By Randi Gollin
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 29, 2010; 6:26 PM
About 11 years ago, when my husband and I were newlyweds decorating our first apartment in Park Slope, we would make weekend pilgrimages to a low-glam stretch of Atlantic Avenue running through Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, downtown Brooklyn and Brooklyn Heights to troll for eclectic furnishings. At the time, this commercial corridor, bounded by the East River and Flatbush Avenue and home to the first Benjamin Moore factory in the 1880s and an Ex-Lax factory in the 1920s, was truly antiques central.
Creaky floors, musty air, rickety stairs: All added to the romance of unearthing that perfect coffee table, surely hidden beneath a blanket of dust. But instead of scooping up vintage treasures, we fell under the spell of Rico, a contemporary lighting newcomer with a living-room feel owned by designer-sculptor Rico Espinet?. We accumulated fixtures from his collection for every nook and cranny of our place. And because woman cannot live on lamps alone, I was also drawn to Butter, an au-courant mecca across the street filled with the edgiest womenswear.
"There were so many antiques stores back then that people would come from the tri-state area to shop," recalled Espinet recently. "My logic was that they already had furniture, so they must need lighting, too. I was the first of my type here."
Rico has since mushroomed into a sprawling showroom for directional lighting, furniture, case goods and artwork. Ever-chic Butter has evolved into Eva Gentry, a minimalist designer den spotlighting such fashion-forward labels as Ann Demeulemeester, Rick Owens, Dries Van Noten and Maison Martin Margiela?all. Myriad independent shops have hopped aboard Atlantic, too. Some, like Darr, the Gothic go-to for a taxidermied black grizzly bear and bell jars, and its steampunk-esque menswear sibling Hollander & Lexer?, were enticed by the pioneering Espinet himself.
And as nearly every clothes-minded Brooklynite knows, Barneys New York Co-opCO-OP, the free-standing offspring of Barneys New York, has just opened its 21st branch here in the historic landmark district of Cobble Hill, across the street from Sahadi's, a longtime source of Middle Eastern gourmet foods, and pita purveyor Damascus Bakery.
So what's an uber-fashionable laboratory for emerging designers doing on a strip like Atlantic?
"The Co-op sensibility was always a downtown-hipster sensibility, so the fit in Brooklyn is really good," explained Simon Doonan?, Barneys New York's famed creative director, as he squired me around the street level of the two-floor, 10,000-square-foot space, a loftlike looker with white poured-resin floors, burlap-faced mannequins and a knockout dressing room area hung with colorful, site-specific silhouette portraits from Brooklyn artist Carter Kustera?. Doonan's witty vision is in the house, but streamlined, allowing the products to shine.
"We wanted it to feel like an abandoned factory building," Doonan said. "It's definitely got a sophisticated, low-tech vibe: It feels like a warehouse that's been re-purposed." Lending contrast, the lower level feels almost like a snug cabin, with reclaimed pine floors, casual threads and high-end denim.
The store's arrival also coincides with the Co-op concept's 25th? anniversary, and in celebration, the racks boast exclusive limited-edition pieces commissioned from A.L.C., Alexander Wang, 3.1 Phillip Lim, Rag & Bone, Raleigh Denim, Vena Cava?all and other hot properties. Though it's early days, Doonan anticipates that the on-trend womenswear and menswear, jewelry and handbags will be snapped up by the same style sleuths who once patronized Manhattan Co-ops and now reside nearby.
Having watched the boutiques nearby proliferate, I see this fashion hothouse as the crowning touch to an already vibrant retail scene. "A bit of gentrification, seeing commerce coming in, is a life-affirming thing," agreed Doonan. "It means people believe in the future of the neighborhood."
To many merchants, the Co-op is indeed a positive force. Eva Dayton, who owns and runs Eva Gentry and Eva Gentry Consignment with her husband, Gentry, and the "help of a very awesome staff and our little dog named Dirt," quipped that if asked, her spouse would have volunteered with construction to hasten its opening. "We've enjoyed seeing a lot of new stores open up, coming from the city, like Steven Alan?, Urban Outfitters and Trader Joe's," she said. "This is just adding to the excitement.!"
"If anything, it validates what we're doing and makes the area more of a destination," said women's clothing designer Miranda Bennett?, who opened the spare-but-funky boutique the Banquet with Pamela Johnston?, designer of Plume, a jewelry and accessories line, in January 2009. For some Manhattanites, she added, this design-driven thoroughfare is "the first stop of discovery in the 'other' borough." As I thumb through Bennett's goddess-y silk dresses and Plume's tactile bangles, it dawns on me that this dynamic duo embodies an independent spirit that's still alive and kicking on Atlantic.
It's that potent combination of mavens and mavericks that attracted Kate McGregor?, who opened a branch of her Lower East Side eco-centric clothing boutique Kaight? in a former gallery space in September. While biking about Atlantic Avenue, she realized that much had changed retail-wise in the five years since she had lived in nearby Cobble Hill. "I was really impressed by the shops on the street," she told me. "There definitely was a customer base here, and it gave me the sense that the stores must be supported by the community."
That local contingent has also flocked to the corner shop Jodi Arnold?, which the acclaimed designer opened in late July, on the heels of her Greenwich Village store. Boutique ownership has allowed Arnold to get to know her customer directly. That woman, she said, is "intelligent, engaged, curious" ¿ and she's searching for a shopping experience that's "a little bit different."
As I tiptoe around the calfskin rugs, surrounded by captivating art and books and Arnold's covetable embellished designs, I realize that browsing Atlantic has become a bona fide adventure.
And luckily, that old magic still pervades. Perhaps trailblazer Eva Dayton said it best: "Atlantic Avenue has always been a destination for furniture and antiques. That's the best part of the neighborhood, and I hope it doesn't change."
Gollin is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. Her Web site is