Text: Alec Coiro
All Images Courtesy of Joseph Quartana
Let’s begin the story of Seven New York at the end — or what looks like it might be the end — with Joseph Quartana staring too deeply into the death’s eyes and falling all but all the way into the abyss.
It’s June of last year. Quartana has just won the biggest prize he can possibly win for perfumery, the Fragrance Foundation Parfum Extraordinaire award, but he’s in the ER and doctors are telling him he’s within one hour of death. His gallbladder had just exploded.
When your gallbladder explodes, your life changes, and you get two weeks in the hospital to reflect on it all. Confined to bed, staring out at the East River from his convalescent room, it was clear to Quartana that his work on the his latest perfume collection Les Potions Fatales, and his nearly fatal experience were interconnected. “I think what happened was I touched death a little too deeply. I think I invited it in. They say when you look at the dark side, it looks back at you.”
Where, though, did the inspiration for a perfume collection based on poison come from? Quartana traces it to the need for a cathartic release of the venom and bile created by the circumstances that ended his boutique Seven New York well before its time. They’re circumstances that New Yorkers from any walk of life will be familiar with: one day, out of nowhere, scaffolding shows up, and brings with it all types of trouble. For Seven New York the trouble was particularly dire. The store was a basement level, which was cool in a subterranean way when the sidewalk was open, but the scaffolding changed all that. “They had this massive scaffolding in front of my space for four years. We were buried in there. Our business was getting killed…There were even signs that said, ‘The sidewalk is closed, walk around.’ It was like crickets in there except for our loyals. They had cement trucks parked out front every day. It might as well have been barbed wire.”
That was the Soho incarnation of the Seven New York. The original store was in the Lower East side. Quartana and his two partners Steve Sang and John Demas opened it up in the late 90s. Talking to Quartana, it’s clear that what they pulled off in the ‘90s couldn’t be repeated today. The most obvious reason is the rent. Quartana is frank about this. “The rents are so utterly ridiculous; it cannot be done. You could start a store, but you’re just going to burn money. You need to have a trust fund or have a backer.” For Quartana, this is symptomatic of the industry at large, “Right now the whole fashion industry is a giant write off. Anyone that’s investing money in it is doing it basically just for fun. There’s no artistic integrity. It’s not an art form anymore. It’s about showing off and bragging rights. Right now the fashion industry is the equivalent of bottle service in a tacky ass club. So in a way I miss the industry tremendously but I also don’t.”
The less obvious way that Seven was a 90s phenomenon was the way Quartana financed its launch. You might need a trust fund or a backer today, but throughout his career Quartana and his partners never relied on financiers, and in the very beginning he used money he generated through investments in the infamous ‘90s tech bubble, which he got out of just before the bubble burst on all the Urban Fetches and Flooz.coms.
With the seed money secured and rents within reach, Quartana found a storefront in the Lower East Side and brought in his high school friend John Demas to help design it. “He was trained in architecture, so I said why don’t you design it. And we had pretty good success from the get-go, thank god.”
Right now the fashion industry is the equivalent of bottle service in a tacky ass club.
So how did they achieve success right out of the gate? For starters they were unique. The brands the store bought in the very beginning comprise a shortlist of what that era would eventually be remembered for. “We started carrying Tess Giberson, AsFour, Raf Simons — I had him really before anyone. Barney’s picked him up one season before me, but they weren’t buying it properly. I bought it properly.” Starting out strong, the store continued to grow following a philosophy that fashion was art and passion should precede commerce. “What I wanted to buy was what was on the runway. I thought I can’t be the only one that wants to buy these runway pieces that are loud and colorful, literally wearable art. I was doing it because I genuinely wanted to support and share their work with the world. It wasn’t about the bottom line. When you work with this in mind, the money chases it. When you have genuine passion and you’re doing something real, the money follows.”
After 6 years in the Lower East Side, the store began to turn a profit, so Quartanta turned his sights westward to Soho. “At the time the move was a gamble. The LES was always promised as the neighborhood that was about to boom. So we waited, but at 2005 there was still nothing, so we were like fuck this shit; we’re going to move somewhere where there’s action. This is when Soho was having a sort of not cool moment. Right before the megaboom happened.”
This is where Quartana settled into his groove, and created the store that I remember. In fact, when we talk about his perfume career, Quartana mentions that he initially began exploring perfumery because he finally had Seven running itself so smoothly. This is not to say he had a ton of time on his hand, though. Throughout the course of Seven New York’s history, Quartana would travel extensively to buy for the store, carrying mostly designers from Europe. “I would document everything on all of my buying trips and we’d do a slideshow for hours in the office, and it’d be basically yay or nay. And if everyone loves this piece we better get it.” For these slideshow sessions, he relied on a handpicked and hand-groomed staff (that included a young Lyz Olko) “Some would show up and say I’d love to work with you, and if they had the right look and the right attitude, I’d put them through three separate interviews. I’d get them drunk, really test them out. You couldn’t just get a job with me. I had really low turnover. No one really quit. I treated them fairly; I paid them well.”
One small sentence was the downfall of 13 years of blood sweat and tears.
And so it went until the scaffolding went up. The problem was after the scaffolding went up, the walk-in traffic disappeared. “We’re on Mercer street, so we had these fuckers from the Mercer hotel who would come in, I’ll take this, this, that and the other thing,’ slap a black Amex card down, and we’d never see them again, but that was 3 grand in the till, so we’d go out and drink champagne.” The store had a thriving loyal following but without the walk-ins, the ledger wasn’t adding up. “I realized after doing sales analysis that that loyal following accounted for 35%, but the 65% were walk-ins that we were just not getting.”
Despite the lack of walk-in revenue, Quartana was unconcerned. His lawyers had assured him he would win. He didn’t. “I didn’t have a scaffolding clause in my lease. One small sentence was the downfall of 13 years of blood sweat and tears.” The news came in January 2012 when he was in Paris doing men’s buying. “I was so crushed. I was glad to be in Paris. I didn’t want to have to deal with dismantling my baby.”
Ultimately this poisonous experience would translate to Quartana’s second career in perfumery and directly inspire Les Potions Fatale, but at the time he says, “I felt like someone just punched me in the face or kicked me in the balls.”
As bad as it was for Quartana, in the long run it was probably worse for all of us when the Seven New York closed we lost the last vestiges of Soho. If Times Square has been Disneyfied, Soho has been mallified. All that’s missing is a roof and Cinnabon. I’ve suspected for the past few years that every store in Soho is losing money, and Quartana affirms my instinct. “Everyone is trying to do experiential marketing, so you come away with a memory or a selfie. No one’s making money. The numbers just don’t add up.”
If Soho today is about taking a selfie at one of the flagship stores on Broadway, it couldn’t be more anathema to what Seven New York stood for. After talking to Quartana, my sense of his core principle is that in questions of style one should still prefer substance over style. In this spirit, Quartana credits his success to “Taking risks, getting the most creative interesting designers we could find who were the real deal. The ones who were really influencing the industry.”
I’m in it for the long haul; it’s a 10 year play. It’s not like I’m trying to get more Instagram followers for next month. It’s fake. It’s not real momentum.