At Café Forgot, Buying Weird Clothes Is a Group Bonding Activity
The itinerant peddler of New York’s best independent designers is quietly solving some of the city’s retail problems.
The first time I visited Café Forgot was in October 2017, when the nomadic fashion store was occupying a Lower East Side storefront. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about what I tried on: a dress by New York brand Sofia Paris that sutured a lavender bridesmaid gown onto a teddy bear-brown sweater. My arms passed through both the sweater and the dress’s sleeves, but I was really only wearing the sweater—the dress cascaded down in front, like an apron. I didn’t buy it, but I found, when I looked back at photos to write this, that my memory of the dress had been unusually precise: there were the ruffles, the trailing skirt, and the nubby sleeves—just like I remembered.
Café Forgot is like no other store. Run by twentysomething friends Vita Haas and Lucy Weisner, it comprises a string of pop-ups that ostensibly offer goods by independent designers, but also provide the rare, magical pocket of space in which to shoot the shit with other people who remember when Gauntlett Cheng was Moses Gauntlett Cheng. Earlier this year, Café Forgot had its longest-running and most store-like installation—about two months in an airy former architecture office on Duane Street in Tribeca—and it returned this Saturday for a one-week stay at Picture Room, the art book and print store in Brooklyn Heights.
“I’ve always had this really romantic idea of shops, of working at a shop,” Haas told me in a phone interview. She and Weisner went to the same high school, where they formed a “fashion club”—it entailed “clothing swaps, and we would talk about fashion, I suppose, read magazines, but basically just chill,” said Weisner. Maybe this helps explain the store’s clubhouse vibe, which feels like the grown-up equivalent of gathering in a classroom to try on clothes and thumb through Vogue and Purple. “We both see a lot of radical potential in having a space that sells clothes, but also does other things,” Haas added.
The store’s opening party on Saturday night saw a few dozen people packed into the space, drinking rosé out of plastic cups of and trying on the more layerable pieces: a Gauntlett Cheng puffer jacket printed with anarchic storybook illustrations of leering suns and moons and dogs, deconstructed T-shirts by Nicole Van Vuuren. There was a silky blue shirt by Australian brand Maroske Peech with extra-long lapels, reinforced with a moldable wire so they could be twisted into ringlets or horns; the shirt’s buttons were made from bread covered in enamel. The store stocks jewelry, too, such as rings by Brie Moreno that suspend rosettes and glitter in milky resin.
Hanging in the window was a white lace teddy, the top and bottom held together by molded male figurines, made by Martina Cox. Cox has become Café Forgot mainstay, and her presence in the store provides a good example of what it does well: Haas and Weisner found her thesis work on Instagram soon after she graduated from Cooper Union, and when they reached out, she’d never sold her clothing in a store. For the Duane Street pop-up, she created a few “window tops”—shirts with a panel of clear plastic smack dab over the breast, some of which featured movable curtains or miniature flower boxes. “I knew that everyone would love them, but I thought maybe they would just be a great piece for Instagram or to have in the shop,” said Haas. But they were a hit. “People were really buying them. It’s great.”
What Café Forgot understands is that people want to be more excited by their clothing, but they don’t want to go it alone. Trying things on there feels a little like grabbing a friend’s hand while you run off a diving board. Strangers egging you on is part of the process, and even if people in the world outside don’t get why you’re wearing a shirt with a window for your nipple, you carry the knowledge with you that there’s a place where they do get it. Not everything in the store is perfect or polished, but as a whole, the project shocks you into an awareness of how conservative fashion is otherwise—of all the risks that haven’t been taken.
Café Forgot doesn’t have an online shop, and that’s by design: it’s one of the rare fashion stores in New York you have to visit in person. The ways in which the internet has transformed fashion aren’t all bad—it’s nice to get a weird deal from an Australian boutique on Garmentory or buy vintage Fiorucci on Instagram. But it does create a leveling effect, where popular pieces become ubiquitous. “I think that a lot of retail, particularly in New York, so many things are just so pervasive,” said Weisner. “It’s rare to me that I encounter these really unique one-of-a-kind pieces, so I feel like I position [Café Forgot as] working against that.”
A furtive joy of Café Forgot is getting photographed in cool fits: Haas and Weisner meticulously update the brand’s Instagram, often using visitors to model the wares, and it’s fun to see people you know wearing things you want to try on yourself. (Haas and Weisner mentioned that the Instagram stories are also a big driver of sales.) I went to the opening party with two friends, both guys with good style, and Haas asked to take their picture. “You look like the sort of people we’d want here,” she said, half-kidding, and took the shot.