Style Points is a weekly column about how fashion intersects with the wider world.
So much for that old stereotype about New Yorkers only wearing black. Laura Baker tells me that her fashion buyer friends from other cities have been marveling that “New York is like a bag of Skittles. People are wearing color here.” Baker adds, “That’s what we like. We bought a lot of color.”
“We” refers to the retail destination ESSX, soft opening on Thursday. When I visited last week, Baker, the store’s co-founder and retail director, and her team were putting the finishing touches on the 7,000-square-foot Leong and Leong-designed interior. “Everyone kept saying, ‘We can’t wait to see it.’” she tells me of the still-slightly-raw space. “And we kept saying, ‘Well, us too.’ Two weeks ago, our project manager, Dara, was like, ‘It’s going to open. It’s going to open.’ I’m like, ‘Are you sure?’ There’s plaster, wires, everything, but nope, it’s here. It’s all happening.”
On the Lower East Side’s bustling Essex Street, the store looks out onto a liquor store and a vape shop. A sign for “New York Hardcore Tattoos” can be seen from the corner. Inside, conversely, is a calm, spaceship-like space, a UFO in the concrete jungle, dotted with ottomans from Darren Romanelli that are made from upcycled jeans and T-shirts. Baker says the team wanted the store to reflect “what we want to buy, what the kids in the neighborhood are wearing, versus—there’s nothing wrong with them, but big brand names that are highly promoted. We wanted to bring back a real discoverability aspect.”
Together, we reminisce about the lost days of New York independent retail: befriending that sales associate at Barneys who would clue you in to the right up-and-coming labels, or stumbling across a new designer in Opening Ceremony in a buzzed post-brunch haze. Further back in time is Charivari, where Marc Jacobs once cut his teeth as a stock boy. Those kinds of places have become thin on the ground, thanks to the pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the dominance of e-commerce. But if anyone can make brick-and-mortar great again, it’s the team behind ESSX: Baker and co-founders Yoel Zagelbaum and Abe Pines, along with style director Lauren Ferreira, who has worked at Kith and as a wardrobe assistant to Drake.
When Baker told people about the new project, she says, she heard a lot of sentiments like, “‘I can’t believe you’re opening retail. It’s so scary. You’re in for it. Say goodbye to the rest of your life. Or ‘If it’s not experiential, then it’s not worth doing.’ Or ‘How are you redefining retail?’ And the thing is, what does that even mean? I see headlines all the time about experiential retail. Do you want a circus tent in here? Do you want acrobats coming from the ceiling?”
Ultimately, she says, “I think experiential is person to person. People have forgotten how to interface and have a conversation.” She wants a trip to the store to feel “more like a hangout: ‘Hey, let’s get to know the brand.’ If they find something amazing, I mean, we hope they walk away with something, but it really is about learning.”
So, to recap: no circus tents or VR wizardry are in evidence, but what ESSX will offer is fashion, and lots of it. Younger customers “have money, they have resources, they’re hyper-intelligent, they have the internet at their fingertips, they geek out on stuff,” she says. Baker has been working with emerging brands for 15 years through her agency PBLC TRDE, and she eagerly enumerates the store’s eclectic buy. ESSX will be the only store in New York to carry Berlin designer Ottolinger; other labels on tap include “hometown hero” Winnie, Ahulwalia, 4S Designs, Wales Bonner, and Drake favorite Glass Cypress, alongside heavy hitters Comme des Garçons and Jil Sander. The offerings skew look-at-me; Baker disdains the current moment of minimalism and quiet luxury. “We hope our customer spends their money at Uniqlo on the basics, versus getting those here,” she says. “We have a very niche audience, but we are confident that they are going to support the store and everything that’s in here, and also, tell their friends.” There’s a particular emphasis on repping local talent because, Baker believes, “New York stores just don’t support New York brands.” (Those who can’t make the trip to NYC, never fear; there will also be an e-commerce arm to the business.)
Vintage is sprinkled throughout; Baker goes through a rack picking out a Deee-Lite T-shirt, then a Madonna shirt that references HBO, “so it’s real vintage.” A ring of all-black band tees, sporting names like Metallica and Destiny’s Child, anchors the space. They came from a mysterious figure only identified as Mr X, who she describes as “a very legit vintage dealer. He works with a huge celebrity clientele, so he’s constantly buying and trading with different celebrity collectors. He’ll go right into their closets. People,” including celebrity stylists, “have been seeing it on our personal Instagrams and some are spoken for already.”
Taking me through a “secret passage” to the mirrored VIP section, Baker gestures to Ferreira, who’s wearing a brightly colored Saint Laurent soccer jersey. It was her idea to create this style studio, if, say, a celebrity is in town and looking for a personal shopping session. Also in the works: a rental studio that will cater to stylists and editors.
The store décor is meant to reflect the neighborhood around it. ESSX is working with NewCo, the design and creative agency founded by Rob Cristofaro, who also founded LES staple Alife. “They were the first ones to work with [A$AP] Rocky, the first ones to work with Drake. That was a community playground for so many people, but also the birth of their brand and the birth of real sneaker culture. So it was important to work with someone who really had ties to the community,” Baker says. Local florist Joy Flowers will provide arrangements for the space, while 78-year-old artist and neighborhood standby Clayton Patterson, who has documented the Lower East Side since the ’70s, will get a retrospective in the store timed to New York Fashion Week. A partnership with the Henry Street settlement will see the store train local youth in all things fashion and retail under one of its team leaders. “Because we’re all from here, we want to give back to the community,” Baker explains. “We want to see New York win.”
Just as stores like Fiorucci and Dapper Dan once served as bustling community spaces, ESSX has designs on becoming a hub for creative types. For the store’s official opening in September during fashion week, “all these designers are coming in, from Spain, Japan, Korea...and that’s where the magic happens. That’s when people start collaborating and and making deals. I’m not saying the store’s going to do all that,” she adds. “But hopefully we’re a step in the right direction.”
Véronique Hyland is ELLE’s Fashion Features Director and the author of the book Dress Code, which was selected as one of The New Yorker's Best Books of the Year. Her writing has previously appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, W, New York magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and Condé Nast Traveler.