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||Back when Ludlow Street had a mere two or three bars, Terri Gillis's store TG-170 was breaking in hip designers like Rebecca Dannenberg, Pixie Yates and Built By Wendy's Wendy Mullin. Although her minimalist storefront is now something of an institution on that block, Terri had no background in fashion. In fact, for years the unassuming merchant was an artist. But then Terri had an epiphany brought on by a long bout with hepatitis which led her to redirect her creative energy. She put away her paintbrushes and started making, of all things, baseball hats. Soon, she was selling clothes by young designers she knew from the neighborhood, and Ludlow Street became a destination for everyone from Drew Barrymore to Christian Lacroix. Five years later, with the designers she introduced selling their clothes from New York to Tokyo and the store running smoothly, Terri's decided to start her own line mainly so she won't get bored.
CHRISTINA: Why do you think people look at your store as trendy?
TERRI: Maybe some people would think that; I don't know if they do. I mean, I try not to do stuff that's really trendy. Even though something might seem sort of trendy, I think it's mainly wearable hopefully stuff you can wear all the time.
CHRISTINA: And it's not going out of style tomorrow.
TERRI: I don't like stuff that looks really dated after one season. That's why I like these basic things. That's more the direction I'm going in. You know, just what you see girls wearing on the street, like your friends, just the regular people you know and I know.
CHRISTINA: So it's more basic?
TERRI: Well, it's not the Gap, not that basic. Like right now, I have these great pants by Katayone Adeli, and they're pretty basic, but they fit perfectly and they have great details they have a slit on the side. They could look really dressed up if you wear high heels, but you could also wear sneakers. I've seen them in a lot of ways, and they look great. And they'll look good next year. They're not going to go out of fashion.
CHRISTINA: So what do you think of the way Ludlow Street has changed since you've been here?
TERRI: I feel mixed about it really. I know a lot of people have just discovered this neighborhood, and that's great, because my business is doing better, but at the same time, when I first opened five years ago, it had a different feeling. This neighborhood was more like, Dominicans and Hispanics ... just a more interesting mix of people. A lot of the people who started businesses here are from this neighborhood, so it had kind of a friendly vibe. It was more neighborhoody.
CHRISTINA: Alleged Gallery used to be your next door neighbor.
TERRI: It was great when Aaron was next door, because there was a lot of energy. We would do stuff together, like we had a fashion show here in the window. And that's how I met Mike Mills, through Aaron.
CHRISTINA: How long were you living here before you got the storefront?
TERRI: I've lived on this block for eight or nine years, and I originally got the storefront because I was making baseball hats. I had no fashion background. I have no retail background either. But I had a boyfriend who was making T-shirts, and he started to make money on it, so I thought, "What can I do that's creative and make money?" I was really into all the homeboy style the front of the baseball hat stuff, so I started designing images to go on the hats.
CHRISTINA: And you made money with that?
TERRI: Now that I think about how much work it was, I probably made something like 50 cents a hat! I'd silkscreen them, make them into patches and sew them on the hats. But it was really exciting, because it was like instant gratification. Instead of making a painting and having it in your apartment where nobody would see it, you could do a design, sell it, and see people in the street wearing it plus you got paid for it. So I was making money doing what I wanted to do... I thought of it more like Pop Art.
CHRISTINA: So how did the store actually get going?
TERRI: I was only open on the weekends, and I just worked out of here. Rebecca lived next door and she wound up coming to the store. Wendy lived on Eldridge Street, she came to the store. It wasn't a store then, but they said, "You know, we're making this stuff, do you want to put it in here and try to sell it?"
So that's what I did, so I was working four days as a clerk in the library at FIT and three days here. And then I got really sick with hepatitis for two months I couldn't even get out of bed. When I finally went back to work, I thought, "I hate this job. I don't want to do this for the rest of my life." So I started the store like a real store. I got a register and did all this stuff that makes it a real business, and opened it up doing the business thing.
CHRISTINA: How could you afford to do that? Did you get an investor?
TERRI: No, no. That's the thing. I guess it was really risky. I had some wholesale orders for my baseball hats, and if I could afford to buy clothes, then I would. But I also tried to consign them. I'd go to people and say, "Look, I don't have the money, but if you put it in the store, as soon as I sell it, I'll pay you." So basically, I just built it up over the years. Whenever I'd make money, I'd put it back into the store. And every year, it does better.
CHRISTINA: You really started this all by yourself.
TERRI: I feel like if I can do this business, anybody can. Because I didn't have any experience. But you learn how to do it as you do it. You don't have to go to business school, although I think it's probably better to prepare yourself. And you've got to put in like, 18-hour days to make it work! But anyway, I enjoy it. I enjoy finding new clothes, that's the fun part.
CHRISTINA: Do a lot of aspiring designers come by with their clothes?
TERRI: Yeah, that's one thing I think is good. But from the very beginning, that's how I started, with these guys I mentioned. I wouldn't have a story if they hadn't come into the store. That's how it evolved. Now, people call me all the time, and I try to make appointments before the store opens. And I've started to go to showrooms, which I never did before. It was just mainly local people. But now, I actually do go because I have found some good designers that way. I try to do mainly New York designers.
CHRISTINA: And you've started your own line of clothes?
TERRI: Yeah. I've had this business a long time, and now that I have someone working with me, I should be able to take some time off so I can enjoy my life. Having Leigh Anne here has made a big difference.
CHRISTINA: Sometimes I feel like I'm ready to retire.
TERRI: I know, and I'm obsessive, so all I talk about are the clothes and the store and the customers; what are we doing wrong, what are we doing right? And Leigh Anne will say, "Would you get out of here and leave me alone. Shut up!" I just need to be busy and excited about what I'm doing, so it's bad when I start to feel like I'm in a rut. And that's why I started making clothes. After a while I started getting a little bored. So this was exciting. And the worst that can happen is if it doesn't work out, I'll try something else.
CHRISTINA: It seems to be going well.
TERRI: Most of the stuff we've made, people have liked. But if people come in to the store and insult one of the designers, then I'm insulted. I have relationships with most of them, so I kind of take it personally. And it's also insulting to me because I picked out the clothes. But I know it's just clothes. [laughs] You know what I mean? But to me, there's a whole shopping etiquette or something, and I've had people come in and try on clothes and throw them on the floor and step on them and I think it's rude!
CHRISTINA: That is rude. Somebody else is going to buy that.
TERRI: I know. But for some people, I guess shopping is about other things besides buying clothes. It's entertainment or it's social or they're feeling depressed. It's all kinds of things. And you learn a lot about people when they're trying on clothes and they're talking about their bodies! Nobody is happy with their body. It's like therapy in the store these girls that are size 4 who think they're fat. And I'm like, "Oh no ... [laughs] no, you're not. You look great!"
CHRISTINA: Where do you buy your clothes?
TERRI: Well, it's funny, because I feel like I should dress up more. Today, I went to some showrooms dressed like this in these old beat-up Levis and my Payless shoes. But I actually think these are really cool shoes.
CHRISTINA: They are!
TERRI: Yeah. They're kind of like Grandpa shoes. But I always think of myself as more like the worker bee for the queen bees. I think I have a good eye for shape and color, and I think I'm getting even better at picking out the clothes. But for myself, I'm so busy running around the city that I'm more interested in just being comfortable. It's like being more like a boy. I just like looking around, and I don't like to stand out too much. Does that make sense?
TERRI: When I get dressed, I'll wear the pants we make, or Rebecca Dannenberg's pants. I like Katayone Adeli. I usually just wear a basic sweater maybe from the store, or from a thrift store. And that's it. I'm not a big shopper. But sometimes I think, "God, I look like a nut. I look like a bag lady!" Because I am. I'm going around the city and I usually have all these bags, because I'm going to pick up something, and I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror, and I'll think, "Oh my God, I look like an insane person!" [laughs]
CHRISTINA: That exact thought goes through the minds of lots of people we know.
TERRI: I don't want the store to be like, "fashion victim" in any way. I just want people to pick out stuff they can incorporate into their wardrobe. There is not this one way you should look, anyway. I think the people I admire the most are people who have their own style; they know they're going to look good in something and they're going to wear it whether it's the style or not. I think people should wear what they like, and have their own style.
CHRISTINA: Is that how you would describe your ideal customer?
TERRI: Definitely. She's fashionable, but she doesn't actually follow fashion or trends. That's more like the girl I would think of who's shopping here. We have a range of everybody, but that's kind of what I would hope or think.
I mean, here I am selling clothes, but I'm saying, "It's not at all fashion." It's really more about personal style. And that's why I love New York everybody has their own thing.
CHRISTINA: But you are choosing for other people when you buy clothes for the store.
TERRI: It's true. I know what I think looks good, especially for other people. I guess I think of myself as this person that is sort of nondescript. I can blend in, and I go to these places and I observe people. I like to watch people. Especially when I first opened the store, and there would be all these weird people walking down Ludlow Street, and you're like, "Whoa!" [laughs] You know, it's kind of inspiring. I get bored when everybody looks alike, too.
CHRISTINA: I think it's time to check a few of the TG-170 stories I've been hearing, starting with the one about Vincent Gallo.
TERRI: I don't know if you can put this in there this is sort of mean, probably. But when I first met Vincent Gallo, he was going to design clothes, or he was designing clothes, or ... I think he was taking old clothes and redoing them, and he was going to put them in the store. Of course, he never did because he's too busy. But I was thinking that would have been so great, because I think he has such great taste himself. He has great style. I was thinking that all the girls in the East Village would want to come in and check out the clothes because every one of them is in love with him. [laughs] It's true!
CHRISTINA: Okay, and can you verify or deny that you once worked for a certain very famous couple.
TERRI: Well, I was always just trying to pay the rent, and I worked as a maid for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver after I got out of graduate school.
CHRISTINA: And didn't you also remove a certain item from their apartment?
TERRI: Oh, I took a pair of Arnold's underwear. That's the only thing. I'm not a thief, I'm totally honest, but I took a pair of his underwear and I used to wear them to the gym.
CHRISTINA: Do you still have them?
TERRI: No. This was years ago. I had a crush on him because he was really nice. Well, they were really never there. They were in California. I think she had a TV show or something here, and she would commute. I had keys to the apartment, and I would go in and change her bed and stuff. The Kennedy Foundation would send me a check every month. It was a cushy job not that I made that much money, but for what I did, it was easy. And I met him one time, and he was just like, "So why are you a maid?" I said, "Well, I'm paying off my student loan." He said, "Oh, that's going to take a long time."
CHRISTINA: That is so weird that he asked you why you were a maid.
TERRI: He did ask me that. He said, "So what are you doing this for?"
CHRISTINA: He probably didn't think you looked like someone who would be a maid.
TERRI: I don't know how maids look. I think I looked like a perky cute little girl, and this was a while ago. He probably wondered ...
CHRISTINA: What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?
TERRI: I know! And I just thought he was kind of cute, so I took a pair of his little underwear, and I wore them to the gym when I'd work out. I'd be like, "I've got Arnold Schwarzenegger's underwear on," and I'd be pumping the machines.
CHRISTINA: Were they BVDs.
TERRI: No, they were like, bikinis.
TERRI: Yeah. I don't know if you can put that in the article. He probably won't read it.
CHRISTINA: I'm sure they won't track you down.
TERRI: I don't think so. It's been years since I worked there. That's it. My brush with fame!
CHRISTINA: But you've had a few brushes with fame. Because your clientele includes Tatiana Von Furstenberg.
TERRI: She comes in from time to time, and now we have her mom's dresses in the store.
CHRISTINA: Oh, you do? Really. I want to try one of those on.
TERRI: You could actually say I have Tatiana's T-shirt from the beginning, from years ago. She was seeing Aaron from next door, that's how I met her. I was talking to her recently, and she was like, "Terri, I think that my mom's dresses could be cool for you, like some of the animal print and wood grains." And I went over and they were so nice to me, probably because I mentioned I was friends with Tatiana. But they did let me buy a few. I didn't buy a million, just eight or ten. They are beautiful dresses, they look really good. So that's true. She was one of our celebrities.
CHRISTINA: Drew Barrymore ...
TERRI: Right. I was on the side, just watching, and I thought, "Whoa, she's little. God, Drew Barrymore is little."
CHRISTINA: And Christian Lacroix comes in twice a year and buys things from you?
TERRI: He was in the store, and I was so embarrassed that I turned my face, like, my back to him. I was nervous. But that's true, he's been in the store.
CHRISTINA: And then Mariah Carey. Or was it a personal shopper?
TERRI: I think a personal shopper. Actually, Tatiana's brought in Jade Jagger. And she's also brought her friend Francesca, who's Barbara Bach's daughter, and Ringo Starr is her dad. They come in. They're actually like normal, nice girls really just like any other girls in the store. They're pretty cool, but the celebrity thing is funny.
CHRISTINA: I've heard that when famous people come into the store you usually have no idea who anybody is anyway.
TERRI: [laughs] I know! It's so true. Well, maybe now I do.