Head to the basement and you will pass an elongated cage with a square-shaped swinging door. Its purpose is a mystery. The downstairs is darker, more stark — a cross between a dungeon and an asylum out of a B-horror flick. “Down here you’ll find things a bit more raw and broken,” Ms. Schley said.
Bits of tile are missing from the floor and walls, holes have been left unpatched, and the fluorescent lights and reflective ceiling material that Mr. Maisel used for his photography remain.
A large bank vault with a four-door layer of protection and a cage around it dominates the space. Inside, shoes are displayed on metal shelves that attach magnetically to the walls.
A room by the vault was once used by customers taking necklaces and brooches out of their safe deposit boxes to try on before heading to the theater. It now contains a jewelry case.
The fitting rooms downstairs are separated from the main floor with strips of clear plastic. Upstairs, they are former vaults, their heavy iron doors still in place. Not to worry, claustrophobes: “These will stay 100 percent open,” Ms. Schley said. “Getting undressed in a vault is perhaps uncomfortable. So we added a soft carpet, a soft curtain, lighting.”
Maison Margiela and Dries Van Noten hold court in two other sections of the basement. Dries Van Noten is in a corner illuminated by a red light, a reference to the Paris tunnel where the designer showed his collection last February. Maison Margiela’s nook reflects the label’s embrace of white; it is brightly lit and accessorized with furniture covered by white drape cloths.
“No other brand can fit into that space as well as Margiela does,” said Chris Green, the divisional merchandise manager for Totokaelo. Others have more flexibility in shifting between the floors. “You can take a brand like Jacquemus and bring it downstairs because of the color palette, the very harsh whites and blacks together,” he said. “Upstairs it feels light, airy and fresh. You can bring Vetements down here and it would fit right in and be very street, dark, ’90s, techno.”
Despite the many nods to the history of 190 Bowery, one retail decision was made with the future in mind. “This will be the first time men’s and women’s will be together,” Mr. Green said. “Our female client is not scared to buy men’s wear, our men’s wear client is not scared to buy women’s wear. As we progress, that line of this is a men’s or women’s item is fading.”