Offbeat boutiques turn Village into fashion alley

By Roslyn Kramer

“Our Fall Collections Have Arrived” boasts the business card of a West Village boutique. And that’s just Betwixt, at 245 W. 10th St., catering to preteens and juniors (and the occasional small-boned adult). Collections are popping up all over the West Village in small, youthful boutiques, each with its own distinctive style. So distinctive that if anything has a must-have allure for you, grab it, as one shop owner advises her customers. “It sound like a line but it’s true,” explains Melbourne-born Elizabeth Charles, whose store bears her name. These are not shops with large inventories.

Not so long ago, collections were virtually nonexistent in the West Village. So were boutiques. About the best-known independent store reflecting the owners’ quirky, individual taste was Garber, the venerable nails-to-plungers hardware emporium that’s just moved to Greenwich St. (rumored to be making way for a new stratospherically priced boutique, as recently reported in The Villager).

Virtually the lone exception has been NJB, a stylish outpost that has managed to thrive for 25 years until the recent influx of small hard-to-find storefronts. NJB at first stood for Not Just Baskets. But the baskets have long since gone from 15 Eighth Ave. (near 12th St) and the shop has morphed into an intriguing array of affordable casual and dressy clothes, very-in delicate jewelry, stockings and socks, and at the moment, fancifully decorated at-home slippers that come in gift bags (an easy fit if you don’t know a friend’s shoe size).

Owner Ruth Wales carries youthful dressy dresses, separates, shirts and sweaters, including cashmeres. Not to mention accessories: gloves, hats and often-distinctive scarves. NJB is into the trend of the moment — black sheer fabric, lace or mesh, layered over pink for a seductive, subtly sexy evening look. Like other West Village shops, you’re sure to come across an unexpected original — such as, recently, a white sweater with white flower appliqués at the roll-neck and hip. NJB often has easy but youthful pants suits for dressy and casual wear.

Five years ago Sleek on Bleecker bloomed at 381 Bleecker St. Now it’s named The Otter, in both incarnations memorializing the striking coiffure of owner David Valle’s wife.

There’s always something to covet at The Otter. Right now an elegant rose-colored V-neck satin blouse with petal sleeves is irresistible. Or a few hangers over there’s the strapless black satin dress with a bow at the waist (a knockout at $155). In search of new designers, Valle has ventured to Prague, where he found the American-born Spooner, creator of an impeccable black velvet evening coat lined in shocking pink. For day-through-evening wearability, Otter has a beautifully cut velvet jacket by Lauren Moffat, with the designer’s signature buttons, that’s become a staple at $274. Currently — or at least five minutes ago — the jacket comes in several colors, but they disappear rapidly. Gray can be unforgiving, but a cashmere Henley and a heavy cotton turtleneck come in skin-flattering tones.

For the very tall, there’s an edgy semi-coat (or maybe a tunic) with a shawl collar and side ring closings.

Continuing north on Bleecker St., let us pause to note the recent arrival of Cynthia Rowley and Ralph Lauren boutiques across the street from the serial three-boutique Marc Jacobs store, before walking to Elizabeth Charles, on the verge of moving from 117 Perry to 639-1/2 Hudson St. Charles carries New Zealand and Australian clothes exclusively, some in soft native wool. Although Charles herself is a petite “Ozzie” redhead, her pants, suits, dresses and coats are generally for tall women. The market isn’t large enough to make specific hem lengths economically workable down under, so many items have plenty of surplus fabric. It’s unlikely you’ll ever find another pair of pants in the Village, and possibly in New York — where Australian fish scales trim the pockets of a pair of light blue cords.

More conservatively, a pin-tucked herringbone men’s fabric is used for pants, jackets and a dramatic unevenly hemmed skirt. Charles has long since sold out of her wildly successful fur boots in rabbit, mink, fox and goat, but they can be ordered.

The owner’s dentist pokes his head in to say hello. “I never thought there’d be such a place in New York with such a friendly atmosphere,” the gamine fur-booted Charles raves.

lucy barnes, also at 117 Perry, sells expensive evening wear, often with full skirts and fitted waists rarely seen today; most memorably, a black circle skirt with embroidery in bronze thread. (barnes does have a straight hip-to-hem casual skirt.) Another rarely seen item is a boned corselet in riveting red. And she breaks from the stately look she does so well in a ruffled chiffon skirt and top that all but sambas out of the store.

At 636 Hudson St., Annelore has beautifully tailored, understated daytime wear by boutique owner Juliana Cho. Manhattan-centric to the last thread, Cho studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Chelsea, and proudly announces that her entire collection, including buttons, hand-knit sweaters, and the print fabric she designs every season, is made in Manhattan. Annelore designs often employ men’s fabric: slacks made in black tuxedo cloth or a coatdress in waterproof linen. Located in her miniscule storefront for a year and a half, Cho loves the neighborhood but worries, “I hope it doesn’t get like Nolita; it’s so charming now.”

A mom-and-pop footnote: both Cho and Charles are business partners with their husbands.

Darling, at 1 Horatio St., covered recently in The Villager, is cute and girly except when it’s adult and businesslike. In the former category, a bomber jacket in rose-printed black corduroy that could be worn with a micro-mini black lace over pink under slip skirt. On the down-to-earth side, Darling is truly unique in having some items made from an environmentally impeccable cotton.

Finally there’s Otte at 121 Greenwich Ave., its store windows resplendent with everything cool. Open less than a year, Otte means “cloths” in Korean. The word does not begin to describe the array of delicately sequined and draped clothes best, but not exclusively, worn by the tall and thin. Otte’s stock is low right now; customer’s seem to buy early and by the armful. But a pre-spring line should arrive soon. Otte stocks blue jeans and casual tops for hanging out. A brushed cotton off-the-shoulder top, at the moment available only in mushroom, is a staple.

Exhausted? One more stop next door at MXYPLYZYK the wonder shop, 125 Greenwich Ave. at 13th St., to fill the gaps in your gift list (a baseball with a subway map: how cool is that?) and as one final indulgence, a hammock to rest in until your next bout of shopping.