By Patrick Hedlund
DNAinfo News Editor
LITTLE ITALY — Organizers of the San Gennaro festival are going fashion forward in their attempt to find common ground with NoLIta boutique owners upset over the annual event's impact on the neighborhood.
The 85-year-old festival — which stretches across seven blocks of Mulberry Street each September around the same time as New York Fashion week — recently ran into opposition from NoLIta clothiers on the north end of Mulberry Street, who claim the event hurts their bottom lines and brings noise and rowdy behavior to the neighborhood.
Following the local community board's recent recommendation to cut the event off at Kenmare Street to satisfy merchants, organizers have offered to build a stage for fashion events as a way to work with the growing haute-couture community.
"We're making this offer as way to bring them into the fold," said John Fratta, a San Gennaro board member whose great-grandfather founded the festival in 1926 with a group of immigrants from Naples.
"Personally, I think they'd be foolish not to accept that offer."
The stage could be utilized however the storeowners saw fit, to help showcase their wares during the festival, which draws hundreds of thousands of people to the area over the course of the 11-day event, said Little Italy Merchants Association president Ralph Tramontana.
"There's got to be a way that you can tap into that market," he added of how shop-owners could take advantage of the stage.
However, some store employees thought the idea of mixing fashion with a festival known for fried food and carnival games didn't make sense.
"There's not a lot of women who'd feel comfortable walking on a runway during San Gennaro," said Brianna Miller, manager of the Malia Mills swimwear store at 199 Mulberry St., adding that the constant cooking and garbage produced by the festival didn't make the area attractive to shoppers and fashionistas.
"I just feel like they're two completely different things."
Others said that while offering a stage was "a nice gesture," it didn't address their concerns about street stalls blocking stores or the overall atmosphere created by San Gennaro.
"It's not the right market," said Tina T., manager of the clothing store Project 234 at 234 Mulberry St., who declined to give her last name.
She explained that the aromas from the food vendors — "everything smells like empanadas" — and excess refuse created by the event don't jibe with high style.
"I have silk dresses — I'm not going to put them out there and have them come back smelling like barbecue," she added.
An employee at Lilith at 227 Mulberry St. said that a fashion show wouldn't necessarily make sense in that area, since the block held so many small-scale boutiques, unlike the higher-profile downtown neighborhoods.
"I don't think it would be useful," said Stephanie Borgovan, who's worked for the store since 2006. "Maybe if San Gennaro were in SoHo."
Nonetheless, she didn't feel the event should be shortened in order to accommodate stores such as hers.
"I think they're kind of fun," she admitted of the yearly festivals.
Miller, of nearby Malia Mills, also acknowledged that the festival had a long history in the community that couldn't necessarily be changed to suit the stores' needs.
"Obviously we came to this neighborhood knowing it was here," she said of the festival. "It's not our place to say whether it should or should not stop at Kenmare."
Fratta explained that building the stage was conditional on whether the full feasts would be allowed to proceed. But he noted that if the boutique owners decided not to participate, organizers would instead use the stage to feature Italian fashions.
"Either way we're doing something for Fashion Week," he maintained.
He and Tramontana also took offense at merchants' sentiments that San Gennaro and fashion couldn't coexist.
"They say it's not their clientele," Tramontana said. "Are you trying to say our clientele isn't good enough for you?"