Shops and the city
We are teetering on our spike heels down a narrow alleyway in New York's NoLita - north of Little Italy - so that we might examine the spot where Carrie Bradshaw aka Sarah Jessica Parker had her Jimmy Choos nicked in a memorable episode of the late, lamented Sex and the City.
It's a gratifyingly gossipy moment on our way to NoHo - north of Houston - which, as those "in the no" will tell you, is the chicest spot to shop until you drop in downtown Manhattan. We have already inspected the building on Lafayette where Grace - of Will & Grace - has her office. We've been shown the swanky apartment block in which David Bowie and Iman reside, and we have visited the Italian pharmacy on the ground floor of their building.
Started centuries ago in a monastery in Florence by monks from Scotland, the Santa Maria Novella pharmacy sells the most divine lotions, potions, and sweet-smelling unguents, some made especially for Catherine de Medici. There are delicious elixirs available too, the oldest of which is Elisir di Edimburgo, an aromatic wine combined with herbal extracts, created in 1612, which proves that at least one monk never forgot his roots.
This is, by the way, where Gwyneth Paltrow and Catherine Zeta-Jones regularly shop for legendary Lorenzo Villoresi scents such as Wild Lavender, which I am assured should become my signature perfume in future. Both spicy and musky, it smells nothing like the Yardley cologne that my mother's elderly aunts used to sprinkle on their lace hankies, although I would prefer to dab something with a sexier name behind my ears.
Only ten minutes into our 17, two-hour shopping tour - and already some are laden with packages of pot pourri and perfumes from the elegant pharmacy. We are a motley crew: half a dozen crumpled out-of-towners, two wide-eyed young British tourists, who can't quite cope with how fast everyone speaks in the city that never sleeps, and me. Our savvy guide to shops and the city, Halle Petro, is a pretty, twentysomething actress, who is also a personal shopper and restaurant greeter.
With us today is her boss, the fast-talking, fast-walking Rebecca Merritt, a refugee from the dot-com business and currently president of Shop Gotham, the tour company she founded, which takes us to small, quirky shops along narrow, European-looking streets such as Prince, Mott, Elizabeth and Mulberry, past colourful tenements, with classic iron fire-escapes. Way off the beaten tourist track, this is where celebrities shop, their imagination caught by the cool, bohemian status that independent New York designers bring to everything from fashionable accessories to interior style.
Like the rich and famous, we are here to shop and not to star-spot, although we have been walking for only a few minutes when Halle tells us exactly where Cynthia (Sex and the City) Nixon got the fabulous necklace she wore to the recent Emmy awards, and then she shows us where Richard Burton once bought Elizabeth Taylor a diamond ring. So this really is shopping with a twist. You've done Bloomingdales, Bergdorf Goodmans and Barneys? Had your fill of Fifth Avenue? Shop Gotham will lead you around these department stores if that's what you want, but now's the time to discover glitzy costume jewellery at La Petite Princesse on sleepy little Elizabeth Street, or slip into British/US design duo Sigerson-Morrison on Mott for shoes to die for, or drink wickedly thick hot chocolate while choosing a new pair of funky designer frames by Selima Salaun at Lunettes et Chocolat, the opticans-cum-cocoa bar on Prince. A strange but curiously effective combo - and only in New York.
Selima's modern and vintage-style frames are fabulously glamorous, handmade in factories in France, Italy and Japan in materials ranging from polished enamelled metal to smooth, laminated plastics. She counts Liv Tyler, Bono and Meryl Streep among her most dedicated clients. Her latest collection is the 1980s-inspired Hip-Hop, as well as the classic Aristote range, which is based on the design of Aristotle Onassis's sunglasses, which are more popular with smart women than Jackie O shades.
As we pass Push, the jewellery store where Ethan Hawke bought Uma Thurman's engagement ring, Petro claims that she is our "girlfriend in New York for the day". Meanwhile, 30-year-old Merritt, a Miami-born, tall blonde, dressed in pale turquoise with gold leather ballerina pumps, who has recently had her first baby, tells me about the company she founded with her 37-year-old business partner Johanna Cap - and how they became New York's answer to Trinny and Susannah.
While working in marketing for a dot-com conveniently located in the Garment Center, Merritt elevated lunchtime shopping into an art form. Driven by her love of bargains and fascination with design, she mentally catalogued unique and inexpensive shopping hotspots in the city.
"As I filled my closets with 25 (14.50) cashmere sweaters and one-of-a-kind finds, my husband half joked that I should become a professional shopper. 'You're missing your calling in life,' he kept telling me," she says, wheeling me into Hooky, a vintage clothes shop on Mulberry Street.
Unhappy with corporate life's "daily doldrums," Merritt mulled over her TV producer husband's remarks and soon realised that there was some truth behind them. By this time she had left her job anyway. "I saw the writing on the wall for the dot-com business, with all the lay-offs and so on, so I quit because I knew we were going nowhere," she says. A born entrepreneur, she hit upon the idea of a shopping tour company. Her plan was to combine shopping and sightseeing.
"I wanted people to discover Manhattan's hidden gems, just as I had, and I also wanted to take visitors on a shopping adventure." She launched Shop Gotham in the summer of 2001 and was to have sent out her first major corporate proposal on September 11. Of course she didn't. "The whole world exploded that day, but I'm not complaining because everyone I know was fine. However, that was it as far as the business was concerned until the following spring."
Two years later, her friend and former colleague Johanna Cap, began working with her. For nine years, Cap had managed community relations for Revlon, after holding down product management jobs with various companies. She decided that she "did not want to go back to working for someone else's dream", so the pair became partners in Shop Gotham, which they run from their Hoboken base in New Jersey.
Today, the two women have transformed the company into New York's number one shopping tour provider for both corporate and consumer markets. They offer five unique, daily shopping tours, 14 times a week, and specialise in private shopping tours of all types, including corporate groups. They even stage "bachelorette" and birthday party tours. Their guides are "resting" actresses, "with interesting life stories to tell," although they work from a script prepared by Merritt and Cap.
With the pound still riding high against the dollar, British shoppers still tend to gravitate towards the big chains, such as Gap and Banana Republic, but Merritt believes that if you go off-piste, so to speak, you will find one-off shops selling lovely things.
After giving me a taster of the group tour, she whisks me off on a private trip, stopping off at Erica Tanov in Elizabeth Street, where the undies sported by Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation were sourced. We whiz past Michael Audin - glass lampshades at 300 (170); Me & Ro - Julia Roberts's favourite jewellers; Fragments - Britney Spears and J-Lo's bling store of choice; Mogu - fabulous cushions for less than a tenner each; and Hollywould - luxury shoes by Holly Dunlap, whose clients include Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon and Meena Suvari.
We pop in to Marianne Novobatzky Couture, on Mercer Street near Broome. You need to make an appointment here, but the Hungarian-born designer creates the most covetable clothes Merritt has ever seen, which is saying something. Just a short walk away is Evolution - "one for the guys," says Merritt - where you can buy cougar skulls, a small mammal's penis (I jest not), or even a foetal shark if you so desire. I don't desire, so we speed to Thomson Street, where an expat Geordie, Linda Pagan, runs The Hat Shop.
The stars' milliner of choice, the willowy and elegant Pagan stocks zany cocktail hats, titfers for men, trilbies for boys and girls, flat caps "for that Jay Gatsby look", and gorgeous Ascot-style cartwheels with vintage trims.
A big fan of SoHo, where she set up shop a decade ago, Pagan is so entertaining you could talk to her for hours, but Merritt does not like shoppers to linger for too long. The idea, she points out, is to give you a feel for a particular area, so that you can return at your leisure for some serious trying-on and even more serious spending. Then you can use the discount that Shop Gotham arranges for you with certain shops - ranging from a free glass of wine with dinner at, say, the Cupping Room Cafe on West Broadway to as much as 20 per cent off at some stores.
"For me, independent designer boutiques like Linda Pagan's Hat Shop are quintessential New York," explains Merritt. "Most of the shops I like best are owned by people like her. They are usually women, who live in the neighbourhood and who started their businesses to fulfil a creative passion. Their little shops are 100 per cent independent and that's what makes them really special."
The common thread that unites the stores where Merritt takes her shoppers is, she says, their relaxed, friendly approach to design and business. "They all have a bohemian, rather romantic feel, and an individual style that's developed over time. It's all in direct contrast to the corporate nature of the world I used to operate in," she admits.
First-time New York visitors still want to see Macy's and Saks and Henri Bendel, however. "I think that's basically old hat, but we have tours that take everything in. Johanna's baby is the Manhattan Shopping Landmarks tour, while I hang out in NoLita and NoHo and SoHo. I also do the Garment Center - after all, I know it so well! - and I introduce people on private tours to leading designers in their workrooms."
Indeed, the private tours are Merritt's pride and joy. "I took a mother and daughter, who flew in on their private jet, on a tour recently. We did Bloomingdales - they now have a downtown branch in SoHo - and then had a tour around some of the small, exclusive shops I've shown you in NoLita. They had lunch at the ber trendy Balthazar and then they got their nails done in the Meatpacking District, where they sat next to Amber Valletta. And guess what? They did walk-ons in a Seal video that was being filmed in the street," says Merritt over coffee in a suitably groovy little coffee shop on Prince Street.
What she didn't get initially, adds Merritt, is how rewarding it would be to show people the secret New York that she knows and loves. "We open up people's eyes and take the scary factor out of the city. You know, I'm very ambitious for the company," she confides. "I'm always pushing for the next big thing. For instance, I want to do a book about all the incredible women I've met in NoLita and NoHo. I want to find out who their muses are, how they get started, and what keeps them so determined to be independent in a globalised world dominated by the big American brands.
"The world really is our oyster. I know Miami well and I want to expand there; Johanna's husband is a Londoner so one day we'll introduce shopping tours to the UK. I also want to do celebrity shopping. The list is endless - once I've nailed New York." She says it with such determination that you know that she'll take Manhattan - and it'll come gift-wrapped. SM
Soho and Nolita Shopping Adventure, 30 (17); Fifth Avenue Shopping Adventure, 25 (14); Garment Center Glory (includes sample sales, showrooms, fabric and notions stores, with wholesale prices on everything from beads to evening gowns), 70 (39); Manhattan Shopping Landmarks, 85 (48); and Private Tours, customised from 395 (225). Contact Shop Gotham on 001 201 795 4200, or visit www.shopgotham.com
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