Post-pandemic boutiques selling vintage apparel are replacing luxury goods stores
By Elizabeth Brewer and Chantal Vaca
A couple of months after the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, Abby Price prepared to launch Abbode, her vintage home decor boutique in SoHo. She officially opened the day after she graduated from Parsons School of Design in May 2021.
“The only reason I was able to do it was because of COVID,” she said.
Aside from the sickness and death, the pandemic hit SoHo hard financially, according to Jonathan Apple, a commercial real estate agent in the downtown Manhattan neighborhood. Tourist spending, which had previously sustained the district, had vanished. “For Lease” signs appeared more frequently, and rents for retail space plunged. The average asking rents on Broadway between Houston and Broome Streets fell almost 40 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to the Real Estate Board of New York’s Spring 2021 Retail Market Report.
“It was almost name your price during COVID,” Apple said. “Rents were being negotiated at 50% of the previous market.”
Sensing an opportunity, Price signed a three-month lease for a storefront on Mott Street. The shop had only space for two silver bookcases, but it was enough to keep her business going. From smiley-face mugs, to vases and even smoking pipes shaped like fruits, Abbode’s vintage home decor reflects the colorful and eclectic style that emerged on Instagram feeds during the lockdown days of the pandemic.
As people got vaccinated, foot traffic picked up, and along with it, TikTokers began documenting new spots to check out in New York.
Last November, Abbode moved to Elizabeth Street in a space twice the size of its original location and business has continued to boom.
“Almost every day people come in and say they saw us on TikTok,” Price said.
Influencers weren’t the only ones posting about Abbode. Local customers posted videos of themselves visiting the shop, presenting the store as a destination for anyone looking to decorate their home with Price’s uniquely curated vintage finds.
It turns out, her timing couldn’t have been better. As New Yorkers returned to the city they fled at the start of the pandemic, they needed decorations for their new apartments. And the residents who had remained had grown weary of staring at their old furnishings and were now ready to replace them.
For Bowery Showroom owner Matthew Choon, the love of fashion started at a young age. A native New Yorker, Choon said he began his career as a vintage reseller on eBay and Facebook Marketplace.
“From that experience, I realized I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” he said. “Even if I enjoyed my job, I just wanted to do my own thing.”
At the start of the pandemic, Choon said his pop-up clothing business was forced to turn to Instagram ads, since in-person events were shuttered. Over the course of the first 6 months of COVID-19, Choon said he invested half a million dollars in social media ads. Choon said after that time he didn’t necessarily need anymore money with the success of his social media, but still had some leftover clothes to sell in his closet.
He said he reconnected with a vintage dealer from the Lower East Side who he used to work with when he was younger and began to buy clothes from him and post them on TikTok. The next day, Choon said there was a group of young people lined up on Hester Street waiting for his latest drop.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, we saw you on TikTok.’ I was like, ‘What?,’” Choon recounted. “I opened up my phone, and I got 100,000 views, and we got hundreds of kids lining up for our booth.”
After seeing how popular his vintage finds were on TikTok, Choon said his followers started asking him for a brick and mortar store that they could come visit and buy his clothing. In December 2020, after amassing more than 250,000 thousand followers and millions of views, In January 2021, he signed a lease for space on Stanton Street. At the store’s opening that April, 3,000 customers were lined up outside.
Choon credits TikTok’s word-of-mouth for the store’s success.
Low rents also enticed Leah Gans, 24, to open Les Miss, her shop on Mott Street that sells handmade and upcycled clothing and accessories. “I wouldn’t say it’s affordable, but possible for people our age to be doing this and start their own businesses,” she said.
Since its opening in December, the store has held a variety of events as a way to attract new customers and create a community with shoppers. On Galentine’s Day, the Feb. 13 holiday celebrating friendships between women, Les Miss hosted a tea party. The shop was decked out with red and pink balloons and three-tiered platters served scones and bite-size cucumber sandwiches. For $35, customers could enjoy a two-hour tea time, browse the clothing racks and receive a flash tattoo from a visiting artist.
“It’s not just necessarily about spending money and shopping, but also about cultivating this creative experience for young people who are interested in the fashion industry and interested in crafting or DIY projects,” Price said.
Brandon Zwagerman, director of planning and community engagement at SoHo Broadway Initiative, a business improvement district, said the growth of TikTok has coincided with the end of the pandemic and credits the social media app for much of the rebound in retail traffic in the neighborhood. “Some of our stores are being either featured on TikTok creators viral posts, or are doing their own posts.”
For Price, owner of Abbode, the expected rise in foot traffic comes as good news as she prepares to launch another branch within her brand. This June, she plans to debut South of Houston, which is her line of curated vintage clothing.
“If people love the clothes, why not add another kind of family or another branch to Abbode?” she said.