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Alex K Goes Shopping: Alex Takes the "A" Train to N in Harlem

05crit1600This week in The New York Times' Thursday Styles, our fearless consumer Alex Kuczynski makes her way uptown to Harlem. We've got to hand it to Alex. She has been getting more adventurous these days, and still manages to retain her peculiarly twisted perception. Her irrelevant association this week is that shopping in Harlem makes her think of none other than Oprah.

Isn’t it strange that no one, as far as I know, has remarked on the luxury-adoring habits of America’s most down-home, up-by-her-bootstraps black woman as she communes with America and tries to be a regular person?

Well, actually, people comment on it all the time. And her fans love it. What they like (and our Alex could take a note here) is that Oprah makes no false pretenses about the fact that she is one of the wealthiest women in America. She is no regular person. She is the queen of her domain, and only BFF Gayle King has the power to knock her down a peg once in a while. Why shouldn't she shop at Bergdorf's (or as she might say it, Bergdorf GoODMAAAN!)? She can afford it.
But back to Harlem, and N, a boutique on West 116th Street, that we are guessing Oprah hasn't made it to yet. According to Alex, Bloggers went crazy when this store opened. (Hmmmm...Alex reads blogs?)

More after the jump

Img_1764 Apparently, the internet was rife with speculation about whether a store as luxurious as N could possibly survive on 116th Street. And Alex likes to play up the gentrification side of the story

What appears to be anger — or perhaps it’s alienation — may reflect the fact that African-American culture is at an economic crossroad, especially in Harlem, where condos are selling for north of $2 million. Neighborhood bloggers demand to know what an upscale store, selling clothes by Nicole Miller (white), Hugo Boss (white) and Marimekko (a bunch of Finns, and I bet they’re not black) is doing in their ’hood. Yet Oprah Winfrey is celebrated in the same ’hood for her ambition and love of luxury.

What does Oprah have to do with it?! Isn't it sort of inevitable that as expensive apartments appear, expensive shops will follow? At this point, we should clarify a few things. N is a smart little shop, but, by New York standards, it is not quite Hermès. It mostly focuses on  upscale contemporary lines and a generous helping of denim which, perhaps for 116th Street, is a paragon of opulence. It's still hard to imagine the store offending anyone. When we entered we were immediately welcomed by a cheerful, attentive staff that we would be happy to see anywhere in the city. It's a long, narrow space designed simply, to display the merchandise, women's collections like Plenty by Tracy Reese and Hugo Boss. Downstairs, we find menswear from familiar labels like Boss, G-Star and Omar, which has more of a Harlem flavor, though the store really doesn't appear pitched towards any particular ethnicity. It's not a hip-hop store. Of course, after years of rappers namechecking designer clothes, is it any wonder that someone might try to sell some in their backyard? Alex makes a big deal of identifying the race of each designer in stock, but that's really beside the point, as if Harlem stores require a certain quota. Still, she isn't totally off the mark when she writes,

N’s existence on 116th Street, a block that is home to purveyors of West African goods, the Southern restaurant Amy Ruth’s and a couple of check-cashing outposts, is a very noisy announcement that Harlem will be gentrified, probably sooner rather than later. And no one likes noisy announcements or watching new businesses try to change the neighborhood, even in tiny, possibly good ways.

It may be a very noisy announcement, but so far, the rest of the block hasn't quite caught up to N retailwise. It's full of more traditional Harlem stores It's t  he luxury buildings a few blocks away show that the neighborhood is well into the gentrification process. N may be the first boutique of it's kind, but it's highly unlikely to be the last.

Standing at the Crossroads in Harlem by Alex Kuczynski (NYTimes)

N 114 West 116th Street, Harlem


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