Selling Broadway

The photo series is titled “Krystal.” A woman, perhaps in her early twenties, wears a thin piece of beige fabric across her modest breasts. Her face holds no expression. She is pretty: A demure face with high cheekbones and lashes of impossible length that nearly obscure her eyes.

The man behind the camera is Dov Charney. He has a rough, scrabbled beard and unruly hair. In one recent photo, he lies back on a pillow, eyes smiling out from a pair of oversized glasses. Next to him in the shot, a woman’s brown hair spills across the pillow.

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This man dropped out of Tufts University to sell T-shirts. This man has been sued several times for sexual harassment (no convictions). This man is the founder and CEO of clothing retailer American Apparel. And this man wants to open a store on Broadway.

No, not that Broadway — Charney was there by 2003. Our Broadway.

Yale students will have closed their books for the last time before the doors of American Apparel open for the first time at 51 Broadway. The property will be turned over to the Los Angeles-based retailer May 15, with a store opening likely to follow in June, said Thomas Vitagliano of the Yale Mall Partnership, a real-estate investment group.

“New Haven has been a bastion of classic American style dating back to at least 1902, when J. Press opened its doors for business. At American Apparel, we’re excited to finally take residence on the campus of a university that clearly values high-quality clothing and timeless American style.”

Those are the words of American Apparel Director of Corporate Finance and Development Adrian Kowalewski, confirming the company’s plans to open the second American Apparel store in Connecticut. Negotiations on the property at 51 Broadway began in June 2006, Kowalewski said.

On Jan. 27, Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, the University’s associate vice president of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, stood outside that very property and watched small groups of jacketed students course up and down the brick paths. On day one, American Apparel employees will have to herd customers through the 15-foot storefront squeezed between Urban Outfitters and Blue Jay Cleaners.

“They’ll do OK,” Morand predicts, nodding. “It’ll be small, but they’ll do OK.”

Dov Charney certainly hopes so. All indicators for the success of the store are positive.

Student demand for new retail options on the strip is high. Neighbors J.Crew and Urban Outfitters already pull traffic off the New York-Boston strip of I-95 with promises of destination shopping. And online purchases data have pinpointed this street — in the heart of New Haven — as a locus of support for the Los Angeles-based retailer.

Our Broadway

It’s 15 minutes past midnight on Wednesday evening. Seven students browse the shelves at Gourmet Heaven. One approaches the counter with a half-pint of Tropicana Orange Juice (no pulp) and a prosciutto sandwich. He sets down a copy of the Aeneid in order to reach into his back pocket and pull out his wallet.

“Usually it’s people buying snacks or sandwiches,” says night manager Adam Juarez, explaining what has come to be known universally as “the G-Heav run.” “Never the salad bar. Only the drunk people get the salad bar.”

In the morning, long after the inebriated Yalies have departed, Jud Beardsley takes advantage of the sparse traffic to fix a broken light at 43 Broadway, Urban Outfitters. Two doors down, the spring line has just rolled out at J.Crew, even though the sky still threatens snow on a weekly basis.

“I think a lot of Yalies are that prototypical Yale student — preppy, from the Northeast,” Beardsley says. “But there’s also the Yale student who’s the California girl who can’t wait to get away from her parents — and we tend to draw that crowd.”

Beardsley cedes the winter months to J.Crew, whose cable sweaters and argyle socks can be easily identified in nearly any lecture hall. But in the spring and summer months — and for men, on the weekends — Urban Outfitter’s styles come out of the woodwork and Beardsley picks out his sandals, skirts and T-shirts from passers-by on the corner.

“I’d almost like to see more national chains come in, to get that critical mass that draws people in,” he says. “It’d be great if American moves in. I love the independent [retailers], but I also love being able to say, ‘Oh, they’ve got that item just down the street,’ rather than saying, ‘Oh, you have to go to the mall.’ ”

Unlikely Allies

You have to step over Wally to get into Phil Cutler’s office. Wally, of course, being the black-and-white cat — “a mutt,” Cutler says — that roams the aisles of Cutler’s Records, Tapes & Compact Discs at 27 Broadway.

Cutler is the third generation of his family to run the music score located between A-1 Pizza and Gourmet Heaven. Family-owned and operated since 1948, the shop has faced down stiff competition over the years. But these days, Cutler’s is battling its toughest opponent yet — the Internet. It’s tough to generate foot traffic to the store when that new Maroon 5 album is just a click away. So when Cutler heard in 2001 that Urban Outfitters planned to open a store 50 feet away, he was thrilled.

“That was a major coup,” he says. “There isn’t a bigger store, a bigger draw for my kind of clientele.”

That’s music to the ears of Morand, a long-time New Havenite who has alternately served as Ward 1 alderman, on the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce and as president of the New Haven Public Library. New Haven, Morand explains, is defined by neighborhoods. Each neighborhood depends on the strength of its locally owned businesses for vitality.

But Morand — like Cutler — sees value in what the celebrity national chains like Urban Outfitters or American Apparel bring to Broadway. He thinks it’s a critical ingredient to the success of an independent New Haven.

“You have to wonder if these local guys like Cutler’s would be able to survive without the business brought in by the national [retailers],” Morand said.

Of course, there is another motive to bringing in a J.Crew, or an Urban — students want them. Informal polling of 60 students conducted by the News revealed that a majority of students expressed dissatisfaction with retail on Broadway. Respondents pined for everything from K-Mart to Chipotle. Incidentally, one student even asked if there was any way Broadway could land an American Apparel.

And while disgruntled Yalies may not realize it, the University does have some mechanisms for seeking student input. Shana Schneider, the University Properties Director of Marketing, says University Properties actively solicits feedback through a system of outreach meetings and focus groups often composed of recent Yale College graduates working in the area. But it’s not always so structured.

In 2001, Vice President of New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander ’65 was stuck in traffic in a taxi on New York City’s Upper East Side. Looking out the window, Alexander started noticing the greengrocers — local, independently-owned food sellers that doubled as florists, adding a vibrant splash to the urban hardscape.

“So I told one of the students who was working for me at the time, ‘Hey, why don’t you head down to New York over the next couple weekends and hand out your [business] card to every greengrocer you can find — see if they want to move up here,’ ” Alexander recalls. That student — Andrea Pizziconi ’01 — struck gold: A greengrocer with relatives in Connecticut agreed to stop by New Haven next time he was driving through the area. A year later, the grocer opened his first store in New Haven — the sign above the door read “Gourmet Heaven.”

But it’s not always that simple. Sometimes, Morand explains, the demographic and physical realities of New Haven preclude the entrance of big-name, big-box retailers. Students at Columbia and Harvard universities may enjoy greater retail options, he admits, but those students also live in major metropolitan markets more attractive for national retailers than the New Haven area.

With a 15-foot storefront, the new American Apparel store will be anything but big — although Vitagliano has said the Yale Mall Partnership is looking at ways to expand the footprint. But what the site lacks in square footage, the soon-to-be-tenant compensates in star power.

New Kid on the Block

American Apparel is nothing if not unconventional.

While The Gap was outsourcing over 80 percent of its garment-manufacturing capacities overseas, American Apparel quietly built the largest garment factory in the United States — in downtown Los Angeles. By offering unexpected perks — subsidized health care, meals, even massages — to its 90-percent Hispanic workforce, Charney built a reputation as an iconoclast and a brilliant businessman.

For the time being, his strategy seems to be paying off. Since opening his first retail location in Echo Park, Los Angeles, in 2003, Charney has guided American Apparel through an expansion to over 175 retail locations. In 2006, the company grossed $283 million in sales, Kowalewski says, and the first nine months of 2007 nearly equaled that — totaling $276 million at the register.

And with the T-shirts will come the photographs — the raw, sultry snapshots American Apparel staffers refer to as “artwork” and the rest of the world knows as “advertisements.” Regarded by some as simply “suggestive,” the ads have been blasted by critics as overtly sexual. The word “pornographic” has been aimed at the retailer more than a few times. Soon, the images will arrive in the Elm City.

“One of the reasons we do well in sales is our artwork and the nature of our brand,” Kowaleswki said. “We haven’t really changed the artwork given the market we’re in, so why should we change that in the case of New Haven?”

Charney — who takes most of the photographs himself — has always held a fairly relaxed notion of sexual norms. He gained notoriety for masturbating in front of a journalist in 2004. He has remarked on the benefits of casual sex between co-workers (“Sex is a way to bring people closer,” he told The New York Times Magazine in 2006). But Charney holds that looser sexual norms are a defining factor of the “Young Metropolitan Adults” his company courts as its core customer base. And that embrace of sexuality has generated its own share of controversy for the firm. In recent years, the retailer has seen several lawsuits filed against Charney by former employees on grounds of sexual harassment.

That edginess initially led University Properties to shy away from Charney’s brainchild. Approached by the company prior to its bid for the 51 Broadway site, Alexander said, “University Properties was not interested in trying to find a space for [American Apparel].” While only a small division of the larger University, Schneider explained that University Properties bears in mind the considerations of the entire community when picking its tenants. Such considerations, she said, may have led to American Apparel’s unsuccessful run at a University-owned space.

Not Your Grandma’s Broadway

Campus Customs owner Barry Cobden can see the Yankee Doodle sign from his 51 Broadway storefront window. A sign appeared on the Doodle’s door Tuesday morning. By 4:02 PM that afternoon, a single rose appeared below the lettering, tucked by thoughtful hands into the handle of the door. “The Yankee Doodle coffee shop would like to thank all its customers, friends and family for 58 years of patronage. … I regretfully announce that today, January 29th, the Doodle is closing its door for good.”

Among the pantheon of Yale and Broadway deities, few ranked higher than the Doodle. Founded in 1950 by Lewis Beckwith Sr., the small, 12-stool diner lived and died by the slogan, “The place is small/the food is great/it’s worth your while/to stand and wait.”

“Four years from now, students won’t even know what the Doodle was,” Cobden says. “And why would they? I can’t tell you how many great places were around here years ago that nobody’s ever heard of now.”

Unforeseen eddies and sandbars have always directed the current of life on Broadway — and the flow of Yale’s institutional memory. By the early 1980s, the decline of local manufacturing had taken a heavy toll on New Haven’s economy. Photos from the period show curbs crumbling into the street, and a web of black utility wires passing from rooftop to rooftop. And few trees.

A New York Times headline reading “Graduate Student is Killed in Brawl Near Yale Campus” greeted the 1990s in an inauspicious fashion. Guy Young, a 21-year-old graduate student at Southern Connecticut State University, was shot the night of Aug. 23, 1991 after a fight broke out between Young and two strangers in the doorway of Broadway Pizza.

Concerned and feeling heat from alumni over New Haven’s impact on the University’s image, Yale joined forces with the city of New Haven, the state of Connecticut and the federal government in 1991 to revitalize the Broadway district. Roughly $10.5 million was poured into a five-and-a-half-year project that culminated in the streetscape students walk today.

Urban Outfitters opened on the street in 2001, followed a year later by J.Crew. By the early years of the new millennium, newspapers across the country were touting the district as one of the brightest spots in New Haven’s urban renewal. And as the 17-year-old elm trees planted in the 1991 revitalization sprout leaves in the coming months, Dov Charney will try to reap the benefits of Broadway’s revitalization.

“New Haven’s come a long way in the last decade in terms of improving economic conditions and the local economy,” Kowalewski said. “That makes New Haven more attractive [as a location] than it was 10 years ago. I think it’s just the right market at the right time.”

And students — by and large — are primed for the arrival. While more than a few students had never heard of the retailer, those that were familiar with the store reacted with exclamations of surprise and excitement.

“I think it’s going to be tremendously successful,” Votigliano predicted. “I think it’s going to become one of their key locations.”

Kiet Lam ’10 agreed. Citing the paucity of retail on the strip and American Apparel’s reasonable prices, Lam said he thinks the store will be “heavily frequented” by students. Lizzi Ackerman ’10 reacted with a “no way!” upon learning the news.

“American Apparel has affordable clothing that looks good on everybody,” said the sophomore from New York City — home to 16 American Apparel locations. “I think everybody’s going to go. The feeling of the store is good, too. You’re sort of overwhelmed by the array of colors — but in a good way.”

American Apparel employees will arrive just in time to watch leaves form in the elm trees above Broadway. They will pin up advertisements of skin and cloth. And inside, racks of fine cotton-weave T-shirts will glow in 72 different hues. Two doors down, Barry Cobden will watch the flow of traffic into doors that used to be his and hope the pairs of feet stop before his windows as well. And a freshman standing before the brand-new facade will look at an image of a woman bent over at the waist, grinning in a pair of two-color tights. Below the image, the only explanation: “Made in Downtown LA. Vertically-Integrated Manufacturing.”

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Very evocative and narrative-driven writing. It sounds well-researched. But shy of reading the headline, I seem to be unsure what the point was.

  • anon

    Great piece.

    Once the store opens, Yale should market it widely. Its presence will draw even more developers to the area and maybe help create some property turnover, which would be beneficial to New Haven's development.

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