A boutique that opened earlier this year is just one sign of the big changes underway in Port Morris. Jerome Lamar, the designer who owns 9J Boutique at 41 Bruckner Boulevard, said he knows that opening an upscale clothing store in a neighborhood long known for its high crime and poverty rates carries risks, but that he is determined to overcome them and thrive.
Last April, a month before LaMaar was about to open, a man was shot just steps away from his new store. The bloody crime scene did not deter him from moving in.
“That’s not new to me,” said LaMaar. “I’m from the ‘hood, I have seen people get shot outside my window.”
The Soundview native started interning with Baby Phat when he was just 15. Now he works with celebrities like Beyoncè and Mariah Carey and says he wants to help introduce that glamorous feel to the area despite its reputation.
“I want to bring luxury to the South Bronx,” he said. “Luxury does not have to be big and expensive. It can be as simple as a handmade soap.”
9J offers curated custom-made pieces for men and women, like oversized distressed denim jackets covered in sequins and pearls. Most of the pieces in the store—they can range from $200 to $1000—were created by Bronx designers. 9J also offers handmade soaps and candles starting at $40.
LaMaar says most of his revenue so far stems from the events he hosts. He invites other designers and fashion influencers to view his latest collections. It’s not uncommon, he said, for those designers to spend thousands on custom designs within a few hours. But although he acknowledges that the big transactions originate from buyers from outside the area, he hopes more business will come in from within the neighborhood. Still, he says, he would never trade in his Bronx boutique for a Manhattan storefront.
“Manhattan is dead,” said LaMaar. “There is nothing new there. I’m grateful to be here because it gives me the opportunity to create something new and authentic.”
Locally, 9J has received mixed reviews. Some business owners say the shop is a great addition to the neighborhood, but residents have some words of advice for the budding boutique.
“He should design pieces at lower price points for people who live in the area,” said Mott Haven resident Maria Brown. “Everyone wants luxury but everyone can’t afford it.”
Crash Matos, co-owner of the WallWorks art gallery next door, sees no issues with the prices. “I think it’s great that they don’t play down to people when it comes to their prices,” said Matos.
“We have the Mitchel housing projects over here, and then Patterson houses over there,” he said, pointing to the nearby NYCHA complexes. “But who is to say they can’t go into the boutique and buy a leather jacket for $2,000.”
One woman who works nearby, Stephanie Hernandez, passes 9J every day. Although she has never been inside, she said she is happy to see it in the neighborhood.
“It’s cool,” said Hernandez. “Especially for this area, because people would not expect something like that in this community. I will definitely be checking it out.”