In the ’90s, an old building on SoHo’s Greene Street began to crumble. The brick structure had been painted in neon orange. Dozens of shop windows showed their edge: collapsing storefronts. One firm, a hipster fashion label called Autechre, closed, choosing instead to become Amazon’s atelier. It was emblematic of the ’90s: a period of thrift, abstinence and avant-garde fashion, when small businesses were shuttered and buying and selling clothes was just as if for a cause.
For years, the building sat vacant. Most stores and businesses were gutted and rented to the stars. For some tenants, a borough-wide rent tax was imposed, forcing them out. Autechre was among the victims. The facility became a warehouse. When Autechre’s owner fell behind on the rent, city officials began working with the firm’s landlord, who paid the late fee and reduced the rent to about $500 a month.
But Autechre hasn’t been alone in dealing with the dead weight of the past. In just the past couple of years, several historic structures have gotten new owners. SoHo’s building on Spring Street, a former garment manufacturer; 115 Grand Street, a shapewear factory; and the Ballou Estate on the Lower East Side, an early-20th-century residence, are all now owned by a single entity, the Wooster Group. They became possible because the city began renovating the Greenpoint waterfront, which included the Greenpoint Container Terminal, the sole building still standing in the development zone. It held the clue to the city’s future downtown: a new, fashionable, interconnected city where new ideas not only kept cheap but sought to outshine the old.
If there’s a piece of Autechre’s identity, it’s how far the company moved away from its seedy origins. Online, Autechre today has a budget to get outside its comfort zone. Advertising, new retail space, and online redesigns were the work of RGM Worldwide, the design and branding firm that became Autechre’s M.B.A.