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The New York Times Critical Shopper Review : VPL

The New York Times Critical Shopper Review

Critical Shopper

MOST new Manhattan boutiques tend to be pigeonhole-able into one of two categories. One of two decorative objects will be present, either literally or in spirit, which will harmonize all other aesthetic notes: (1.) stuffed white peacocks; or (2.) vintage leather medicine balls.

The new VPL boutique hurls itself with great gusto and literal vintage medicine balls into the leather medicine-ball category. The shop is chockablock with vintage gymnasia: wooden hand weights, unpainted bowling pins, a leather pommel horse you’d imagine Lucille Ball falling off of, and other cruel fitness paraphernalia from the time before yoga mats.

The lighting casts a yellowy hue; Smokey Robinson and Al Green radiate at a mature volume out of wooden speakers. I don’t know if it was just the first day the heat had kicked on and the radiators were overexcited, or if it was all part of creating an atmosphere of humid athleticism — but it was mighty warm in there.

VPL began as a joke. (It’s an acronym for “visible panty line.”) The designer Victoria Bartlett cut her fashion teeth by deconstructing vintage undergarments. These items (now relegated to the VPL2 line) are weightless little mash-ups, arranged on the racks in gradational colors: paneled tap pants lifted from the 1930s in color triads of cobweb-thin cotton and rayon. The building blocks of early brassieres — elasticized mesh, felted straps — are used to create post-Madonna, neo-girdle tank-tunics ($175). Orange suspender elastics are employed to create a safety bra for young hall monitors in training ($85).

I couldn’t figure out if it was overperforming underwear or underperforming outerwear. A wall of black-and-white photos by Mark Borthwick features decidedly normal-bodied girls leaning against windowsills in these clever underthings. But they are clearly indoors, having a private moment. The VPL print ads show models wearing the same underensembles, only with socks and little platform boots, as if they are about to skip outside and play a Benny Hill-inspired version of Rollerball.

One senses from other racks that Ms. Bartlett is dead-serious about being seen as a respected designer, even without her underpants (snicker). To this end, she has aligned herself with artists she wants in her cultural thought balloon. For instance, the artist Orly Genger, who crochets vast quantities of rope, has created chain-and-rope chokers ($202) and thick wrist-doughnuts that are a cool new take on the paracord survival bracelet. (Good luck untying it to rappel to safety, but you’d probably be able to take out a potential assailant if you threw it hard enough.)

A marvelously statuesque saleswoman (who had the taste to wear platforms to make herself even more skyscraperish) provided the “aha!” moment for me: She was wearing a darkly transparent mud-colored T-shirt with a little sequined sport bra underneath. It twinkled just enough under the right lights: a subtle disco-pentimento, thinly overpainted by an understated day look.

I asked about a strange vest made of discarded toeshoes and was informed that ballet dancers inspired much of the collection. Now it all made sense: the wispy-clingy, lissome looks would all work on Gelsey Kirkland in the Baryshnikov “Nutcracker.” It’s a weightless, girlish mood, exuding the twee, unconscious sexuality you’d see behind the one-way mirrors of a Swedish commune or a girls’ boarding school.

The dressing room is separated by a thick curtain of surgical rubber, creating what I am guessing is the unintentional effect of trapping heat in such a way as to make one feel as if she is under the heat lamps of a cafeteria steam tray. But, in keeping with the athletic club aesthetic, you could probably sweat off a few pounds if you tried on enough sweaters.

I wasn’t in love with the silvery-knit Marsupial vest ($325), a shiny, chrysalis-like knit thing that sort of droops down from the shoulders and lumps over the knees like a sandwich bag full of wet hair. But it is one of those useful garments wherein the architectural design would conceal, or at least distract from, most of the structural flaws of the person beneath, including advanced pregnancy or appliance shoplifting.

Everything else fit quite well. Silky black girdle-structured leggings ($345) were nicely encasing, not unlike three consecutive pairs of Spanx. I was equally impressed by the comfort and swing of the bra-tank tunics, but my favorite item turned out to be a long bias-cut Princess-Leia-entertains-at-home gown ($565). It was nicely realized, with the type of kinetic, 3D-body consciousness that makes ladies worship Rick Owens — that knife-edge balance between the poles of humility and swank.

My goddaughter, the 5-year-old conceptual artist Coco Zighelboim, has been conducting a survey: “If you were a fairy, what kind of fairy would you be?”

It’s a fair question, and one that deserves a serious response.

To Coco, I respond: I would want to be your fairy godmother, in VPL and old toeshoes. I believe Ms. Zighelboim and the other fairies would approve of a design philosophy supporting the sensible concept of dancing around in your underpants every day.

VPL

5 Mercer Street (Howard Street), SoHo; (212) 966-2145.

OMG VPL brings weightless layerable underthings and casual wispy overthings to a generous array of female shapes, especially those of imps, wood nymphs and bun-headed swans from the local ballet school.

LOL Prices are mostly under $500 (panty-shorts, $130; silvery girdle tank, $195), but even sunny staff members and a hypnotically warm interior may not justify $135 cotton tank tops.

TMI New York has a way of injecting heavy metal into your personality. VPL is a place to clothe your inner ballerina fairy for a less clench-jawed and more terpsichorean winter.

–Wilson, Cintra. “At VPL, Wispy Clothes for Your Inner Ballerina,” The New York Times. November 16, 2010

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