Sarah Jessica Parker is a working girl — even during a summer when it seemed that no one was at work.
While many of her bold-faced celebrity and designer peers have holed up in their mansions in L.A. or emigrated out to the Hamptons (she does go there, too), each week the actress has been stationed at her new midtown Manhattan flagship, helping customers try on shoes, three shoppers at a time, masks required, hand sanitizer at the front door.
It’s the kind of face-to-face treatment that grabbed headlines when she opened her first shop three years ago. Still, when it comes down to the biological fight-or-flight response that the pandemic has many times elicited, it’s a wonder that she is there at all.
But in the COVID era, Parker has adopted the position of intrepid shopkeeper — and not just to boost sales. As a nearly lifelong New Yorker, she is passionate about getting people back into the city, and back into stores.
“You just can’t give up on this city,” she said. “All of us are feeling very tired of the headlines of ‘New York is dead.’ I don’t think it’s helpful, and I really wish papers would stop writing that. There are really serious issues happening in our city, and some of them have only been highlighted by the pandemic in terms of the inequitable economy.”
The actress and entrepreneur is one of hundreds of business owners around New York who are muddling through, pondering how to make the best out of an extended crisis that includes a fleeing population, halted tourism, shuttered storefronts, tentative reopening phases and strict health codes. Even as virus case numbers in the state have remained low this month, the threat of a second wave looms large — and a sense that anything could change in a minute.
The actress gave a glimpse of her new routine when she greeted FN the day of her cover shoot: Mask always on, no frills, minimal crew. Having dressed herself, done her own makeup and brought with her only longtime hairstylist Serge Normant, the actress carved out time to pose for photos, give a tour of the new space and try on pair after pair of shoes with her signature ease — but only long enough so that she wasn’t keeping her shoppers waiting too long.
“Our story is going to sound very familiar to small business owners across our city, across our state and frankly probably across the country,” Parker said during the shoot. “The second that the governor said that Phase 3 was official and that we could meet the requirements to open and operate a safe shop, we [decided to] not only live by those guidelines but honor them with enthusiasm. We’ve tried to be good stewards for the city and for small businesses.”
The new shop, which Parker opened July 7 with business partner George Malkemus at 31 W. 54th St. (more on that later) remains a showcase for the type of hands- on customer service that the actress has prioritized in her 6-year-old brand.
“The best part about retail is the customer. It is truly the most fun, the most surprising, the most mysterious, the most inspiring thing — being in a room, on the floor with a customer,” Parker said. “You can’t be in retail without understanding what it means to connect. For us in these times, it’s been a lifeline to be in the store. It’s been an antidote.”
Parker’s in-person appearances at her stores (there are now nine worldwide) are also a big part of the brand’s overall business strategy. It goes something like this: A shoe purchase serves as the unofficial ticket price for living out the fantasy of shoe shopping with Parker, who may or may not be channeling Carrie Bradshaw. And for the actress — who is patiently waiting for Broadway to open back up — shopping as theater makes more sense than most retail endeavors out there nowadays.
While the actress herself has been deliberate in stepping outside her iconic “Sex and the City” character and the fashion it inspired, the SJP Collection has always carried with it an identifiable thread of Carrie’s appeal (and her lust for footwear).
There were sparkly Carrie-esque heels from the get-go, and a questionable homage to the Manolo Blahnik Hangisi pump of Mr. Big marriage-proposal fame. This year brought the “Hello Lover” shoes, a pair of mismatched black- and-white pumps referencing a scene in which Carrie pines for a pair of hot-pink Christian Louboutin sandals for one last night with Mr. Big before he moves to Napa. A mannequin in the store models a black tutu for sale (“You may or may not recognize her,” its website description reads cheekily). The brand’s site also carries a link to the official “Sex and the City” Hotspots Tour, where a ticket comes with a 10% discount for the Midtown SJP store.
That the SJP Collection has mined these moments is no surprise. How could anyone resist, after seeing lines outside Magnolia Bakery for decades — not to mention an entire generation of women who moved to New York City hoping to live like Carrie Bradshaw, $40,000 of shoe debt and all?
Of course, when Parker and Malkemus announced last November that they would open their SJP Collection shop in Midtown, a tourist-crushing pandemic was not in the picture. The team had to regroup amid lockdown, assessing not just logistics but also merchandise, especially as the high-heel began to fade from work-from- home wardrobes (although Parker insists her customers are still buying them). “We’ve had long conversations about what now is appropriate for the house, what does a ‘house party shoe’ look like? We are going out less,” she admitted. “But I must confess, women and some men are still buying heels. That is our No. 1 shoe, and not anemically so. Sales are good, I’m so scared to say that.” The two most popular styles continue to be pumps: the Fawn (recently done in a very-Carrie newspaper print) and the Rampling.
While some locals and fashion insiders may scoff at SJP’s association with her SATC character, brands could also learn a thing or two from the kind of immersive, experiential retail that Parker is offering.
Pre-pandemic, New York was already grappling with an unavoidable retail crisis that had been building for years and culminated in the closure of iconic flagships like Lord & Taylor and Barneys New York. What would Carrie Bradshaw have made of the gut-wrenching, clearance-bin demise of her beloved Barneys — or of the rise and fall of New York’s Hudson Yards? After an ostentatious grand opening in March 2019, Neiman Marcus (amid bankruptcy proceedings) pulled out of its anchor spot in the reportedly $25 billion project nearly a year later. And dozens more department stores and retail chains have shuttered their doors in Manhattan this year.
“I would love to see a city that feels more like a bunch of shops like ours — smaller businesses connecting with communities, supporting communities. That’s what we want, that’s what we’re all looking for,” said Parker. “That’s why nostalgia is such a commodity now, because people want to feel connected to something. Maybe we’ve learned that you don’t need a hundred shops across a globe. You need a touchstone, you need a place that feels real to people.”
The actress also has a few ideas on how the city can foster the kind of young creative energy that many — including and especially the fashion world — have yearned for lately. “When we see empty buildings, we always think: Why is that landlord not investing in new designers, why is that landlord not reaching out and saying, ‘Listen, the building is paid off, come in here young designers and young thinkers and booksellers. And instead of charging you crazy rents, I’m going to take a little cut of your business.’ That seems fair. That’s a way of encouraging growth, encouraging new sources of revenue — and of being a city that’s still a place of ideas,” she said.
It’s the type of entrepreneurial spirit that Malkemus brought to Manolo Blahnik when he set out to help the Spanish designer build his U.S. business from the very address that SJP now calls home. From 1998 until last year, 31 W. 54th St. housed Blahnik’s New York boutique, where Parker’s Bradshaw shopped for too many shoes and famously registered for a marriage to herself.
When Malkemus officially parted ways with Blahnik in December, opting out of a renewal on the North and South America licensing agreement that they had shared since 1982, the building stayed in his hands — turns out, he (with partner Anthony Yurgaitis) had owned it all along. After the dust had cleared (and a sample sale to endall sample sales was held down the block at the Warwick Hotel), Malkemus and Parker set out to give the space new life for their own brand.
“It was an enormously fortuitous event that it became available to us and this business. We were both thrilled and daunted by its history,” said Parker. “Yes, I have memories in this building, in this store. I have real, sincere memories of making purchases, of not making purchases, looking at stuff — and then its role in ‘Sex and the City’ and the way we got to be in this store and work with George and the sales associates.”
For Manolo diehards, the new shop may tug at heartstrings. But for the larger cross-section of shoe lovers, many of whom were introduced to the designer through “Sex and the City,” stepping foot into the shop is like entering a triangle where shoe mythology hits from every angle. Some part of it will be irresistible, be it the history, the cinematic legacy or the shoes themselves, which are as sparkly and high-heel- driven as ever.
For Malkemus, who watched sales of Blahnik’s Hangisi pump skyrocket on the weekends over the past decade, as tourists ventured into the shop from the Museum of Modern Art across the street, the allure lies in SJP’s price points ($275 to $595), plus the priceless opportunity to go shoe shopping with Parker. It’s part of why he’s hoping to shift the brand’s current sales ratio of 70% e-commerce, 30% brick-and-mortar to a more even split, and even tilt it in the other direction.
The other reason? He also wants the city to come back: “I don’t think anyone epitomizes New York City more than Sarah Jessica Parker,” said Malkemus. “We talk about it every day, how we have to get this city back. We think that by encouraging brick-and-mortar, we’ll only get it back faster.”
Once New York regains its post-pandemic footing, the success of the shop may ultimately lie in the question that many of Parker’s fans might ask themselves when they enter: Would Carrie want to shop here?
“I think shoppers are shoppers. My guess is she wouldn’t be as fevered as she was then. She might discover she needs less,” said Parker of how her shadow character might shop in today’s pandemic-era New York. “But I have a feeling that she would still be somebody who really loves the experience of walking into a store, especially a store where she has a history, and feeling a connection to something. She would tell you it’s irrational and silly a lot of the time, but for her, it’s a way of connecting with something where she sees beauty.”