Elements of Stylee

Traffic-stopping spring looks from a Monroe Avenue treasure



Two models for New York stylee show off some of its clothing.

Michael Hanlon

It’s hard to believe that New York Stylee is twenty this year. Established in 1997 by Helen and Kevin Knight, the shop is noted for its wild window displays and racy club attire. Before opening her shop, Helen—originally from England and still with family there—would buy her clothes in New York or overseas. Upon her return home, she frequently received compliments and inquiries about where she found her garments. Eventually, she started buying items in twos and threes to bring back to her friends. 

Knight met Jamaican-born Kevin at a nightclub, and the couple decided to open a storefront. They originally had their eye on the building that houses Rent-a-Center, but wound up taking an open spot next door to their current location. The Knights traveled back and forth to New York on a shoestring budget and spent weekends sleeping in their big red van to bring fresh looks back to their clientele. Their landlord was very kind, so when the corner spot (a former floral shop) opened five years later, they moved into their present location at 459 Monroe Avenue.

According to Helen, much of their success in retail has come from word of mouth and keeping styles fresh. Thankfully, they no longer need to overnight in their van. “Online shopping has made it much easier,” she says. “We get new styles every week.” They also have strong ties to the Rochester community and help cross-promote local reggae events, rap concerts, and other city happenings. “Instagram has become very helpful,” she says. She frequently posts new arrivals and sales throughout the day and features women of all shapes and sizes. She also refers to plus-sized clothing as “fluffy-sized.” Asked about that, she replies: “It’s actually a Jamaican [term] and most people like it. We’ve only had a couple people say that they don’t!”

More importantly, their interpersonal and relationship-building skills have enhanced their success and set their business apart from others. New York Stylee is a family-owned and operated business. The Knights’ children work at the store and also design some of the clothing items such as bras and paint-splattered jeans. Kevin additionally offers customization and alterations. There is a small area with children’s toys so that kids can play while they wait for their mothers to try on clothes. “Some of the mothers of those children started shopping here, and now their kids are grown and come in to shop themselves,” says Helen. The average shopper is a young female (eighteen to mid-thirties) who resides in the city, but Helen says that mothers and grandmothers in their sixties also frequent the store, as well as some local drag performers.

Community involvement is very important to the Knights. When POST recently published an article on sex trafficking, they gathered items at the store—clothes, diapers, etc.—to help the women in need. They also sell “Be Fierce” t-shirts from Empower Our Sisters, an organization that donates twenty percent of proceeds from shirt sales to nonprofit organizations that support women. Local beneficiaries have included Women’s Foundation of Genesee Valley and Women Sanctuary. They are big supporters of shopping and eating at local small businesses. Over the next several years, the Knights envision the family business expanding and evolving with the help of their children—possibly a “Stylee 2” within the vicinity. With their passion for the local community, they would also like to stay in town. “We’re not really into malls,” says Helen. 

If they were interested, the store would undoubtedly attract some attention from mall walkers. The over-the-top New York Stylee window displays actually sparked the interest of local photographer and historian Annette Dragon. Like many people, Dragon first got a glimpse of the windows from the Meigs Street and Monroe Avenue intersection and started keeping her camera in the car to document the unusual displays. Last September, she exhibited her body of work about the shop at MuCCC in a show aptly named Stylee and Mee. Regarding the showy displays, Helen says, “I think there are a lot of misconceptions. Men come in thinking it’s a sex emporium. At times, we have to tame the windows a little to bring in different clientele.” Part of that taming includes the omission of what Kevin calls “Freakum Shorts” from the displays. The shorts—with rear-end cutouts located on each side—certainly brought in some foot traffic. They appeal to all genders and sell out very quickly, but “They’re banned from the windows for now,” says Helen, as Kevin giggles behind the counter.

For those who might be intimidated by the windows, Helen says, “We’ve had people come in to shop for birthdays, concerts, cruises, summer parties, and bachelorettes—basically everything.” She then continues, “We’re not raunchy. As a family-owned business, we’re welcoming and helpful. We have plenty of nice items that can be styled and adjusted depending on how sexy you want them to be.” 

 

Stacey Rowe is a freelance writer based in Rochester. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram as @ladysensory and at staceyrowe.com.

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