Curating Fashion: Claire Distenfeld of Fivestory

Curating Fashion: Claire Distenfeld of Fivestory
Claire Distenfeld, owner of the New York boutique Fivestory.
(Courtesy Evan Sung)

NEW YORK — Claire Distenfeld sat under a Marilyn Minter in the “shoe garden” of her Upper East Side boutique, Fivestory. She spoke about how a love for art — but distaste for art-world politics — led her to quit her job at a gallery and create the store, a little jewel box of a shop filled with a tightly edited selection of quirky high fashion and arty accessories.

“I found that with the store, all I kept going back to was what in a piece of art made me feel good, made me feel balanced,” said Distenfeld, who studied fine art at NYU and Sotheby’s. “Because I was opening a store that isn’t any extreme — it’s kind of taking two extremes and making this beautiful marriage in the middle: uptown, downtown; decadent, comfortable; masculine, feminine — my only resource to find that was in art.”


And so she drew on her knowledge of curating, filling the space with narratives, little “moments,” she calls them — the way two shoes sit next to each other, or the way a necklace is paired with a dress.   

“It should be a fantasy world. You should see a dress, a pair of shoes, and a necklace and be like, ‘I’m going to go out, I’m going to dance, I’m going to meet someone.’ You should start thinking of what this dress could do for you, and then what you could do it for it,” the 26-year-old told ARTINFO. “That’s the same thing with art. You look at art and you think about the story behind it: What is she doing? Where is she going? Where did she come from?”

The shop, which opened this past spring, occupies a chic townhouse on East 69th Street, just off of Madison Avenue. Proenza Schouler’s flagship is just around the corner. The shop is divided into little rooms, each designed in glossy black and white by fashion’s favorite interior designer of the moment, Ryan Korban. Children’s clothing is downstairs, fine designers are at the top of a grand staircase, and just beyond, a glittering room of accessories, like those paperback-inspired minaudières by Olympia Le Tan. In a little less than a year, Fivestory has become a favorite for high-end shoppers seeking the unexpected.

There are plates emblazed with Basquiat drawings and plastic jewels by Ek Thongprasert, dresses collaged with scraps of discontinued fabric by Russian designer Vika Gazinskaya, and archive pieces from a forgotten French house called Leonard. And then there’s Distenfeld’s favorite at the moment — a pair of $7,600 embroidered runway pants by Balmain. Her friends may have balked at the price tag, but their craftsmanship and scarcity (“There’s only about eight or nine of them in the world”) convinced Distenfeld that she was making the right decision.

“When everyone said, ‘You’re an idiot, no one’s going to buy them,’ I was like, ‘Nobody buys these pants, I put them in a Plexiglas box, I put ’em on my wall,’” Distenfeld said. “To me it’s art. And it’s a pretty good price… it’s a piece.”

In her efforts to acquire such unique items, she follows a process similar to her work finding new artists. She constantly talks to people she trusts, but the real progress is made “knee-deep in the Internet,” as one boutique’s selection leads her to discover new, young designers, and in turn, new stockists with rosters of their own. “It’s kind of like a conversation with yourself and next thing you know you’re 20 clicks from where you started, you don’t know how you got there, but you’re always taking notes, and you’re always learning.” 

With learning comes change, and Distenfeld admits that her style is constantly evolving, and the store will keep changing right along with it. During our interview she wore a Peter Pilotto dress — the designer is a favorite at the store — in red, her current power color. (“I could be wearing a red garbage bag, but I’d feel good,” she said.)

She’s been wearing more color lately, and encourages others to do so too. In fact, her New Year’s resolution is to find a more consistent look within her color obsession. She’s pared it down to a few favorite hues (red, green, and navy), and now she’s looking to streamline the shapes. But come New Year’s Eve, anything goes.

“You have to be comfortable. If you’re going out on New Year’s and you’re wearing a strapless dress where a nip slip or something might happen, you have to be comfortable. Wear really good shoes. And dress, just different,” said Distenfeld. “I think there are moments in your life, your birthday, New Year’s… just don’t wear black.”