x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Back in the Limelight

Feature Once the haunt of Manhattan's über cool, this former landmark nightclub has been transformed from throbbing disco to high-end shopping mall. The luxe Limelight Marketplace is a feast for the senses and remains a place to indulge.

The former Limelight nightclub reopened in May as the Limelight Marketplace. The restored interior replaces the strobe lights and dancer's cages that once hung from the rafters.
The former Limelight nightclub reopened in May as the Limelight Marketplace. The restored interior replaces the strobe lights and dancer's cages that once hung from the rafters.

Once the haunt of Manhattan's über cool, this former landmark nightclub has been transformed from throbbing disco to high-end shopping mall. Sarah Maslin Nir discovers how the luxe Limelight Marketplace is a feast for the senses and remains a place to indulge. The ladies of Sex And The City have changed since we first met them in 1998. They've grown up, from hard-partying singletons to more homely gals who might spend New Year's Eve on the sofa with a cup of Pot Noodles (as Carrie did in the first film), and wear flashes of red, splashed not on their soles by Christian Louboutin, but on their derrières, put there by their messy, finger-painting children (see beleaguered Charlotte in the second movie).

And though in the latest film they touch down in Abu Dhabi for some fun in the sun (it was filmed in Morocco, but suspend disbelief: this is Hollywood, after all, where a woman over 50 such as Kim Cattrall's Samantha can still nab a man that makes Brad Pitt look ho-hum), their hometown of New York has grown up, too. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the astonishing makeover that one of the city's most famous/infamous nightclubs, The Limelight, has undergone in the past year. It is a transformation more startling than the reappearance of ex-boyfriend Aiden in Carrie's life on the sand-swept streets of a Middle Eastern bazaar. Unveiled last month, the club that Andy Warhol opened, where he threw his most outrageous parties, attended by his entourage of arty teens, party animals and sparkle-bedaubed, go-go-booted men and women, is now - brace yourself - a luxury shopping mall.

Limelight Marketplace opened on May 7. In the same spot where Edie Sedgwick and her ilk may have danced in those signature hot-pants so short they appeared trouser-less, now ladies who lunch amble through the more than 80 shops that vary in size from a pushcart kiosk to a grand boutique, and fill the space's several floors. It's the city's go-to, must-see shopping destination, so if you're escaping the UAE's searing summer in (slightly) less sweltering New York, I suggest you head over there.

It's not the first radical reincarnation of the Limelight space. The building itself used to be a church. The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion was built in 1844, but diminishing attendance led the congregation to sell the space. It eventually ended up in the hands of nightlife impresario Peter Gatien in 1983, who, with Warhol's help throwing the opening party, made it the scene in which to see and be seen.

Twenty years ago, the former church's vaulted nave was clouded by smoke machines and flickered with strobe light, bouncing off the bodies of male and female go-go dancers. They hung above the dance floor in human-sized bird cages suspended from the rafters. What a difference a couple of decades makes. Now, near the rafters on the second floor, there's a luxury pet boutique. Sophie and Teddy's Doggy Delights sells goodies such as doggie cologne, US$12 (Dh44), pet deodorant in mandarin orange and green tea scent, also $12, and canine "wine" (actually a meaty gravy) in slender glass bottles with names like "Barkundy" for $22 (Dh80). It's all very kitsch and ironic: shopkeeper Corraine Lisio points out a gold lamé trench for a Chihuahua that's not unlike something Samantha might wear. "It's Dog in the City," she says. Customers flock there for bedazzled or army print dog tags, which are top sellers, and even party dresses for pooches, complete with matching headbands. "It's Manhattan," she says, where customers dote on their purse-sized pooches as Charlotte does her Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Elizabeth Taylor, "and they dress them. Big time."

The new Limelight Marketplace is not for the practical shopper hurrying in to get some flour or eggs, or to pick up a basic T-shirt. It's more like a life-size Barbie dream house, touched with pink and gleaming with polish. Customers wander across the gleaming black and white checkerboard floor into a wonderland of miniature, exquisite shopping experiences. Sure, there are staples to be had in the food market, located towards the back of the space, but with a luxurious twist: if you're looking for something as basic as olive oil, for example, it's not that simple. Carter and Cavero has more than 30 brands.

The small booth features only casks of olive oil, and some vinegars. Anna Burke, 36, whose family owns the business, is often on hand to offer shot glasses of samples of rich or light oil with a crouton of bread floating on top. With descriptions such as "grassy" and prices that shoot above $20 (Dh73) for a small bottle for flavors infused with things like white truffles, Burke says she treats her goods "like a wine".

Beside her, another humble liquid is hawked in an equally rarefied manner. At MissTea, the tiny countertop booth is littered with minute glass bottles of unique tea blends. Revital Shova, one of the co-owners, once danced in the confines of the former club when she was younger; she doesn't remember the nightclub fondly. "It went from hell to heaven," she says of the revamped space, now tranquil with softly lilting music in place of blaring bass and throbbing beats. Shova sells her healing blends such as "FemininiTea" and "MasculiniTea" with different herbs to complement men and women's different bodies, for $15 (Dh55) a piece. A package of hand-sewn balls of white tea that dramatically bloom like flowers in hot water costs $25 (Dh92).

Flowers grace unusual items at Limelight Marketplace, such as the Maribelle chocolates in the pastel pushcart that sits centrestage in the dance-floor-turned-lobby. The most popular, says Vanessa Duran, 17, who passes out samples and sells the pricy treats (they're $14 [Dh52] for four bonbons) are the ones made with saffron and or lavender. Oddly, the day of the week dictates which will sell better. Duran has some theories: "On a weekday, people like to take it smooth," she says. Thus mellow lavender chocolates fly out of the cart. Saffron sells well from Friday to Sunday, because "On the weekend, people like to spice it up".

There's no flour in the itsy-bitsy wedding cakes at the ultra-girly Little Candy Cake Company stall, tucked in the back of the cavernous space. The bite-size cakes are actually made out of chocolate. Krissy Paragallo, 26, sells the 28g cakes, bedecked with tiny butterflies or sparkly sprinkles for $4 apiece. They're made by her aunt, a former wardrobe stylist for MTV, who discovered her confectionery skills when a broken foot kept her housebound. The cutesy cakes have taken off from just a few made as gifts for friends, to huge orders for wedding favours. But Paragallo, her grandmother and her aunt still make them all by hand. "It's insane," she says.

Up several flights of stairs, near the peaked roof of the church, John Wye, 30, sells leather goods that range from belts to dog collars in his eponymous shop. They feature intricate designs created by a stable of 18 artists tattooed into the hides. His shop floor was once the club's VIP area, where real-life versions of the Sex And The City girls sipped cosmopolitans, looking down at the melee on the dance floor below.

There's also a pristine stained-glass window that, in the club's heyday, was boarded up for fear, according to Wye, of "people falling drunkenly through it". Among Wye's first customers were three former go-go dancers who climbed the stairs to his lofty balcony shop to point out where the cages they once boogied in used to hang. Of the dozens of shops in the Limelight Marketplace, a girly shrine to consumerist indulgence, the only dedicated shoe shop appears to specialise in trainers. Though this could easily be the Sex And The City mothership, without a Manolo for sale in sight, Carrie Bradshaw might never step a stiletto-clad foot through the door.

Limelight Marketplace, 47 W 20th Street, at 6th Avenue, New York, +1 212 226 7585