But for fans of fashion designers like Prada, Céline, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, Moschino and more, look no further than the display windows of two vacant businesses from 14 to 18 W. Fourth St.
Once home to the upscale Gidding-Jenny department store (which closed in 1995), the location has been empty since T.J. Maxx left in 2015.
Unveiled Feb. 8, the new Positively 4th Street: Downtown’s New Look exhibit is an interactive homage to the history of both the buildings it lives in and the fashion of Cincinnati — even if some of the outfits on display are decidedly avant-garde. The exhibit is vibrant and lit-up and seems to spill out of the windows and onto the sidewalk. The mannequins behind the long glass panels strike manic poses and sport neon mohawks; some are flanked by televisions flickering vaporwave visuals.
Behind the display are Tony Tiemeyer, proprietor of Northside’s Evolution Fashion Studio, an appointment-only studio specializing in rare modern and vintage pieces; high-end fashion and beauty photographer Annette Navarro; and designers Kelsey Wing and Tyler Billman, who applied their creative energy to the video and set-design elements.
The mannequins wear designs from both last year and decades ago.
A Punk military-style 1990s Maison Margiela outfit stands proud in a display case wallpapered with editorial photographs taken by Navarro. And nearby is one of Jean Paul Gaultier’s 1996 jersey bodysuits with printed body contours. The pieces on view are as culturally significant as they are beautiful: the iconic Dolce & Gabbana “SEX” choker circles the neck of one of the mannequins, as attention-grabbing now as it was during the Spring/Summer 2003 fashion season.
In fact, the entire exhibit is flashy and eye catching. When I visited, I was joined by curious Cincinnatians who slowed their quick paces to take a second — or more — to feast their gaze on the joy of impeccable design.
Collector Tiemeyer often works with museums, stylists and other fashion connoisseurs, but this time, for the downtown display, he worked with Jim Tarbell, the former Cincinnati Council member and vice mayor. As Tarbell explains it, the Fourth Street property’s owner hired him to be the “building whisperer” and to try to find ways to preserve and reuse the space.
The story behind Positively 4th Street is one of serendipity. “The way it all developed, I was going to lunch at Maplewood, and I was walking by the old T.J. Maxx space,” Tiemeyer says. “I see the doors opening, and there’s Jim Tarbell. I said to him, ‘What’s going on with these windows? They’re such great windows and it’s almost half the block. Why don’t you let me come up with something creative?’ Jim was receptive and said, ‘Bring it on.’ ”
Tarbell tells the story slightly differently. He remarks that, one fateful day, he saw Tiemeyer poking around the buildings for inspiration and told him to get in there. The two began discussing the empty window displays of a building that once housed two of the most important fashion stores in Cincinnati history — J.M. Gidding & Co. and Jenny Co. — and Tarbell says he told Tiemeyer to “have at it!”
“He put his team together, and it’s so stunning,” Tarbell says. “The fashion exhibit is reminiscent of what was there a generation ago.”
In 1907, Charles P. Taft, brother of William Howard Taft, lured sophisticated New York fashion retailer J.M. Gidding & Co. to West Fourth Street and commissioned the rich Rookwood pottery façade that is still a vibrant addition to the modern downtown streetscape.
Gidding & Co. helped transform that block into the “women’s square,” as it became known. “There were clothing stores and jewelry stores,” Tarbell says. “It was the biggest deal in the Tristate and Gidding was there.”
Jenny Co., a store similar to Gidding, moved into the adjacent building in the 1930s. In the 1960s, they merged and the renovated, combined space became known as Gidding-Jenny. It closed in 1995.
Gidding-Jenny had a signature color: a lush, deep purple. “The hat boxes, the clothing bags, the shopping bags — it was that Gidding-Jenny purple,” Tarbell says.
Remembering the importance of the Gidding-Jenny store, Tarbell stepped in to aid in the building’s preservation when he had a chance. He tells of walking by the store as a child to visit his father’s nearby law office and smelling the perfume piped into the street to create atmosphere. “It was like wonderland for me as a kid,” Tarbell says. “So when they called me to help this building, I ran to help.”
The fashion on display now is, without much of an argument, much different than what once lit up the Gidding-Jenny windows. The neon colors, bright lights, fishnets and spiked shoes are a stark contrast to the ornate burgundy, green, yellow and purple exterior cornucopia of Rookwood fruit and sculpted faces. However, the contrast works. It tells the story of a city with much history that is growing new life while simultaneously discovering its roots.
“The fashion is here in Cincinnati,” Tiemeyer says. “People just don’t realize it. We’ve just created a little bit of energy in a beautiful building.”
When the weather warms up, plan to walk along this block of West Fourth Street. Or, do what I did and go on a particularly chilly day. Seeing the exploding riot of fashion as I huddled near the windows, in my scarf, was like sitting by a roaring fire.
Neither Tarbell nor Tiemeyer could say how long the display would be up, or what it may turn into in the future. “No one knows where this display is going,” Tarbell says. “And isn’t that a hoot? I’d like to see what Mr. Tiemeyer and his team does next.” ©