'Situation Normal' Brings New York Style to Old Bank District

by Jason Mandell

From the outside, Situation Normal appears slightly intimidating. Frosted glass doors make it impossible to see inside. Try to open the door and it doesn't budge. Instead, customers must press a buzzer and wait for one of the store's two staff members to let them in.

Once inside, however, the atmosphere is surprisingly casual and inviting. Racks of brightly colored T-shirts, jeans and sneakers line the walls of the mostly white, 350-square-foot space. It's kind of like being in a warmly lit, ultra hip, oversized closet with 19-foot-high ceilings.

"We're not trying to be stuck up or stuffy or nothin'," explains the shop's 28-year-old owner, New York City native Greg Johnsen, in his thick Staten Island accent. Bald, stocky and fast-talking, Johnsen at first glance might seem shifty if he didn't beam with extreme friendliness and youthful exuberance.

One can't help but see Johnsen and his store as typifying the New York City persona — austere and intimidating on the outside, but warm and colorful when you get past the wall. While L.A. is not known for embracing the New York state of mind, one can see how it could easily catch on Downtown.

Johnsen said his shop's unusual facade is designed simply to make the store "a little more exclusive and separated from the street."

Indeed, Situation Normal, which is on the ground floor of the Hellman Building on Fourth between Spring and Main streets, is not your average Downtown retailer. While most of the area's clothing stores are bargain outlets on Broadway and in the Fashion District, or brand name-carrying chain stores in Macy's Plaza and 7+Fig, Situation Normal is a boutique whose calling card is exclusive, nearly impossible-to-find, international clothing lines.

"It's a destination lifestyle shop," says Johnsen.

The labels include Masterpiece and Mad Hectic from Japan, One True Saxon from London, Ssur and Lush Life from New York, and Daggers Drawn from L.A. Though the lines hail from across the globe, they share a distinct "streetwear" style: dark concrete tones mixed with bright colors that create a subdued but hip look.

Prices are in line with other trendy shops; the average pair of jeans or sneakers runs about $150, while custom graphic T-shirts, the shop's mainstay, cost $32.

The products can get adventurous. A sweatshirt with a picture of Truman Capote in a banana yellow hat goes for $85. The store's priciest jeans, from Japan, are $235. Johnsen says the shop will be one of five outlets worldwide carrying a new line of $300 Adidas sneakers, set to arrive in the next few months.

Johnsen says that while his business is a rarity in Downtown, he's hoping that will make it a success. "I thought that there was a void down here," says Johnsen.

Johnsen's target audience is the new wave of young loft residents who have begun moving into the Old Bank District and elsewhere in Downtown.

Far from being a transplant hoping to capitalize on Downtown's burgeoning scene, Johnsen is a participant in the district's gradual reawakening. He was among the first residents to move into the Continental Building, just around the corner from his store, when it opened two years ago. He also rented a separate office space in the building where for several years he ran his own clothing line, Snafu.

Johnsen started the line in 1998, four years after moving to Los Angeles, without any formal schooling in clothing design or business management. His clothing, a colorful mesh of graffiti graphics and military design, took off in Japan. Johnsen said he currently makes about 40 pieces that are produced and sold in Japan.

With business rolling steadily along, Johnsen was able to open a store to sell Snafu and other lines. He says once he learned that the rent for the ground floor space in the Hellman Building was less than what he was paying for his office, he set up Situation Normal, using the 400-square-foot backroom as an office for the store and the clothing line.

The store opened in May, and Johnsen says he's been getting four or five customers a day. Though business could be brisker, Johnsen says he's content to let the store function largely as an office for now. He hopes the revitalization underway in Downtown will soon create a community where retail can thrive. "I'd rather be set up here before things really take off," says Johnsen.

Johnsen is eager to hold after-hours gatherings in the store and organize neighborhood block parties. He said Downtown is on its way to becoming a close-knit, cultural center, like New York, which fits his vision for the shop. "For what we're about, Downtown is the perfect match for us."

Though luring customers may be a challenge, Johnsen says he is confident in the most crucial component of his business: the product.

"When people come in, they don't leave without buying something," says Johnsen. "It's just a matter of getting people in here."

Situation Normal is at 120 W. Fourth St., (213) 617-1375.

(page 4, 06/30/03)

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