“I would love to live in a store,” Nick Wooster confides. His full name, Nickelson Wooster, even sounds like one. Stepping inside his West Village apartment, it’s hard not to believe we’ve just discovered Manhattan’s coolest boutique. Lined across the black living room shelves, shiny brogues and distressed work boots stand at attention—among them a pair of Tricker’s wingtips that Wooster bought 30 years ago and still wears. Filling two leather trays on an entry table, dozens of sunglasses in all shapes and colors await the day’s selection. Atop the kitchen cabinets, a collection of fedoras and bowler hats rest on paint cans, which only recently held the gravel hue that now covers the walls.
Wooster moved into the one-bedroom five months ago; he previously lived in a studio in the same building after moving back to New York from L.A. five years ago. The prewar apartment on the corner of Christopher Street and Greenwich Avenue, just a stone’s throw from neighborhood favorites like Waverly Inn and Morandi, receives beautiful south and west light, and he likes the contrast of a dark space.
“This isn’t even the exact color I want,” he says. It’s precisely that discretionary eye that has made the fashion icon’s name, earning the respect of bloggers around the globe and inspiring GQ to dub him the “alpha male of American street style.” This morning, he has yet to step outside where his picture is snapped daily by admirers, but Wooster is ready. He’s wearing a dapper Dries Van Noten jacket over a Brooks Brothers button-up, RTH army pants and Adidas Stan Smith shoes. An oversize pin joins the two ends of his shirt collar—an offbeat detail that, along with his theatrical pouf of hair and perfectly groomed white beard, lends him an eccentric but gentlemanly air. “The structure may be classic,” he says. “But the effect is not.” We dub it Willy Wonka meets Ulysses S. Grant.
Despite having innately good taste, the 54-year-old has never designed clothes but has instead spent his life buying them. “I’m a merchant,” he explains, humbly positioning himself beneath “creators” like Thom Browne and Karl Lagerfeld. “I have ideas, and I know how to put things together.” During more than three decades in the business, he has served as the men’s fashion director for Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus and held various stints at Barneys, Polo Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and even JCPenney. He currently lends his curatorial judgement to Gilt Man and Lardini.
Yet it’s not just aesthetics but kinship that factors into his curation. “I always feel differently wearing something when I have a relationship with the person who created it,” he says, pointing to designer friends like Thom Browne and Mark McNairy. The same extends to his home décor. When he purchased the structural gray sofa in the living room from Stephen Kenn, he and the furniture designer spent a nightmarish afternoon together walking it up the stairs. The colorful oil portrait now hanging above it was painted by a long-time friend, the Los Angeles-based artist Aaron Smith.
Most of the items in his apartment have sentimental value, attached in some way to people who matter in his life’s history, he says. The golden Volkswagen logo hanging on one wall, which came off a VW bus, was a gift from his father, who worked as a mechanic in the small Kansas town where Wooster grew up. The floor mirror and the painter’s stool, which today holds a vase of bright daisies, once belonged to a friend. Two matching Lucite lamps flanking the couch were given to him 18 years ago by George Cortina, who also gave him a bedroom dresser originally owned by Martha Stewart. “I now know Martha, and I told her I lacquered it black,” Wooster says with a slight grin. “She didn’t say she was upset, but …”
Though such objects conjure fond memories, his heart is still on Fifth Avenue. “I always think about the Goodman family that lived above Bergdorf Goodman,” he says. “That’s a total dream for me.” He’d settle for Barneys or even Dover Street. In case that doesn’t work out, his backup plan is to eventually move into a two-bedroom if one opens up in his current building, then he could use one of the rooms as a closet. Yet looking around his living room today, surrounded by the shoes that he loves, Wooster lets out a sigh. “I don’t even know if one room would do it.”