SoHo Blooms With Chic Shops, Art Galleries

Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

New York City's SoHo, centered around West Broadway and bounded by Houston Street, Sixth Avenue, Canal Street and Broadway (SoHo stands for South of Houston), has been transformed from an industrial area with hundreds of factories and warehouses in huge loft buildings to a pricey residential and commercial district with posh living lofts and magnificent shops and boutiques containing art, fashions and life-style accessories.

The change began about 15 years ago, when artists started converting factory lofts into studios and living space.

Art dealers followed with spacious and sophisticated galleries, which were frequented, especially on weekends, by wealthy collectors from uptown and the suburbs. Chic designer shops and restaurants completed the transformation.

Shops and Boutiques

Now SoHo lofts, too pricey for most artists, are occupied by high-income professionals. SoHo galleries, concentrated along West Broadway, draw collectors and browsers from around the world.

SoHo's shops and boutiques attract sophisticated clientele, featuring unusual finery and wearables by international designers and well-established locals.

Shops tend to be expensive, but there are "January sales," which last through February and into March and offer up to 50% off on merchandise storewide. Sales are held at summer's end, too.

SoHo's fashion savvy and creative life style are epitomized at La Rue des Reves (139 Spring St.), a large, cluttered place packed with clothes and accessories that make any look possible.

Fanciful and eccentric interior decoration includes a wine and coffee bar, comfortable armchairs, reading lamps, lush greenery and antique cabinets filled with retro jewelry and contemporary accessories (including silver- or gold-plated perfume bottle earrings, $75 empty or $95 filled with La Rue's own sweet scent).

Pets Not for Sale

The shop's menagerie of pets (7 dogs, 34 cats, 8 parrots and countless tropical fish) hang unobtrusively among the racks of extraordinary clothes that are the shop's primary attraction.

Intriguing styles are imported from the world's fashion capitals (La Belle et La Bete creations from Paris, for example, with outfits priced at about $300 and up) and some fashion backwaters (from Senegal, M'Backe's chic beige linen suits sell for about $290 and up). More than 300 designers are represented; most styles are exclusive.

Owner Lynn Herwitz's distinctive sense of fashion and fun are evident in La Rue's fashion shows, held on the first Sunday every other month. Next show is March 6.

This season's shows and shop are filled with animal print chiffons, silks and faux furs, worn with classically cut linen or woolen suits. Outfits are about $250 and up.

Mix-and-match fashions feature asymmetrical styles with on-the-bias seams and buttons set irregularly (separates are priced from $100 and up). Accessories include fun sleuth hats ($40), antique-faced watches ($99) and exotic stockings ($7 and up).

Attention Grabbers

For seven years, Herwitz and her stylists have outfitted celebrities (Marlo Thomas, Oprah Winfrey and the rock group Men at Work) with attention-grabbing ensembles, and stylists have flown to Texas and California to dress clients. You can have a personal stylist at La Rue, too.

Harriet Love is an authority on antique clothing. Her shop (412 W. Broadway) is like a fashion museum, and the display of lace garments, haute '30s styles and designer finery from many eras is just the beginning of Love's collection. You can see more comprehensive period selections by appointment. Prices for these treasures are quite reasonable.

Morgane Le Fay's women's fashions are entirely contemporary. Linen and silk suits are almost architectural in appearance, with stand-up collars that swoop into asymmetrical lapels, and skirts with hems that are half knee-length and half ankle-length. Le Fay has mastered the layered look, with tailored knits in muted colors, designed to be mixed and matched. Le Fay's clothes, sold only in her boutique, 151 Spring St., cost about $250 and up per ensemble.

England and Continent

Susan Bartsch's boutique (465a W. Broadway) is pure SoHo. Go through the entryway, decorated with broken tiles, down a long hall and up a narrow staircase to find the latest English fashions this side of the Atlantic Ocean, including a large choice of high-punk styles by Vivienne Westwood (about $180 and up). They're complemented by a wonderful selection of Italian and French accessories, including smart felt hats ($75 and up).

Designer and stylist Dianne B. (B stands for Benson) displays sophisticated fashions for women and men in two spacious SoHo showrooms, 102 Wooster St. and 426 W. Broadway, at sale prices.

Dianne B.'s own collection features chiffon ensembles in split pea green, persimmon and black, including culottes ($50, reduced from $120), blouses ($60, reduced from $140) and dress coats ($240).

Fun jumpers, color coordinated with the chiffons, are $165. Martine Sitbon's dark green velvet dress, with large silk flowers on the front, is $375, reduced from $960.

Dianne B.'s accessories include elbow-high lace gloves ($95) and velvet belts cinched with bouquets of flowers ($75, reduced from $215).

Men's textured wool trousers with easy front pleats ($95, reduced from $160) may be worn with detailed sweat shirts ($40, reduced from $75) or textured cotton shirts ($60, reduced from $85).

Italian Style for Men

There's a huge sale on men's Italian designer fashions at Filipo, 472 W. Broadway and Via Condotti, Roma. Silk ties in a rainbow of colors and patterns are $35, silk shirts are $85 (reduced from $116), textured cotton shirts are $67 (reduced from $85), flannel trousers are $125 and Zegna cashmere blend coats are $500 (reduced from $1,100). Suits, sweaters and belts also are on sale.

Sale prices also are irresistible at Putumayo, 147 Spring St. New York's young professionals snap up the store's easy-to-wear cotton and rayon fashions imported from Portugal: loose-fitting, versatile and reasonably priced dresses in colorful floral prints, plaids and coordinated solid shades $38 (reduced from $80), cotton knit skirts $15 (reduced from $65), cotton sweaters $28 (reduced from $65) and rayon blouses $28 (reduced from $50).

Home Furnishings

Shoppers who want SoHo acquisitions for their living rooms should visit a gift gallery called Dapy, 431 W. Broadway. This stylish French company specializes in audaciously costly and dazzling high-tech, high-quality camp items.

Dapy's own neon electronic goods include a 3-by-6-inch black and white television in a plexiglass case with day-glo neon outlines ($490). Neon radios in plexiglass boxes or Art Deco cases sell for $290 to $490.

Other radios are made to look like old-fashioned microphones ($99) and old-fashioned microphones are turned into table lamps ($85). Another unusual lamp gives off a warm, pink glow; it looks like a large slice of watermelon from which someone has taken a huge bite ($85).

There is a miniature antique gasoline pump that dispenses drinks ($59) and mini-Wurlitzer juke boxes that play the oldies on cassette tapes ($275).

An amusing table, called the "doctor table," has a round plank of wood, about two feet in diameter, resting on two legs that are dressed in physician's green trousers, the feet covered with sterile gauze slippers ($190). Personal accessories include oversized pens ($49), unusual sunglasses (from $15) and watches (from $40).

Ad Hoc Software, 410 W. Broadway, has unusual and expensive bed and bath accessories.

Castellini's exotic sheets, coverlets and square or rectangular pillow cases in textured cotton cost about $100. Bath Juice--bubble baths in mango, pineapple, kiwi and other flavors--sells for $4.25.

The shop also carries hand-loomed couch throws ($175), hand-embroidered baby clothes and a selection of soft flannel sheets.

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