Nearly 50 years ago, British composer Tony Hatch stood in Times Square and was inspired to write “Downtown.” The lyrics—sung by Petula Clark and covered by countless bands since—speak of losing oneself in the neon lights and sidewalks thronged with people. Today, it’s downtown that’s nowhere to be found. One would be hard pressed to identify its whereabouts in any major city, cluttered as they all are with slick, sprawling condos no average-salaried (but nonetheless interesting) person can afford. The original bohemians—the Café Wha? musicians and artists who eked out a living downtown while making it desirable cultural grounds for bourgeois gentrification—have fled to ever-shrinking, sketchier pastures. Ironically, their new addresses are further and further from the city core once essential to downtown’s DNA.
Like its residents, downtown has migrated. It now lives in the mind. The word has become shorthand for tough/ edgy/cool design. Graffiti has moved from the furtive cover of darkness and concrete alleyway canvases to makeup palettes, coffee-table books, Louis Vuitton handbags and museum walls. And this fall, in the final affirmation that downtown has drifted from place to concept, Calvin Klein is launching Downtown, the fragrance. Its spokes model, Rooney Mara, with her split identity as tough Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and product of a privileged Westchester County girlhood, is the perfect face.
The timing is no coincidence. Punk: Chaos to Couture, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s summer exhibition at the Costume Institute, earned inexplicably big buzz and got us thinking about city life as we once knew it. The installation traced the punk movement’s fashion rebellion from its birthplace in London to New York at hardcore clubs like CBGB to the appropriated studs and safety pins of haute couture, where they were worn, not in flesh as underground performance artist Leigh Bowery had worn them, but in gossamer silk and taffeta. The rebellion commodified.
When I speak with Calvin Klein women’s creative director Francisco Costa by phone about the scent and its vibe, he is at the Cannes Film Festival, dressing stars like Naomie Harris. If downtown is a state of mind, it doesn’t get more uptown than the Croisette red carpet, all haute couture gowns and million-dollar diamonds. With the fragrance’s unexpectedly sweet pink cap and soft, floral—not at all subversive—notes, I have to wonder what Costa knows of the place, real or imagined.
Turns out, plenty. Costa transplanted from Guarani, a small town near Rio de Janeiro, to New York City in 1985. “Sexually, I experienced gay pride for the first time. I had no idea that one could be that free in New York City, in America.” Costa remembers that heady time as a sexual revolution. “All of a sudden we were experiencing this punk-ness of everybody out there!” He was part of social advocacy groups like Act Up and a regular at demonstrations. “AIDS was strong, and Reagan was being such a bitch about the whole thing, so there was that spirit of rebellion.”
Soon afterwards, and in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash, the downtown-cool aesthetic trickled up and onto designer runways of the early 1990s, epitomized by Kate Moss in Calvin Klein, who, unlike curvaceous Brooke Shields in the ’80s, was an androgynous waif in slouchy jeans, a starving artist in a walk-up. Then, in his infamous spring 1993 collection for Perry Ellis, Marc Jacobs showed layered grunge that made him popular with critics but got him fired. His mix was tony: Under all that sloppy plaid flannel shirting, the thermal underwear layers were cashmere: pauvreté de luxe.
Like punk, 20 years later grunge’s luxurious, romanticized poverty has resurfaced—last spring at Dries Van Noten and, for fall, on the Saint Laurent runway. Hedi Slimane sent out babydoll dresses and slouchy flannel shirts that make downtown haute (as does the accompanying ad campaign populated by rock denizens like Courtney Love, whose natural 1990s habitat was CBGB). It’s Jacobs’ old trick, but now that DBGB (Daniel Boulud’s Bowery eatery) is the acronym rolling off the downtown-dwelling stockbrokers’ tongues, the timing is better—they’re selling like cronuts.
Calvin Klein’s current collection plays with urban codes in a slicker arrangement: A mean-cut reflective green trench with wide lapels is equal parts luxe bonded vinyl, The Ramones and Lisbeth Salander’s motorcycle jacket—an uptown topper with a downtown inflection. > “I like the idea of protectiveness,” Costa explains. “And I also love the idea of getting that one amazing coat for the season and wearing it over and over so that it becomes you, you become the coat.” Sid Vicious would appreciate the lived-in leather sentiment, although more for debauched lifestyle than for style.
CK One’s phenomenal success as the world’s first commercial unisex scent in 1994, and its groundbreaking ad campaign shot by Steven Meisel, depicting skinheaded, moto-booted downtowners talking as if at a concrete cocktail party, so aptly represented the era’s androgyny, acceptance, sexuality and deviance that the brand has much to live up to. “What represents today—us?” asks the designer. The answer may lie in that pink cap.
Because New York is so very different from when Costa first arrived. “In terms of the art movement and SoHo when it was happening, there was so much newness,” he says. “You could see the most modern, the coolest, the most innovative, you could lose yourself, go to the craziest bars, after-hours.”
About Lower Manhattan in that era, Costa enthuses, “Oh my god, it was so much fun!” He enumerates ’80s hot spots: “How about Area, Save the Robots, The World…” He trails off. Today the block that housed Area nightclub, at 157 Hudson St., has been turned into multi-million-dollar lofts.
The rebels who colonized Lower Manhattan were forced to occupy bohemian Brooklyn (and are now fleeing to rural upstate as Wall Streeters colonize that borough). “I couldn’t possibly live downtown,” Costa goes on ruefully, lamenting that he spent his cash on clothes, not real estate. “I live in mid- town,” he adds with a sly chuckle before bursting into laughter. “That’ll be the next fragrance!”
Mara, Mara On The Wall:
Before she was the face of Calvin Klein’s new fragrance, Rooney Mara and her onscreen persona as Stieg Larsson’s avenging cyberpunk Lisbeth Salander were a major inspiration for Francisco Costa. The moody black leather and slicked-back hair permeated the fall 2012 Calvin Klein collection, where the 28- year-old star sat front row.
“You imagine that the harshness she’s played in the movies lives with her at all times,” says Costa. “The reality is she’s a gorgeous, soft, feminine woman.” The perfume notes reflect that juxtaposition: velvety pear and gardenia with violet against masculine woody notes of Texas cedar and vetiver.
Mara’s reality is more complex than brooding vamp. She grew up in Bedford, N.Y., one of four children (sister Kate Mara stars in the Netflix exclusive series House of Cards) of NFL New York Giants team executive Tim Mara, whose grandfather founded the franchise (her mother’s family established the Pittsburgh Steelers).
The actress keeps her wardrobe simple (“Most of my clothes are black, white and grey,” she says), in part because she has other concerns. In addition to acting (Mara currently stars opposite Casey Affleck in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), she founded Faces of Kibera (now Uweza), a Kenyan charity that provides food, housing and medical care to AIDS-affected orphans. She recently travelled to South Sudan with Oxfam America, saying the area was “probably one of the most amazing places I have ever been or will ever visit.”
But New York, where the perfume imagery was photographed, remains her happy place. “There are people from all over doing a million different things and you can walk around for hours and hours surrounded by people, but be totally alone and in your world.”