else I could honestly do what I do other than New York City. It’s the people and the energy. There’s a bubbling magma beneath these streets that keeps me, and makers like me, evolving minute by minute.” Fellow NY maker Maria Cornejo walks from her home in Brooklyn across the bridge to her studio and store in Manhattan every weekday morning. It’s a glorious reminder of why she’s here. “The walk takes an hour,” she explains, “and on the way the whole city opens up in front of you. You see the sea and water and skyline, and you say to yourself, ‘Wow – this is why I live in New York!’”