No Holds Barred: Madison Avenue — Don't call it a comeback! – New York Social Diary

I moved to NYC in 1966 and from the get-go I just wanted to live in an apartment on Madison Avenue (from 61st to 72nd street). Not the village, not Park or Fifth Ave. Madison Avenue became the cultural heartbeat of the 1960s and ’70s and I wanted in the center of that cyclone.
The very avenue of boutiques and galleries represented the explosion of art and fashion. Leo Castelli gallery (off Madison but close enough), eventually the Whitney Museum and others were exploding in pop art. Then Paraphenalia opened up with all those mini plastic dresses displaying optic shaped exposed belly buttons.
There were also offbeat coffee shops like Soup Burg where Jackie Kennedy got her daily hamburger. By the way, Jackie was a major Madison Ave. shopaholic with her multiple pantsuits from Veneziano and her numerous expensive pair of leather low “submarine sized” pumps from Hélène Arpels. Both stores were Madison Ave. stars.
Fifth Avenue was for tourists. Madison Ave. was about Europe and connoisseurs and shopping for discovery. And it was better than Bond Street or Via Candotti or Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It represented a revolutionary lifestyle and an elegant neighborhood. Boutiques were wedged between brownstones and in some cases civil war mansions.
Madison Ave. was the “capital” of the Upper East Side. This wasn’t a horizontal version of a department store. 59th Street to 72nd Street was the original runway to and from style. And amidst all this was a Korean market or two and small Gristedes, many vintage expensive antique stores, a deluxe shoe repair, Art Bag (made and repaired bags), M. J. Knoud saddlery and Trinin Stationers. Books & Company came later and also triumphed.
Eventually anybody fashionably important at least got a “pop up” on Madison Ave. Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet became a staple. Issey Miyake and St. John had a moment. Greenberg’s Desserts was a must. There was also Stark’s Restaurant on the corner of 78th street where everyone overlapped at any hour.
The actual beauty of the street set the rhythm for shopping. There were roughly 10 stores to a block — 5 stories tall — and the sidewalks were wide enough (till the SUV baby carriages came along and created the current gridlock). All the stores were jewel boxes.
I learned and lived my whole early NYC existence walking up and down Madison Ave. — observing people and shopping and not shopping. I got my first whiff of Patchouli at Shelley Marks, a homemade perfumery. Jackie Rogers taught me how a real tuxedo jacket should look and feel (all about the high armhole and single button).
My original experience of Madison Ave. was that it felt narrower than most streets and more European since most foreigners wanted to live near that promenade. It was a unique neighborhood, and you didn’t hear that much English spoken. That was then.
Somebody once told me Madison Ave. was all about appearance. Even before the corporate luxe labels started to open their stores, Fifth Avenue was about being a spectator. But on Madison Ave. you had to be a participant and you walked your look. Madison Ave. was about the shoes! In the ’60s Madison Ave. was the workout — up and down — all the way at least to 79th.
I remember getting my first real haircut in 1966 at Vidal Sassoon salon with its floor to ceiling front window. It was as close to a Beatle as I would ever get. Down the street I met Betsy Johnson at Paraphernalia. She was the height of the swinging ’60s American style. It was Hollywood to me. I even got to do an extended stay once at the Carlyle hotel and met Bobby Short in the elevator (now I wonder if people realize the corner of 76th and Madison is named after him … time moves on).

Soon I did get an apartment around the corner and my first job as a boutique salesgirl in a Madison Ave shop called Bedlam. I bombed because I didn’t have a Twiggy body or an English accent. But I did meet Andy Warhol at the famous Kulicke framer on 77th. Everyone seemed so accessible and up close and personal. There were no cell phones or Insta accounts.
On Monday and Thursday nights people walked the street entertained by open house galleries. Everyone came — and went — and did the window shop tour after. It was the best show in town. It was the height of street fashion then, and people walked Madison till 3:00 AM. Maybe Madison Ave. was the original mall. But it was always interactive, not just “charge and send.” The products and the people were actually inspiring.
I always wanted to live in the Fred Leighton vintage jewelry shop. Actually, it was a corner deco building, but by the time the 1980s arrived and all the designer names took over the streets, something got lost. Sure there was still Halston and Balmain and Pratesi, but suddenly there was Yves Saint-Laurent and Armani and Calvin Klein and DKNY and finally Ralph Lauren, who took over the Rhinelander Mansion on 72nd Street with his men’s, women, and babies wear.
Ralph was the cherry on the cake, and he still holds that crown. BUT … something definitely shifted. Diane Love and my popular Madison Ave. hairdresser Raymond disappeared. Vidal left, Betsy Bunky and Nini closed, and Pumpkin and Monkeys (kids) evacuated. Madison Ave. got stuck and stale. Soho became the shopping Mecca. Only the rich old ladies walking arm in arm with their caregivers became the regulars. Madison still had Zitomer’s pharmacy and Boyd’s chemists and Sotheby’s, but the eateries felt like assisted living.
Trendy became seriously expensive and not all that interesting. Leave it for the Chinese and Russians to do. And that’s the language you heard on Madison Ave. I left for Los Angeles and never came back as a New Yorker again. By the way, though I lost Madison Ave, LA’s Rodeo Drive or Santa Monica’s Montana Ave never really did it for me either.
When I did come back to NYC as a visitor, I kept looking for my last “youthquake” existence along Madison Ave. and all I felt were ghosts. It became another mall — no longer a street of creativity and treasures — nor did it “teach me” anything anymore. Even the Carlyle’s Bemelmans Bar was loaded with kids taking selfies and no one listened to the music. Music? Was there music?
In 2017 the street hit a new crisis and socioeconomically everything started to slide off the grid. By 2019 it fell into COVID closures. Suddenly Madison Ave. looked like a vacated war zone. The remaining stores resembled (as one observer described) “a once wealthy guy now panhandling with a lot of missing teeth.”
Amazon, online shopping, and Soho took over with COVID. Vandalism arrived — stores were ransacked and broken. People were robbed at 3:00 PM in front of the Guggenheim Museum. Window shopping at any hour became a little risky. Clearly Ralph Lauren survived and the Real Real arrived, but most did not return.
This year Hermès and Louis Vuitton picked up the slack and became “Vegas” with their storefronts and fortitude. Post epidemic demanded Madison Ave. get a hold of itself. Tough to do when so many people left NYC. Even Barney’s (THE Madison Ave anchor store) bolted and took a dive in its new location.
Last week DPC and JH sent me pictures of the “new” nightly tour of the Madison Ave. storefronts. It’s showtime for sure. A heartbeat has arrived! It’s not a full return or a re-hash — but at least it’s a pulse. The market may or may not be there. But there’s hope. After all, it’s Mad Ave. NOT Mad Men!
From what I can see (and I am 2,000 miles away and haven’t walked Madison Avenue in four years), the hues seem sandblasted and wiped out down to just vanilla, greige, blush, taupe and latte. Quite a backlash from the screaming color codes of the pre-pandemic era!
“Coastal Grandma” (last summer’s Beach style invented on Instagram featuring  pastel cozy comfy loosey-goosey garments and big straw hats) and Casual Luxe (cashmere and silk tracksuits) has taken over. Think of most of the windows as costumes from Succession’s Stealth Wealth style!
All this “relaxed” fit and subtler palette reflects the times we are in. We are mostly “ in recovery” and no longer at a strip club (at least some of us aren’t).
So the spotlight is still CLASS, even though the shoes are now sneakers NOT oxfords (even for a traditionalist like John Lobb). There are baseball caps galore and tons of jackets over jackets … whatever that means!
John Lobb
The street is still a runway and a powerful nightly window shopping experience. And though the message of Madison Avenue today is “on the minimal down low.” I still cheerlead for that old Madison Ave. to come on back and give us some razzle dazzle.
Come on Madison Ave — “Give ’em the old razzle dazzle … Give ’em the old hocus pocus … Give ’em the old three ring circus — And (hopefully) they’ll make you a star!” — lyrics by Fred Ebb


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