Wardrobe Stylist to the Stars Needs New Home for Her Vintage Garb
Posted February 4, 2018 8:32 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — From the third-floor window of a Long Island City warehouse, Helen Uffner recalled a time not long ago when she could see the landmark Clock Tower and the trains that roared above on miles of elevated track. But her view is now partially obstructed by an unfinished, glittering residential tower.
In the last decade, similar buildings have popped up like wildflowers in the Court Square section of Long Island City, a slowly fading industrial hub in Queens near the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. The area’s residential boom has gradually squeezed out tenants like Uffner, who have long occupied New York City’s industrial spaces.
For Uffner, owner of Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing, a premier source of period clothing for television, film and Broadway shows, this scene feels much like déjà vu. In 2007, she moved her business to Long Island City from West 37th Street in Manhattan’s garment district after her landlord announced plans to redevelop the building. Now, her current landlord, LargaVista, gave her and many of the other tenants inside the four-story warehouse on 41st Avenue until the end of February to leave.
“There’s no place to go,” Uffner said. “It’s not just me, but all of the ancillary businesses that are in the costume industry. People who make and create clothes can’t afford to be here.”
Inside of the 6,200-square-foot space, Uffner’s collection is a walk through time, comprising a vast array of dresses, coats, shoes and accessories. There are watches, walking sticks, jewelry and hair combs dating from the mid-1800s through the 1980s. Victorian and Edwardian frocks line double-stacked racks. Thousands of caps, including replicas of the stovepipe hat Abraham Lincoln wore, are piled high in boxes along the walls.
A green flower-pattern dress hung near the entrance of the loft near a photo of Beyoncé, who wore it in the 2008 film “Cadillac Records.” A sweater-vest Tom Hanks donned in the 2015 movie “Bridge of Spies” was affixed to a mannequin. Over the years, Uffner also provided clothing for the films “The Color Purple,” “Out of Africa” and “Mona Lisa Smiles,” just to name a few.
“You go to Lincoln Center and the costumes are from Helen Uffner,” said Elizabeth Lusskin, president of LIC Partnership, a neighborhood development organization. “It’s a challenging situation.”
Uffner, 69, said she has looked at new rental properties in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Westchester and Orange County. She even searched in Long Island City, where rents have jumped to between $25 and $33 a square-foot. She currently pays $16 a square-foot.
The mayor’s office also tried to help. She was invited to meet with the city’s Economic Development Corp. for consideration at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but she did not qualify for the project, which targeted manufacturers or employers with one employee for every 1,000 square-feet, she said.
“We have been in close contact with her and are concerned about Ms. Uffner’s eviction,” said Stephanie Browne, spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. Browne said the city cannot get involved in lease negotiations between private parties, but offered Uffner “several city-owned properties to consider, but she has expressed that none of those options suit her needs.”
Uffner said the spaces she has seen were either too small, had low ceilings, no elevator or the rent was too high. Some landlords tack on a facilities fee, a water fee and a service fee, further driving up expenses and are offering only short-term leases. She said she also needs to be close to Midtown’s Broadway theaters, and accessible by subway. But with time running out she is considering another option: selling her collection and shutting down the business she started four decades ago in her Upper East Side apartment.
“It’s just sad,” Uffner said, choking back tears. “I feel in a way a steward of this collection. It’s like giving these things a new life.”
LargaVista bought the warehouse last year and placed her on a month-to-month lease, Uffner said.
“We are sympathetic to Ms. Uffner’s situation,” said Lisa Linden, spokeswoman for LargaVista, who noted that the company offered relocation assistance. “She has had a long, illustrious career.”
Linden said the developers plan to “bring the building into the 21st Century” with a new lobby, elevators and a heating and cooling system for industrial and office use, but there is no space for Uffner’s collection.
In the last two decades, rezoning in Long Island City has led to an explosion of residential development, much of it for luxury housing. As of last May, 26 apartment buildings with more than 9,000 units were under construction or in the planning stages.
“Sadly and almost tragically there’s no affordable housing baked into those plans,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, a member of City Council who represents Long Island City and is also trying to help Uffner. He said small businesses have been hard hit by skyrocketing rents. “We’ve lost light manufacturing businesses because the space is being converted from industrial to residential.”
Van Bramer added, “You can’t have a thriving neighborhood without small businesses.” Uffner said the city should consider creating incentives for developers to include spaces for businesses like hers.
“While New York is touting the fact that they’re making billions bringing in productions, they’re just not doing anything to ensure the existence of businesses that service the productions, especially the costume departments,” she said.
The city provides incentives for companies to move into neighborhoods, but “not for those wishing to stay in the area,” Lusskin said.
“We think this is an urgent issue if our city is to remain strong, with a diverse mix of businesses and jobs,” she said. “Otherwise, we will keep losing great companies and people to places outside the city, and often the state.”