HOW PEARL RIVER MART BECAME A FASHION DESTINATION – OPENINGCEREMONY.COM BY ALICE HINES | TUE. FEBRUARY 9, 2016
In the spring of 1997, John Galliano showed a coterie of cheongsam dresses in one of his first collectionsfor Dior. (“The hot new long look for evening,” wrote the New York Times.)
In the fall of 1997, Helmut Lang sent models down the runway wearing black-and-white Kung Fu slippers. (“This shoe is like a mantra,” Candy Pratts Price told the paper.)
It was a turning point for Pearl River Mart, the Chinatown emporium which had sold cheongsam dresses and Kung Fu slippers long before late-’90s fashion insiders decided to embrace chinoiserie. And from then on, it sold a lot more of them.
“We never meant to be part of fashion,” said Pearl River’s president Ching Yeh Chen, recalling the long love affair between her 45-year-old department store and New York City’s fashion community. “But then we got recognized. Our existence became part of fashion.” In the ’90s, Sassy stylists and designers like Isaac Mizrahi made rummaging through the store’s racks of silk pajamas a downtown pastime. Meanwhile, Pearl River evolved to serve its new influx of customers with inventory that was cheeky, creative, and cheap (particularly if you were used to Dior prices).
I met Mrs. Chen the other day in the tea mezzanine above Pearl River’s 30,000-square-foot Broadway space. At 70, she still works six days a week in the store alongside her husband, 77-year-old founder Ming Yi Chen. Over a fragrant jasmine brew, we talked about the store’s history. In 1971, when it first opened, “Nobody even knew what Soy Sauce was,” she remembered. “We were starting from there.” At that time, Chinese goods were hardly accessible in the United States, thanks to a trade ban in effect for more than two decades. The original Pearl River was filled with goods imported via Hong Kong or Canada: sweetened kumquats and sliced jellyfish, as well as Maoist books and Cultural Revolution posters. For Mr. Chen, an activist and chemistry PhD who came to the United States for graduate school, this was as more than a mom-and-pop operation: it was a political statement.
That following year, trade embargos loosened following President Nixon’s visit to China. Enter the paper lanterns, Tiger Balm, and later, bamboo furniture and Japanese porcelain that would make Pearl River one of the city’s most singular shopping experiences. When it first opened, shoppers were almost entirely Chinese. By 1986, when Pearl River moved into a larger space on Canal Street, shoppers was about 50 percent Chinese, 50 percent a mish-mash of greater New York. “People came here and felt this was a secret that no one else knows,” Mrs. Chen said. “It became a treasure island.”
In the ‘90s, items from the store started to appear in fashion editorials. One paired a satin pajama top with Marques’Almeida-esque denim, another styled one with “accessories from Betsey Johnson’s personal wardrobe.” For a Seventeen shoot in 2000, Christina Aguilera went on a shopping spree at Pearl River, brandishing a Samurai sword and getting inside a giant paper dragon. (Caption: “Genie In a New Year’s Eve Mask?”) As writer Michelle Chen, Mr. and Mrs. Chen’s daughter, wrote in an essay about the evolution of the store, “The atmosphere of swirling SinoChic embodies the steady gentrification of the store from a proletarian mom-and-pop affair to a one-stop shop for all of your Asian kitsch needs.”
Last year, Mr. and Mrs. Chen announced they would close their location on Broadway in the coming months. It’s the sad Soho cliché: rents are impossibly high. The store’s long-time fans are mourning. “My heart is just broken in half to hear that it’s closing,” Isaac Mizrahi told me in an email. “What will the next generation of chic New Yorkers ever do without Pearl River!?”
Mrs. Chen promises that the brand will live on—the store is looking for a smaller retail location in Manhattan, as well as hoping to expand its online business. Meanwhile, Pearl River is catapulting into the fashion world like never before: it’s first true collaboration, with Opening Ceremony, launched this week. “Pearl River was one of the first stores I ever visited after moving to New York,” said OC’s Humberto Leon. “It was a go-to for everything you can imagine, and a staple of downtown New York’s fabric of culture. We wanted to do something to celebrate this New York landmark.”
Opening Ceremony Celebrates Pearl River is a fusion: of East and West, old and new. One pair of Chinese slippers comes in denim. If it had a mantra, it would be 祝你长命百岁. Translation: Pearl River, may you live a long life!
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