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The downtown scene has long been known for it’s variety, funkiness and edge. But how many stores have a “Cape” section? Or a “1970’s Jumpsuits” section? And how many such stores would be able to withstand the vagaries of the market, rising rents and ever-changing notions of what is hip and fashionable for over 30 years?
Only one: Screaming Mimi’s, our March 2016 Business of the Month.
Screaming Mimi’s is more than a vintage and designer clothing store. Many consider it the ultimate purveyor of cool. Located at 382 Lafayette Street in the Noho Historic District, it was originally displaced by rapid gentrification on the Upper West Side. Attracted by the low rents and avant-garde artistic culture, original owner Laura Wills and her partner opened shop downtown on East 4th Street, around the corner from their current location. There for only a brief time, Screaming Mimi’s was again was compelled to move when the old Tower Records expanded. But as Laura explained, “I’ve always been lucky with spaces.” Next year she will celebrate her Quadranscentennial at their current Noho location.
“There was nothing here” she said of the 1986 opening at 22 East 4th Street. There was the “death diner” on the corner of 4th street for hangover food, and Lafayette Street was empty. People would ask her: “You’re opening where”? The store opening party was probably the most people that have ever been in the store since, she added with her distinct sense of humor. it would years before she saw many of the creative types visit the neighborhood again.
Do you need something for a 1920’s-style wedding, Burning Man, an 80’s prom, or a Spring themed Disco? Screaming Mimi’s has it all. It was after a night dancing and partying at Studio 54 and commiserating with her coworker and later partner that Laura conceived of venturing into her own business. Working at the time at Abraham & Strauss in Brooklyn, Laura and her partner designed what would now be considered a pop-up shop, with an Annie Hall theme à la Diane Keaton. It featured men’s Vintage tweed jackets for women, men’s ties worn as belts, and other looks inspired by the Woody Allen movie. Laura admits the shop wasn’t a great success, but it felt rewarding.
Some mornings at work they’d chat about having seen each other the night before at one of the hot spots at the time, sometimes still wearing the same clothes, and their co-workers would comment, “There go those screaming Mimi’s again.” Laura and her partner thought it was hysterical, and the name has stuck to this day. Screaming Mimi’s refers to a bomb, a magic mushroom in Australia, fireworks, a pulp novel, and a noir film starring Anita Ekberg an original poster of which graced the store’s wall.
Together they each came up with a $1,000 dollars, borrowed from their parents. Laura kept her job at Abraham and Strauss for years. They wondered how they would come up with the $300 rent each month.
Laura reminisced about her landlord, John Sugg. She said he was incredibly generous and wonderful, offering artists low rent spaces. “Really fair landlords just don’t exist,” very much anymore she lamented. Everything was so much easier then, she just wrote a letter to the landlord to get the space.
Of her perseverance as a trendsetter and institution in the word of fashion and New York City, she notes “Progress is good.” But, “preservation came too late.” Such a sentiment is precisely why GVSHP works to promote local businesses like Screaming Mimi’s. “Everything is disappearing,” she said underscoring the radical changes going on at Bond and Great Jones Streets, for example.
Before the new wave of development Laura recalled the time when Time Café marked an era of resurgent artistic flowering. In those days the renowned Fez cabaret had a neighborhood feel with ABBA and Queen nights, and local artists, sometimes stars, dropping in to perform on stage spontaneously.
Cyndi Lauper was her first employee, and helped bolster the historic iconography of Screaming Mimi’s by featuring her coworkers in a video, and lauding the fashion sense of the Noho store, even as she rocketed to super-stardom. Owner Laura became her fashion stylist for the next 15 years, and they have remained friends ever since.
Now “whole blocks are gone in a matter of weeks,” replaced with those “awful” steel and glass structures and retail spaces lacking the more eclectic and unique feel of places like Screaming Mimi’s. Of the screaming pace of real estate in some areas, Laura would find herself wondering “What was just there on that corner?”.
One of the more fascinating questions that arises upon entering any fashionable vintage and designer store with a certain flair and feel is where does it all come from? It is definitely not the contents of one person’s closet or trunk. Laura said she scours the country for the one-of-a-kind pieces that populate her collection, and it is her favorite part of her business. “Not everything has to be bought online.” But she does embrace the modern, and some of her collection can be purchased through their website.
The women’s and men’s clothes, sunglasses and gloves, are all “edited” at Screaming Mimi’s. Everyone can find something there, and there is even an “Under $30” rack by the disco ball.
Fashion students come to collect and wear the funky garb, while costume and fashion designers shop for inspiration. In recent years, Screaming Mimi’s has served the burgeoning Burning Man crowd. Before going on their annual sojourn into the Nevada desert, many “Burners” start their pilgrimage here. One very distinguished man said he was told to go there to solicit her help in finding just the right outfit for his TED talk in the desert. He left the store with a top hat and a kilt.
The genre of theme parties has risen in popularity. Screaming Mimi’s is the natural place for an impressive Halloween period ensemble, but also to dress authentically for that 1980’s themed prom or bar mitzah, 1970’s St. Patrick’s Day fete, or Purim costume party.
Her labels organize the store in a way unlike any other retail store. Sections of coats, shirts, suits, lingerie, or flannels are labeled as if in a living library under genres such as “ Cape” “Gatsby” “Space”, and make the store easy to navigate. To help the shopper better understand “Vintage” and not be intimidated, Laura arranges some sections by the decade, from the 1930’s to the 1980’s, or by costume event category.
Some years ago mystery boxes of clothes were brought in and the donors were quite mum about the source. Turns out they were from the estate of Robert Rauschenberg , across the street, as the name inside some of the clothes revealed. Laura kept some of it like an archivist, much of it with splattered paint. But she did sell a tuxedo to a man without much money that needed one for an awards event at which he was being honored.
To stay in business takes a team, and although she lost her beloved partner in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s and 90’s, she has been able to continually surround herself with creative people who share her vision. Laura has always sought out motivated and upbeat people. Her ideal team member is “someone who I would enjoy having dinner with.” Her wonderful and helpful staff are people who have an appreciation for fashion history and like sharing their knowledge with customers. Because retail can sometimes be challenging, a sense of humor also helps. Her current staff share a passion for fashion and are all adept at creating stylish, creative, and unique outfits and costumes for their clientele.
Screaming Mimi’s is the place to shop for clothes or costumes for really, really, any occasion. You don’t have to be David Bowie to shop in the “Space” section. For strolling around town, biking about, or partying it up with friends dressed like they were from the Great Gatsby, Screaming Mimi’s really has it all. That is why after 37 years total, and 24 at the same Noho location on Lafayette Street, Screaming Mimi’s is our Business of the Month.
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