Masami Hosono’s mother worked in fashion. Growing up in Tokyo, she always knew that she wanted to work in fashion herself, but something was missing: socializing. “I love to talk and meet people, ” she explained to me with an amicable smile. In a white, modern space with a rack of clothing on her left, Masami shared her story. When she turned eighteen, Masami met a “very great hairstylist, ” with whom she would work and learn for the next four years. Her passion for hair, style, music, and socializing ultimately led her to quit her job in Tokyo and board her very first plane to New York in 2012. “I was like, I don’t speak English, but I can cut hair, ” she recounted. “Maybe I can do it. ”The New York Masami had heard about back home could not compare to the one she arrived in. She told me, “Japanese people love New York City, but they only know cool fashion, cool hair, cool music. But there’s more good stuff, personality, freedom. ” One of the biggest surprises, but also most appealing aspects of the city, was its dynamic queer scene. “Being gay in Japan is very hard, ” Masami recalled. “I’m from Tokyo, and it’s a very conservative place. But in New York City, everything is mixed. The queer culture is amazing. ”Life in New York was, understandably, a big adjustment. With no place to live, Masami spent her first nights in a hotel, and her first days exploring the streets. But she took the challenges of a new country in stride by doing what she does best: cutting hair and meeting people. While Masami made a living by cutting hair in Williamsburg, she also offered free haircuts to make friends. “I just found people on the street, ” she said with a nostalgic laugh. “Like, ‘oh, they look cool. ' And I asked them, ‘Can I cut your hair? ’” Little by little, through about 400 free cuts a year, Masami began to learn English, and build a community of friends. “Musician clients would say, ‘I’m playing tonight, you should come. ’ So I go, and they introduce me to more musician friends. I met one designer because I cut his girlfriend’s hair, and he makes music videos, so he asked if I could do the hair for the music video. I’ve met so many very cool people who are musicians, artists, skateboarders... all these artists who can hang and make creative stuff together. ”In 2015, Masami moved from Williamsburg to the East Village to work at Assort International Hair Salon. There, she took the final leap: She told her boss she wanted to open her own store. In April of 2016, Masami and her boss went into business together as Creative Director and Founder, respectively, of Vacancy. Masami stressed the importance of collaboration in small business work: “I’m really happy to have the founder because I really can focus only on the creative side. It’s really important to have the creator and financial person separate. ”Vacancy is more than a just a hair salon; it is also a pop-up retail shop (with items designed by friends of Masami) and artist hang-out. While Masami’s hair clients come from far and wide (“Do you know the singer Rachel Trachtenburg? Yeah, I chopped off her hair”), Vacancy still maintains the vibe of a small, local business, while serving a massive and ever-expanding web of Masami’s friends. Masami’s haircut services have a very specific appeal. “My haircut style is not super fancy, ” she told me, “because when I came here, I met a lot of people on the street. They always have amazing hair, and I ask ‘Where did you get a haircut? ' and they say ‘Oh, I cut it myself. ’ So I do kind of DIY, very grungy, choppy, messy. ” Her cuts are still customizable: Vacancy offers hair designs in “a lot of crazy colors, ” from pink to blue and everything in between. Masami and her army of artistic friends will not be confined to the shop. In addition to haircuts, Masami collaborates with her friends to produce a number of visual and literary creative projects, to bring their art and vision to the general public. She edits and produces a blog (or “web journal”), which features interviews and photographs of all sorts of artists, from painters to sculptors to Instagrammers, whom she has met through cutting hair. She also produces a monthly radio show, Vacancy Radio, through which she introduces listeners to her musical friends (“People are at work like ‘What am I gonna listen to today? Vacancy Radio! ’”). Most recently, Masami has produced a zine (a self-published, miniature magazine) featuring her own hair and makeup designs and pictures by her friends in photography. She is currently working on a second zine. To bring everyone together, Masami often hosts “book and zine events” in the Vacancy space, where her friends can gather and share their work. “People can come and hang out and, well, drink, ” she added with a laugh. With so many friends and projects in her repertoire, one might think she would be ready to call it a day, but this is only the beginning of Masami’s vision for Vacancy. While she will always be cutting hair, Masami dreams of an entire Vacancy building just for artists. “I want a full coffee shop, and maybe a bar. I want shared studios where the artists can make art. We can have an exhibition. We can have a music studio downstairs and live shows. Like an art house. ”As she moves into the future, Masami Hosono makes sure never to lose sight of her roots. As she guided me on her journey from newcomer to centerpiece of New York’s artistic community, what became increasingly clear to me was her awareness of the potential that her prominence in a new country gave her to make change back home. No matter how well-known Masami’s work becomes, her queer identity has always been, and will continue to be, the center of her narrative. Masami has made the decision to return to Japan this summer, and potentially begin a regular practice of working in both countries. She has already booked an interview with a Japanese magazine and looks forward to bringing New York’s culture of openness back to her homeland in whatever ways she can. “When I have a magazine interview or work in Tokyo, I want to talk about it more, little by little, ” she said. “I will change the culture if I can. ”
So many of us tend to take photos on our phones these days, and then we are never quite certain what to do with them – whether to print them out, and where to place them in our home or office if we do - while others have acquired meaningful pieces of art over the years, but have no concept of how to hang them. This is where David Kassel and Michelle Conrad, the husband and wife team behind ILevel, come in. I had spoken on the phone with Michelle prior to our meeting, and I had, of course, read about ILevel on line. I was not at all prepared, however, for what I discovered upon entering their gallery on East 7th Street. The fantastic space is vast - absolutely ideal for displaying artwork in any form. David and Michelle greeted Lucas, the photographer, and me and invited us to sit on their couch as we began to chat, and play with their adorable new puppy. It was a perfect, relaxing atmosphere for anyone who is interested in receiving some great advice about decorating their walls. David began by sharing a bit of his background with me. I had to stop him immediately when he related that he had attended SUNY Purchase, for my family and I lived on the same street as the university for fifteen years. I, of course, knew the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase where David worked while a student. Following this, he secured a job at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In the 1980s, when David became aware of the "crazy purchasing" of art that was going on with corporations, he decided that it was time to go out on his own and begin an art installation business. He has not looked back since. What came as another surprise to me was when David mentioned that he has lived in this brownstone for over forty years, only recently (2016) deciding to open a brick and mortar space, downstairs, for his thirty-year-old company. Today, the walls are covered with photos from Michelle and David's own family, as well as work from private dealers who do not have space to display paintings. When we were there, it was an eclectic mix with contemporary pieces, botanical works, and eighteenth century Hindu art. In addition, several walls were devoted to the fifteen members of their staff - all of them artists. Michelle added that they are constantly changing things up - creating unique configurations, as they want to be able to inspire those that come through their doors. "There are endless creative possibilities as to how one might choose to hang their artwork; we like to allow our clients to see what they, potentially, can do with their own collections. "Michelle is from Chicago and has had an interesting, successful career in marketing. Today, however, she chooses to work along side her husband, sharing ideas in any and every aspect of the business, as well as raising their two children. They appear to be one terrific duo. David shared several amusing stories with us from his encounters with clients. Who gets to share lox and bagels with someone in the Dakota building, or a cup of coffee with some of the most fascinating people in New York, hearing their stories, and looking through their photos? When I inquired as to whether or not the business continues to make them happy, David had no hesitation in responding, "We love what we do, even after all of these years... However, it is the relationships we form that are the most meaningful to us. " Elaborating, Michelle shared that people are always pleased to see them. "Often, we are the last step in what was otherwise a challenging renovation or move. " At the point that their team comes in, all the dust is, literally, settled, and the boxes are unpacked. ILevel is simply putting on the finishing touches by placing beautiful art on the bare walls.
In 1954, a Ukrainian refugee began Veselka as a shop that sold cigarettes, candy, and newspapers with a few tables for some tasty homemade Eastern European food. Over the years, it slowly evolved into a coffee shop, and then to a casual restaurant. Almost fifty-nine years later, it continues to thrive as a neighborhood destination when one is in need of comfort food, or as my own kids have told me, it is a great late night spot too. Open twenty-four hours a day, the restaurant’s menu is a mix of Ukrainian and typical American diner fare. More than a diner, though, Veselka is a family-friendly establishment that serves up Ukrainian "peasant" food - known to many as "Ukrainian soul food. "
Shahrzad Ghajar, founder of the gift shop Spooksvilla + friends, takes curation to another level. She meets with each of the artists represented in the store and personally chooses every piece showcased on the walls and shelves. Shahrzad, herself, is a talented artist, and many of her designs are featured in the shop. By focusing on the artists, Spooksvilla ensures that everything for sale - from apparel to wall art - is one-of-a-kind. “We like to be representative of original people doing original things— be it art, products, charms or any other kind of cool item, " said Ethan Velez, manager of Spooksvilla. Despite the fact that multiple artists contribute to Spooksvilla, the store is not a hodgepodge of styles. Rather, the art is united in its bold, whimsical designs. A favorite is the label on the bottle of the rose bath salts - a piece of art in itself. A woman with purple skin and purple hair rides a pink dragon, holding, of course, roses.
Serving an interesting but decadent assortment of coffees, hot cakes, desserts, Japanese tapas, sandwiches, pasta, and more, Hi-Collar functions as many things. In the morning the atmosphere is subdued and relaxed like a coffee shop, as customers come to enjoy “kissaten” – a term to describe Japanese-style coffee shops. The lady we spoke to at Hi-Collar told us their coffee selection is extensive and that there are a variety of beans to choose from. Not only is there the opportunity to select the bean varietal, but one can also choose how the coffee is made as well: pour over, aeropress, or siphon—each method drawing out a distinct flavor. For the non-coffee drinker, there are teas and even a fruit milkshake. As the afternoon wears on and evening approaches, Hi-Collar becomes a bar complete with wine, sake, and beer. Inquiring about the name, we found that Hi-Collar is in fact a term that came to be during the Japanese Jazz Age, when Western culture infiltrated Japan and many men were seen wearing Western style high collars. The only seating available is at the long bar, and the beautiful flowers and lamps that hang from the ceiling add to the allure of this multifaceted nook on 10th.
The essence of Duo is in its name; it is two things at once. It is dulled colors and clean lines, minimalist in feel but simultaneously filled with warmth and softness. Both young and old, vibrant and calm, it is modern and fresh but brings to mind memories of simpler times: of handwritten letters, cozy Sunday afternoons and soft breezes over the wide open fields of northern Minnesota, the owners’ home state. Conflicting and complementing all at once, Duo is the product of two minds at work. Sisters Wendy and LaRae Kangas have created a perfect little fashion oasis that fits right in with the small town vibes of Manhattan’s East Village. Growing up, Wendy and LaRae pestered each other and fought over clothes, as siblings will do, but in 2008 they decided to open up a shop together. Today, they work with dealers and emerging independent designers throughout the country and pick all their clothing, accessories, and home goods by hand, combining masculine and feminine styles with modern silhouettes and vintage traces to curate a timeless collection of quality, classic pieces. “It’s a very personal process, ” they told me, “and we put a lot of love into our shop and our collections. ” Nothing at Duo is mass-produced, and most of their merchandise is recycled. The sisters pour their hearts into the shop and work hard to stay true to themselves while keeping an eye toward the future, expanding their business into the world of e-commerce and social media. “It’s important to stay current and give the customers what they want, ” they said. They love what they do, and working with family makes it even more fun, according to the sisters. “It makes work smooth when you don’t have to verbalize what you’re thinking, ” they told me, “We just know what each other is thinking and it makes choosing products and daily operations much easier. ”Duo is a celebration of creative spirit. It is clear that the sisters revel in the one-of-a-kind individuality of each and every one of their customers who come to them looking for pieces that will express their own unique style. When explaining what they love about their work, they said, “It’s great to make a customer feel better when they walk out the door. ”