BY Claire Stern
Three weeks after Hurricane Sandy pummeled the northeast on Oct. 29, street-level stores in flood-damaged buildings in downtown Manhattan are still struggling to cope with the fallout from the storm.
Three feet of water poured through the pod-like hallways of Comme des Garçons’ all white, spaceship boutique at 520 West 22nd Street between Tenth and Eleventh avenues. According to a saleswoman for Rei Kawakubo’s high-end Japanese fashion label, who declined to give her name, the staff prepared for the storm by stowing away most of the goods, which are priced as high as $2,670 for an oversized wool blend cotton coat. After a thorough cleaning, the store reopened on Nov. 8.
The neighboring Balenciaga, which sat on a lower floor than Comme des Garçons, closer to Eleventh Avenue, remains shuttered. The Spanish label’s subterranean cave-like space at 542 West 22nd Street was also flooded with three feet of water, but in this case, much of the store’s stock of clothing, shoes and accessories was damaged, including former creative director Nicolas Ghesquière’s range of several thousand-dollar “Motorcycle” handbags, which are colored leather satchels with stud detailing. A sign posted in front of the store said it will remain closed until further notice.
“We completely flooded and all merchandise was destroyed,” said Svetlana Sysoeza, a wholesale intern at Balenciaga. Rumors circulated that Balenciaga may ditch its Chelsea space entirely for a newly announced Soho store, but Sysoeza maintained that they could reopen on West 22nd Street in January. Other representatives of the company declined to comment.
The design of the Balenciaga boutique was ill-equipped for flooding. A glass, garage-style door on the street led down a long, dimly lit cavern to the store below. Eclectic fashions hung from clothing racks just a few feet off the ground—close enough to fall victim to water damage—and the handbags were tacked on to white brick columns that supported the underground refuge.
Claudio Ama, 36, a construction worker at AJC Interior Renovation, an interior renovations firm that specializes in high-end development projects, arrived in Chelsea on Oct. 31, two days after the storm hit, to work on the Sumi Gallery at 540 West 22nd Street, next door to Balenciaga. Ama said the streets in Chelsea were flooded from 20th to 28th streets, between Tenth and Eleventh avenues. At Sumi Gallery, he and his team removed all the soaking wet contents of the store.
“We don’t know what kind of water’s here,” said Ama. “[Or] what kind of chemical’s in the water.”
Retailers uptown were slightly more fortunate. Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets closed for two days, with no loss of power in the store. Eleven other Saks locations were closed between one and five days, as well as 15 of the company’s OFF 5th outlet stores. According to Julia Bentley, senior vice president of investor relations and communications at Saks Inc., none of Saks’ properties sustained any physical damage. But Saks did suffer some financial losses: For the two weeks after the storm, company-wide sales were weak. Bentley estimated that about 60 percent of Saks’ store sales base was impacted by the storm, though sales have since rebounded.
Over in Herald Square, Macy’s, which neither lost power nor sustained any damage, was mobbed with shoppers when it opened at 11 a.m. two days after the storm. According to Dr. Ryan Fuller, clinical director at New York Behavioral Health, a psychiatric care center in Midtown East, New Yorkers may have flocked to Macy’s in search of shelter in a safe place with heat. He also hypothesized that the influx of crowds there was an example of experiential avoidance, a symptom of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in which people escape from internal aversive thoughts or feelings by engaging in impulsive behaviors, such as shopping. From a biochemical standpoint, these distractions can have an effect similar to a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI), a class of antidepressants, by bolstering serotonin for lower levels of anxiety.
Fuller says there are several strategies to deal with post-traumatic stress after a frightening event like a hurricane. One method of coping is to engage in something enjoyable, in order to shift thoughts and attentions away from whatever one is avoiding.
“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to hear that people who experience trauma were buying more alcohol, engaging in other impulsive behaviors, sleeping more—or sleeping less,” said Fuller. “They might be engaging in behaviors that they didn’t normally, or not to the same frequency, as a way of avoiding or escaping the internal experience which might be these difficult memories, feelings, sensations and thoughts.”