When you crossed the Atlantic back in 2004, what was your first impression of the area?
By the time I got here it was already an enclave of designer retail and the old raw SoHo seemed long gone. It’s the Covent Garden of New York in a way. It’s morphed into that. End.
But does the bohemianism of old still cast its spell?
It lingers like the wood smoke smell after a fire. These places are all, like any bohemian area, rather transient. It’s happened a hundred times in a hundred cities – Montmartre in Paris, Kreuzberg in Berlin, Hoxton in London… cheap rents mean artists and musicians, artists and musicians mean a scene, a scene means bars, restaurants and stores. I think New York still has that raw flavour to foreigners, but to New Yorkers who can remember an almost bankrupt city in the 1970s it’s very different now.
At that time SoHo certainly was a haven for artists and other creatives. People associated with the place include Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and, of course, Andy Warhol. How important were such figures in shaping the style of the area?
They were vital because they acted as a stopgap, a barrier to demolition. They saved SoHo because they made it cool. And then fashion brands moved in and made it valuable. Between them they ensured it survived – at least looking the same. I think SoHo without them would now look like any other district of NY high-rise blocks, and those cast-iron warehouses – the definition of SoHo architecture – would be gone. The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District is of course named for these façades. It’s a good metaphor, as SoHo is now something of a façade itself. It’s a fashion model pretending to be a punk – a facsimile of edge. I still like it, though – it seems the epitome of New York. Always loud, sometimes chic.
Even in the time you’ve lived in New York, SoHo has continued to change – how do you see it now?
It’s both the same and entirely different. It still smells in August. But then all of NY still smells in August. It’s the heat…
And in terms of fashion, what makes SoHo stand out compared to other areas of New York?
It still has a vibe. But to me it’s down to certain streets. Broadway and West Broadway are tourists. Greene, Mercer, Prince and Spring [streets] are still interesting in places. The further you get from Broadway, the cooler it gets. East side of Broadway – Little Italy, Mulberry, Elizabeth [streets] and the Bowery (if that even counts as SoHo) – still has an edge.
What’s your favourite bar?
I’m fond of Fanelli Cafe [94 Prince Street] as it’s so deeply unfashionable that I won’t run into the usual crowd. Lucky Strike [59 Grand Street] is my favourite, though. It still has a bit of Soho Grit. There I do run into people.
I like Lure [142 Mercer Street] but also Cipriani Downtown [376 West Broadway]. My favourite is Il Buco [47 Bond Street] – it’s a bit expensive, but the food is just too good. I also still like the Mercer Hotel [147 Mercer Street] for lunches or breakfasts. It’s still a gathering place for a certain lofty yet palatable fashion crowd. I interviewed Hedi Slimane there. Last time I was there for a breakfast – a month ago with entrepreneur Matt Jacobson – I ran into Massimo Piombo, Jean Paul Gaultier (really) was in one corner and Doutzen Kroes was at another table. I thought I’d gone back to the 1990s. Grown-up chic. I’m often at the Crosby Street Hotel [79 Crosby Street] too, for meetings. For lunch, I’m a regular at Sant Ambroeus [265 Lafayette Street]. Photographers seem to gravitate there and the maître d’ Alireza is the epitome of the animateur. And there are some great Japanese restaurants on the west side of Thompson Street.
Finally, what’s the best soundtrack to listen to when wondering the streets of SoHo?
Easy. Lou Reed.