At times, living in Manhattan can become a bit chaotic – and it is at this moment when Muji feels like a breath of fresh air. So different from our busy and cluttered apartments, Muji is the epitome of minimalist class. There is no rhyme or reason to what items are carried and yet while there are a million trinkets to browse through, the atmosphere remains effortlessly crisp and clean. Everything is made in neutral colors and simple materials, and labeled with clear descriptions. After wandering around, I suddenly had the urge to go home and clean everything out of my closet and start fresh. The store has a calming and almost meditative effect on people. The vast variety of items includes furniture, clothing, home goods – and yet everything feels unified. Some of the hidden treasures can be found within the office supplies – pens that glide beautifully across the page and notebooks that rival moleskin for utility and sophistication, but at a fraction of the price. Even the clothes are in soft, soothing colors, but made from fine fabrics and sold at very reasonable prices. Step inside to escape the bustle of the city, and do not be surprised if you leave with a new toothbrush or a pair of slippers.
I have discovered many fascinating places while walking on the side streets of Manhattan. I am sorry to say that I did not look up to see Belly Dance America when I initially walked on West 37th Street. It was not until a few years later that I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Hanna and Jehan, the wonderful couple behind the place that has been hailed as the center for all belly dance needs. As it is the first and only store of its kind in New York City, located on the second floor, it has definitely cornered the market. For anyone passionate about the art of belly dance, or for those who are only getting started, there is just about anything that one could want in this shop. It is more than just a belly dance store. Belly Dance America is a love letter to the passion and culture of the Middle East, paying homage to the richness of history and music that so often gets overlooked these days. As I walked into their shop, I was greeted by the sound of a breeze sneaking its way through an open window to rustle the costumes within, announcing its entrance with the soft jingling of the coins on the bottoms of the skirts.Every costume is made with a unique attention to detail. Some are imported and some are made right there in the shop, designed and assembled by Jehan’s husband and co-owner, Hanna. The costumes that are imported are made especially with the diverseness of the human body in mind, made by designers who know how to fit it perfectly. Even still, Jehan and Hanna take an honest approach to the sale of each item. “If something doesn’t look good, I’m going to tell you,” said Hanna, “It’s not about making a sale. I’d rather have a loyal customer who comes back and is always happy.”I found there to be a strong sense of community among the dancers and instructors. Everyone is welcome, whether they are a professional dancer or a hobbyist who is just starting out. It is never about competition, just the mutual enjoyment of a beautiful art. “The good thing about belly dance is that it welcomes all sizes, all body types, and all ages.” In the studio, I watched a group of dancers go through a routine as the instructor, Layla, led. While standing there, I listened to the coins jingling in time with the music and the sound of beads swinging side to side. The ghazal of the singer’s voice wailed from the stereo system in the corner of the studio and the dancers looked very much at peace, some of them smiling, some staring at themselves in the mirror, all feeling the passion and richness of the music down to their very core.Returning to the shop, down the hallway, where Hanna and Jehan were, I commented on what an incredible experience it was for me to witness these women dancing. They smiled and responded, “It makes people happy,” “the music, the colors, the dance.”
Nora’s story begins in the same way as some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs: she encountered a problem and decided to fix it herself, instead of waiting for someone else. Nora worked on Wall Street for nearly six years, during which time she discovered how uncomfortable and unflattering women’s business-wear could be. She decided to leave Morgan Stanley and develop the skills needed to manufacture functional, appropriate business attire for women.Fortunately, she already had a lot of the training needed to make her dreams a reality. Though Nora had majored in economics at Georgetown, she had minored in Studio Art. “I love drawing,” she said simply, and added that she has always been able to sketch. She had a very clear idea of what she wanted in her clothes, so she took some draping and sewing classes in Williamsburg, attended fabric seminars, and visited factories in the garment district. In addition to this hands-on education, Nora went to bookstores to find literature on garment-building and “learned everything under the sun.” When I asked her if she ever considered simply hiring a secondary designer, she explained that she considered it very important that the primary designer understand the business lifestyle, and that that quality was more important than being highly skilled in fashion. Therefore, this determined young woman learned enough in an effort to do it all.Nora spent the first year or so perfecting the stitches and the design. “The first season was very different from what we are now,” she explained. She began working with five or so factories and got her website off the ground. She believed it was very important, however, to have a physical presence in order to introduce the brand in person, so Nora started traveling the east coast, setting up pop-ups. Through these “little bursts all over the place,” she was able to gain followers, including some notable TV personalities and news anchors.After residing inside a community space on West 38th Street for a short while, Nora is excited to now have her own boutique. Women can take a break from their day by stopping in during the afternoon for a cocktail and browse through Nora's creative clothing line. "I now have a women's workwear oasis."I asked Nora about the other businesses cropping up throughout the city that are similarly trying to solve the dilemma of business clothes for women. I learned that she does not consider them competition. “We support each other – we are all trying to do something that is really hard.” Just like with lifestyle clothing brands, women will either choose the company that best fits their style or buy bits and pieces from each label. “There are so many women on this small island and in the world that need work clothes," Nora said, judiciously.Though Nora currently wears a lot of blacks, since she is constantly running through the streets of New York to the Garment District, she is proud of the vibrant colors in her collection. “During my hard, routine days at Morgan Stanley, wearing colors made me really happy,” Nora admitted. “Color can do a lot for your mood.” Another source of pride is the fact that everything is made in New York. Above all, however, Nora is very happy to say that, so far, she has proved herself “resilient to all obstacles to creating a business.”
After visiting the newly opened Renwick, Olivia, Tom and I walked west to its sister hotel, the Gregory. Originally built in 1903 and known as “The Gregorian,” its purpose was to house spillover guests from the Waldorf Astoria. It was designed to be reminiscent of Upper West Side homes, with rooms that were double the height of normal hotels. In the mid-twentieth century, the Gregorian closed and the building passed through the hands of different hospitality groups. In 2015, however, the Gregory opened with the goal of recreating the hotel’s former glory. Susan Richardson, the Director of Marketing at the time, was pleased to give us a tour of the newly renovated hotel and to share some of the history, while also pointing out the various amenities and features. The overall design of the hotel is inspired by elements of the fashion world, as it is located in the garment district. Susan also mentioned that the Gregory is the only hotel that is a member of the Save the Garment Center movement and that they have recently formed a partnership with Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).Susan explained that the hotel was designed with the goal of feeling "homey." The lobby was built to have the comfort of a living room, complete with the bar, called “The Liquor Cabinet.” The whimsical idea behind the name is that guests can “raid the Liquor Cabinet” during happy hour. While chatting, the bartender made one of their signature drinks, the Ginger Bootlegger, made with Bootlegger vodka, Cointreau, and ginger beer. The cozy, home-away-from-home atmosphere is enhanced by the concierge desk, where guests are encouraged to sit down in an armchair as they check-in and to feel the warmth of the fireplace during the colder months of the year.Similar to the Renwick, the Gregory focuses on trying to manufacture many of the features of the hotel in New York City. The lobby’s wood floors were not only made in Manhattan, but cut right here in the building. The shelves, which held fashion books, sewing machines, and other relics of the design world, were also cut in the lobby. Adding to their strong link to its history, we observed the pictures of the original hotel on the wall, along with an old menu and various artworks from the early twentieth century.Before heading into the elevator, we stopped into Brendan’s, the lively Irish pub connected to the hotel. The restaurant used to be the Gregorian’s Palm Court. “They are a great neighbor,” Susan said. Upstairs, we stepped inside an impressive guest room. It was remarkable how different the Gregory and the Renwick are, but with the same careful attention to detail and emphasis on guest comfort. Where the Renwick has eclectic images and outside-the-box design, the Gregory has clean lines and simple patterns. As Susan so aptly described it, “The Renwick is the artist and the Gregory is the tailor.” There are hints of the fashion world everywhere, including Do Not Disturb signs made of ties and framed clothing patterns on the walls. Like the Renwick, each of the beds are custom made for the hotel. Although both hotels are designed for the transient traveler, Susan feels that the Gregory appeals to a slightly younger crowd - one that wants a warm, communal place to work and network. With that in mind, guests are encouraged to come down to the lobby for coffee in the morning and mingle with one another. The tech industry has started drifting into the neighborhood and Susan feels that members of the tech world appreciate the chance to meet people and work in the living room environment of the lobby. “We are creating a culture of offering guests an experience,” she said, smiling.
At Gallery 35, we were charmed, entertained and educated on the staff's commitment to their own work and the art community as a whole. Sharing space, one flight up, with others affiliated with the Community Church next door, Gallery 35 is only open on Saturday evenings. Each week they showcase the work of a collective of artists, using media and styles across the board – water colors, digital media, glass painting, quilts, wood cuts. Once a year, the gallery hosts shows featuring artists from around the world. The most recent rendition featured paintings and quilts from Cuban and Brazilian artists. I was particularly taken by the story behind the art that was exhibited in the winter of 2013. Vidho Lorville, a native of Haiti, who had been painting for over twenty years before the earthquake struck his country, was chosen to be the guest artist. His commitment to the people and the celebration of the rebirth of Haiti were not only displayed in his work, but he also chose to donate a portion of the proceeds from Gallery 35 towards programs in Haiti.
Stepping off the elevator on the 18th floor, we had the feeling that we might run into the Queen of Hearts lounging and looking out over the city. Our visit was not during peak hours, so we missed bumping elbows with the chic crowd that normally populates Monarch, but we did get a sense of the futurist atmosphere and the ever-lovely views afforded by a visit. The Empire State Building, long a favorite of our crew, towers majestically in unimpeded splendor to the south. Brick walls give way to geometric, angular wooden walls and ceilings. Lights hang down in mobile-like formations, while chandeliers drip aquatically nearby in a tented heated area that can be utilized throughout the year. The furniture is comfortable and swoopingly high-backed. When our friends want to feel like City royalty, we certainly know where to send them.
Situated somewhere between Irish and American, straddling, too, the distinction between refinement and seaminess, Playwright offers food, drink, sports and a place to rest. The fare is traditional American with a few British accents thrown in - Shepherd's Pie and Fish & Chips to be exact. On the main floor, there are flatscreens aplenty above a long bar bursting with ales. American sports games are shown and, of course, Playwright is always showcasing European soccer games. On the second level, a more traditional dining area in the front gives way to a comfortable seating area in back. With its mixture of old regal furniture pieces collected over the years, in faded burgundies, beiges and browns, and an electric fireplace, Playwright has provided an inviting atmosphere for many to cozy up.