Challenges began for Ms. Uffner in 2006, when the landlord of the building she occupied in Midtown “invited” her, as she put it, to break her lease early. He was selling the building and wanted her out, but moving thousands of racks of clothing was going to be an ordeal. At the same time commercial rents were soaring and the city’s garment industry had all but disappeared, large loft-like spaces given over to corporate offices. Eventually, in 2008, Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing moved to Long Island City, after its proprietress faced fines of $1,000 a day if she did not vacate her existing space.
The transition was not easy. Fashion houses, which also rent from the collection as a means of inspiration, began returning things by FedEx, Ms. Uffner told me, “as if we were in another state.” But over the next several years, Long Island City became popular enough that it was now a place where a marketing executive at Ralph Lauren might actually live. So by 2018, Ms. Uffner inevitably found herself in the same predicament she had faced earlier — the building she was in near Queens Plaza would be redeveloped and she would have to move. She ultimately settled into another space in Long Island City only to confront the drama all over again — her current building is planned for demolition to accommodate the construction of a high-rise.
In the past, Ms. Uffner had several competitors, also independently owned, but nearly all have fallen away. If she shut down, the impact on the costume industry would be profound. Tom Broecker, an Emmy Award-winning costume designer who has relied on Ms. Uffner for decades, described her collection of women’s wear from the early 20th century as extraordinary. “In the entire world, Helen is the only person who has cotton dresses from that period,” he told me.
Even a move to Industry City, in Brooklyn, where the city has been trying to revive garment manufacturing, would be difficult from his point of view. In addition to film and theater projects, Mr. Broecker works on “Saturday Night Live,” where he might have to come up with a piece of old clothing in a span of two hours, making a trip from Rockefeller Center to a semi-inaccessible quarter of Brooklyn unfeasible.
Understanding the importance of her enterprise to New York’s creative life, the city via the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment has said it is trying to help Ms. Uffner relocate, but without broad commercial rent regulation, there is little that can be accomplished. Over the years, she told me, landlords have added fees to monthly rent bills with impunity. In the beginning she was paying rent, electricity and property tax. In a subsequent space, the landlord added gas, and then came requirements to contribute to the local business improvement district.