Another piece of old, urbane New York is vanishing. Off Broadway, the women’s fashion boutique specializing in the unique and glamorous, will close its doors in mid-September after 48 years on West 72nd Street. The boutique is a victim of a rent increase following the death of its founder, Lynn Dell Cohen, a style icon and storied denizen of the Upper West Side.
“This is it, the end of 48 years,” said Pat Taub, a friend of Cohen’s who’s functioned as the primary salesperson at Off Broadway for 36 years.
The store is currently liquidizing its inventory, and pretty much anything else. In the back are racks of sun hats and feather boas. Mirrors lining the walls give the impression that the space is much bigger than it actually is. Clothing racks with items from a bygone — and perhaps more fabulous — era sit next to empty display cases and mannequins that are also being offered for sale.
In the front are photos of Cohen with various New York luminaries such as Michael Bloomberg and Al Roker, as well as several signed photographs of the leading models of the 1970s and 80s. Opposite is a nearly barren jewelry display case, out of which Taub has been methodically selling articles faux and fine the past few weeks.
“We’ve been doing great,” said Taub. “I’d be lying if I said anything else than that.”
A longtime customer of Cohen’s said the place looks like a ghost town.
“I’m going to miss this store,” said Barbara Smith, who by Taub’s estimation has been shopping at Off Broadway for three decades. “I must own half the jewelry.”
Keith Cohen, Lynn Dell’s son, said the store simply could not go on without her. His mother believed that a boutique should be an extension of the individual, “where merchandising is not geared for the customer but actually the customer seek out the individual taste or persona of the owner,” he said. “And she traveled the world finding fashions and getting ideas from everywhere: Milan, Paris, India, Nepal and Morocco.”
Cohen was also not above giving local artists a shot too. Each week she would set up a table at the front of the boutique and view clothing and accessories from fashion students and other aspiring designers, and if they were of sufficient quality and style, feature them in the store.
“She made some of them very famous,” Keith Cohen said. “You had designers from Pratt and FIT, and people who were really just trying to get a start come in. Sometimes she would give them a shot and some of them have done very well over the years.”
Laura Geller Cosmetics, for instance, was a beneficiary of Cohen’s policy after she set aside a small area of the boutique for the makeup designer when Geller was first starting out.
Cohen was a style icon for decades, especially for the older crowd, and was featured in a documentary called “Advanced Style” about stylish octogenarians in Manhattan.
“I am dressed up for the theater of my life every day,” she says in the film. “I get such a kick out of it.”
Her style and personality was so inextricably linked to the DNA of Off Broadway that the store could not survive without her, despite an attempt of about two months after she passed on June 2. She was 82.
“It can’t really be duplicated,” Keith Cohen said. “My mom was there almost every day, setting up her little table in front, talking to the customers right up until her passing.”
Taub said the biggest change she’s seen in the neighborhood is the small business exodus as rents creep ever upward.
“How many more nail places could you have? How many more drugstores? How many more banks?” she said. “It’s not just here, it’s everywhere. The landlords are too greedy. Something has to stop. Something will happen.”
Keith Cohen said the landlord was very kind to his mother, but the day she was buried was the same day he received an email asking for a 36 percent rent increase, “which made it almost impossible for me to carry on,” he said. “I tried to find somebody to buy it and take it over, but it would never be the same.”
So what exactly was so special about Off Broadway and the clothes that Cohen picked for sale?
“She brought the unusual and different,” Taub said. “You came here because you knew you wanted something different. Look around, there’s no store like this, never was. Everything looks same-old same.”
Taub, who met Cohen when she was working as a model in the late 1970s, said she plans on being a life coach and style consultant.
“It’s sad in a way because you work here so long, but my life goes on now,” said Taub. “I learned a lot. There’s a beginning for all of us, a middle, and there’s an ending. This is the end and [Off Broadway] had a great run. Not many stores are going to have that.”
She said many of Off Broadway’s clients are still looking for guidance on how to reflect their zest for life in the way they dress, the way Lynn Dell Cohen did.
“She lived her life full,” said Taub. “She dressed up every day as if she was going to a big party.”