The sneaker shop inside Nike’s new store on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street
To New Yorkers, few things are worse than the frenetic hellscape that is Midtown Manhattan. Between the strobe-like flashing billboards, the frisky Elmos, and the overly aggressive Nuts4Nuts hawkers, New York’s buzzing heartbeat has become a parody of itself, all chaos and no cool. And yet I found myself shopping in Midtown for a whopping 3 hours, 17 minutes, and 36 seconds last week. Yes, just a stone’s throw from where Snoopy and Santa will float down Sixth Avenue on Thanksgiving are two new megastores that make IRL shopping not so bad.
Up on 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue, Nike has taken over the corner opposite Cartier, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Zara with a 68,000-square-foot, six-floor flagship. Smack in the middle of Times Square, at 46th and Broadway, Levi’s has opened its largest store in America at 16,902 square feet. Together the two brands form the crux of American style—sneakers and jeans—and as such have the responsibility to cater to, well, just about everyone.
Tourists, of course, are central to that vision, and unsurprisingly both stores have devoted their first floors to out-of-towners looking for some New York City–centric garb. At Nike, you can customize sneakers just inside the entryway in exclusive, New York–inspired designs like a smiling red apple (get it?), while Levi’s has kitted out its entrance with laser-printed Statue of Liberty jeans and homages to the MTA. (Side note: If buying Levi’s MTA-inspired graphics will help fix the subways, I promise to personally purchase several pairs of L Train jeans.)
But beyond the obvious plays at those passing through New York City, both stores do an excellent job of catering to the way real New Yorkers shop. At Nike, it’s scarily easy to get in and get out without even speaking to another human being. Equip yourself with the Nike app, and you can whip through the futuro-industrialist store like it’s a 3-D version of your own e-commerce cart. The app allows you to scan QR codes by mannequins, send items to dressing rooms, and even pre-select what you want to try on before you get to the store and have it tucked away in a locker for pickup. Every item can be purchased through the app too, which eliminates checkout lines. After years of analyzing its stores, Nike realized that a lot of shoppers don’t want to be bothered by sales associates or even have to take out their earbuds. In the basement is the speed shop for even quicker buying, stuffed with product proven through sales data as favorites of New York–dwelling men and women. The goal here is to provide the locals a place to stock up without having to interface with the tourists padding around above.
The women’s section of Levi’s new Times Square store
If Nike’s vision for the next wave of shopping is futuristic, Levi’s is decidedly more nostalgic, its own novel, new-to-market mannequins aside. Downstairs in an enormous basement with complimentary Wi-Fi, the brand has merchandised its product with an eye to history. A huge selection of vintage styles is arranged underneath an indigo art piece, while 501s are laid out by year so superfans can easily get their favorite silhouettes. Menswear and womenswear sections are organized by vibe instead of item, so athletically built dudes can buy loose jeans and rugby shirts while sparkle-loving women can get rhinestone-studded denim and cropped white tees. The product here is classic, but Levi’s has put in the work to make more fashion-centric items that New Yorkers will love, like a high-rise straight-leg jean—the “ribcage”—and a cropped, sherpa-lined trucker jacket that has a boxy, boyish fit. Unlike at Nike, you still have to interact with human salespeople in order to shop, though the store utilizes a mobile app to scan through merchandise and make it easier to suss out favorite items.
Both stores feature extensive customization options, too, if that’s your vibe. On the first floor of Levi’s HQ, you can customize pieces at the brand’s largest Tailor Shop, which features 10 iPads stocked with design inspo from around the world. The top floor of Nike’s store is a full design studio run by Nike Experts, where existing patterns can be made to a shopper’s liking in a range of exclusive materials and colors. Here, the act of sitting with craftspeople and thinking long and hard about what kind of jeans you want or what color your catsuit should be functions as the experiential, brand-building component to more digitized, friction-free stores.
Whether you opt to stay for a while and customize or speed through without even trying on those new jeans, it’s hard to argue against the fact that drowning out the frenzy of Midtown is what both stores do best. There are no horizon lines, only endless products, like zen gardens of wardrobe essentials. I wouldn’t go as far to call either space serene—there’s still the thumping bass of music playing in both stores—but they’re welcome reprieves from the distractions of real life, where the only problem you’ll have is deciding if Air Max 97s go with your new 501s.