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Collective Couture: Young Designers Join Forces

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A designer at work at the Dressing Room on New York City's Lower East Side. (Dina Mann/CNS)

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The Dressing Room has a bar, vintage clothing shop and designer co-op, featured here, all in one space. (Dina Mann/CNS)

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Samantha Sleeper, 20, at work on a pair of pants in the Dressing Room. She is a member of The Dressing Room co-op, a design student at Parsons School of Design and, starting this holiday season, a member of the Love Brigade Co Op, as well. (Dina Mann/CNS)

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Hillary Flowers adjusting merchandise in SoHo's the Changing Room. (Dina Mann/CNS)

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Alyssa Key in the Love Brigade Co Op. (Dina Mann/CNS)

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A view of the gritty streets of Williamsburg from inside the Love Brigade Co Op. (Dina Mann/CNS)

The Dressing Room, on New York’s Lower East Side, is hardly a typical urban hot spot. Sure, its bar has mood lighting, antique mirrors and stained-wood floors. But it also sells designer clothing in styles that range from funky, with wild and crazy colors, to sophisticated, with clean and simple cuts. Designer clothing for sale in a bar? Well, no one ever said that shoppers don’t like to party.

The Dressing Room’s creative approach to retail can also be found in its business plan.

The store operates as a cooperative, with 12 designers splitting the boutique section’s costs, work and profits. It’s a clever concept that many young designers have embraced, especially in New York City, where rents are high and the fashion industry is fiercely competitive. Several co-ops and collectives have formed to allow aspiring and up-and-coming designers to pool expenses, make connections, market their creations and get started in the business.

That’s just what Nikki Fontanella, 31, had in mind when she opened the Dressing Room in July. A former stylist who worked in the music industry, Fontanella had dreamed of owning a clothing shop. “It was my vision to make a creative community center, done elegantly,” she explained. “I like to do things to help creative people.”

“I think it’s a very innovative idea,” said Stephanie Solomon, fashion director at Bloomingdale’s. “It’s already a phenomenon” in Japan and Antwerp, Belgium, two meccas for up-and-coming designers.

At the Dressing Room, designers each pay $275 a month to cover rent. For that, they get space to display their wares, plus access to the basement studio, which is equipped with industrial sewing machines and dress forms. They also commit to work two days a month on the sales floor and to pay 10 percent of each sale to cover overhead expenses.

Cassie Kogler, 24, uses the space mostly as a showroom for her popular New York Couture clothing line. Buyers for boutiques and other retail outlets can come into the Dressing Room to preview Kogler’s new fashions, and Kogler is able to keep costs down by designing and creating samples at her home on Long Island, a one-hour train ride from the city. Making her distinctive denim jumpers, necktie halter tops and other pieces would be difficult to do in a less spacious--and more expensive--New York City apartment.

Space is one of the things that compelled Hillary Flowers to open the Changing Room, a co-op about a 10-minute walk from the Dressing Room. Flowers, 27, designs club-scene couture and reconstructs vintage clothing. She used to show and sell her wares at Burrow, a co-op that shut down when its rent doubled to $5,000.

That left Flowers in a bind. With all the merchandise crammed into her apartment, the Minnesota native feared her career would stall. Flowers connected with Simone Tarantino, 38, who had a retail space in New York’s SoHo section. Flowers used her industry connections to recruit other designers, and the Changing Room opened for business in February.

Flowers and Tarantino manage the store and rent out clothing racks for between $150 and $900 a month. And of course, Flowers shows her own work. Shortly before Halloween, she offered a visitor a vintage yellow jumper that she had embellished with lace. “Do you want to be Little Bo Peep?” she joked.

While about 20 designers display their fashions at the Changing Room, the shop has a unified atmosphere. “When you walk in, you feel that it’s like a boutique,” Tarantino said. “You don’t feel like it’s a co-op.”

That’s not the case at the Edge in the nearby neighborhood known as NoHo. More than 65 designers sell merchandise out of individual white booths at the Edge, which feels more like an indoor flea market than a boutique. Offerings range from shawls and neckties to jewelry. The prices of booths depend on their size and location in the store.

Location matters in fashion retail, so it’s no surprise that most co-ops are located in trendy neighborhoods in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Love Brigade Co Op, which includes designer Zulema Griffin from Season 2 of “Project Runway,” opened in early October in the hipster haven of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. After the owners of the Love Brigade clothing line realized they didn’t have enough merchandise to fill the storefront they had leased, they recruited other designers to share the space. “Our mission is to strengthen the independent design community, so that it’s here to stay and not just a passing fad,” said Alyssa Key, 28, CEO and co-founder of Love Brigade.

Whatever the form of ownership--one or two owners who rent out a space, or joint ownership by participating designers--all collectives must grapple with financial issues. Covering costs is a must. Making a profit is a like winning a prize. So far, the Dressing Room co-op has broken even every month. Its affiliated vintage-clothing shop (in the basement) and the bar (separated from the boutique by a Victorian window partition) provide additional financial support.

And the history of its neighborhood doesn’t hurt, either. Down the street, the storefront space that now houses the Lower East Side Tenement Museum was, in the 1870s, a tailor shop and a saloon--not so different from the Dressing Room. “This neighborhood is up-and-coming,” Fontanella said. “It’s the location of the original garment industry.”

E-mail: dym2103@columbia.edu