Storytelling in Style: How Fashion Pop-Ups Thrive in New York

Luxury cars parked line the cobblestone street of Soho in New York City.

Since its inception, Soho has been at the pulse of New York City’s fashion drum.

First coined “SoHo,” in 1962 by urban planner Chester Rapkin, Soho sits south of Houston Street between Crosby Street and Sixth Avenue.

Soho’s unique architecture and cobblestone-lined streets make for an unparalleled experience. The streets are lined with models and influencers posing to get their next best shot, fashion enthusiasts from all over the world looking for their next fit, and the artists who design the very clothes that are sold in the stores.

Soho’s fashion roots go back to its inception when the city’s cast iron structures served as home to New York’s first Lord & Taylor and Tiffany & Co. stores.

Today, SoHo stands at the epicenter of New York's cutting-edge fashion scene. The neighborhood's vibrant community of artists designs and crafts the latest clothing trends, turning the entire area into a dynamic fashion runway that pulsates with the heartbeat of the industry.

The clientele in Soho mirrors the diverse tapestry of the neighborhood. It encapsulates both the upscale and posh crowd, the creatively grunge and artsy individuals, and a wide range of styles in between. Nevertheless, one should anticipate an overall higher price point when indulging in the Soho shopping experience.

Although not new to the retail space, post-pandemic retail has seen an influx in the amount of companies using pop-ups in Soho. Ranging from small kiosks to full-fledged stores, pop-ups have allowed companies to tap into new audiences and gauge what neighborhoods might be best for future permanent stores.

Amongst the many shopping districts New York City has to offer, Soho remains the premiere location for permanent stores and pop-ups alike. Its intersection of established brands and new emerging brands makes for a fun playground for fashion aficionados and a promising opportunity for any innovative brand to sew their roots, if they’re lucky enough to secure a space. Soho real estate is a hot commodity for pop-ups and permanent stores. 

Notably, a recent pop-up store in Soho was designed so meticulously that customers often questioned whether it was a temporary installation or a permanent establishment. Every aspect of the store, from its merchandising to its advertisements, mimicked the experience of a traditional brick-and-mortar store. The flexibility offered by pop-ups is compelling businesses to think innovatively and creatively as they establish these unique retail experiences.

In one Soho pop-up, the neighborhood’s eclectic mix of clientele was beautifully reflected in the composition of the staff. While many staff members boasted extensive experiences in high-end retail through education and subsequent professional experience, others were themselves artists or young entrepreneurs using retail as an opportunity to sharpen people skills and deepen connections. Regardless of this diverse array of backgrounds that made for this store’s team, the seamless functioning of the store as a well-coordinated machine remained of paramount importance and was undeniably pivotal to the store's success. 

NY fashion stylist and creative consultant Louise Sturken, who has launched and managed her own pop-ups throughout the city, sees pop-ups as a hub for what’s latest in fashion innovation and creativity.

To Louise, the key to a successful pop-up is storytelling.Listening to people’s experiences is extremely important because, with any pop-up, most people don’t know [the brand] so the storytelling is very important. It can be fun seeing how the stories of the people who come into the store align with the story of the company and of my own story,” Louise explained. 

As an early adopter of the pop-up model and one of the first to launch a pop-up in the city during the pandemic in 2020, Louise was on the ground to witness and participate in the shifts the industry has seen in a post-pandemic world. “When I opened my popup it was during covid and I noticed that people wanted to touch things. I think that specifically after covid when people couldn’t touch anything, people’s senses crave activation. To touch. To feel. To smell,” Louise exclaimed.

These shifts and the desire to feel have continued.

Post-pandemic retail has seen a decrease in fast fashion and an increase in ethically made quality fabrics. Louise continued, I think there’s going to be a return to things that have sustainability and a return to things that were made by hand. Also the induction of more sustainable biodegradable fabrics and even algae-based fabrics… We’re at a fun time in fashion where anything can be done.” 

That sentiment is largely reflected in the way in which several pop-ups are being launched now as well. Companies are finding more creative ways to get customers excited about their brands.

A recent Coach pop-up had an ice cream truck that serviced the Soho area in tandem with the launch of their new ice cream-inspired line. Another Soho pop-up activation recently established an adjacent space as a museum with past collections on display for customers to browse, take photos, and hold events.

As Soho is a pioneer in fashion and a creative hub, not only are companies creative with what they sell, but those same companies are being more creative with how they sell.

New York Fashion influencer and former pop-up team member Katie Janner expressed, “I think pop-ups are great. A good investment and one that makes it so businesses don’t need to be in person all the time. A company like ‘Skims’ can have a popup and people who were skeptical about buying things online have success trying things out for the first time.” 

The e-commerce-to-pop-up transition has witnessed renowned brands such as The Ordinary, Glossier, and The Giving Key effectively allowing consumers to interact with the products firsthand in physical stores. These pop-up events generate excitement, draw large crowds, and enhance the rapport between brands and their customers. 

Pop-up sales associates, regardless of the brand’s size, have emphasized the positive impact of having the freedom to express themselves within the framework of the company. 

When discussing a recent activation’s success, Janner exclaimed “Each team member brought unique strengths to the table. Some excelled at sales, others displayed organizational and merchandising prowess, and those with a theatrical background, new to the retail scene, excelled at connecting with customers and fostering strong relationships.” 

This fusion of diverse experiences, personal narratives, and backgrounds not only keeps the store's operations running smoothly but also cultivates customer engagement. "Authenticity is something the average consumer can discern; it can't be faked," Janner added.

This ethos of self-expression also manifested in the way that employees showcased their personal style through the product. Janner remarked, “We always wore one piece [from the brand] and made sure that piece went with Soho. It was much more what we find trendy and putting effort into our outfits while still looking effortless. I distinctly remember one coworker who transformed a simple ringer tee by cutting off the collar to create a boat neck and pairing it with a formal skirt and cowboy boots – it was exceptionally stylish."

With agencies like Retail For The People, pop-ups have become a seamless medium for fashion enthusiasts and professionals to align themselves with projects and brands that they care about. They strive to make the retail space feel like the living room of the neighborhood: everyone is welcome, cared for, and uniquely acknowledged. 

In a historical place like Soho, the fashion space can be overwhelming, but everything doesn’t have to be “The Devil Wears Prada.” With strong support and teamwork, fashion pop-ups can be fun, engaging, and an incredible space for personal growth and creativity to bloom.