Open the door to Stephanie von Watzdorf's jewel box of a shop on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan's NoLIta neighborhood and the distinct smell of her new fig candle drifts out. It's the scent of her childhood summers spent on the tiny island of Isola dei Galli, off the coast of Positano, Italy, where her grandfather, the famous Ballet Russes dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine, brought his dance troupes for retreat. “The island was full of figs and rosemary, and the smell still takes me back there,” she says.
The candle is only a small part of the shop's assortment of internationally sourced items—but an important one. “People want to be taken away,” von Watzdorf says. “I want to create that moment, that world. It's about transporting them.” It's a talent she honed during design stints at Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren and finally Tory Burch, where she was the first vice president of design and helped to take the company from nowhere to everywhere. The Paris-born, New York–bred designer hopes to do the same for her months-old shop and year-old label Figue (pronounced “fig”) by filling her collection with globally minded, seasonless items that are heavy on embellishment and artistry.
The nondescript space alone is not much more than a white shoebox, but von Watzdorf has outfitted it with objects found during her frequent travels, like Moroccan wedding blankets and hand-crocheted lanterns that hang from the ceiling. And unlike other boutiques of that ilk (which can often appear as the souvenir shops of bored housewives), von Watzdorf's curation of items is that of a mindful, jet-set magpie. Masai collars and vintage West African trading beads hang above the tunics and tuxedo shirts, and an intricately carved 17th-century Indian doorway anchors the entire room. “I found it in Morocco, and we had to cut off a piece to fit it into the store,” she says.
Her own creations include embroidered and beaded tunics and caftans inspired by Marrakech souk finds; ballet flats topped with Turkish pom-poms; and alpaca sweaters made by women's cooperatives in Bolivia. But the label's standout items are the one-of-a-kind, vintage World War I and II army jackets, which the tall, athletic and sun-kissed von Watzdorf wears almost daily. The surplus finds are hand-beaded with snakes, scarabs, evil eyes and other motifs by a small team of artisans in Mumbai. “We aren't a huge company, but we're doing our part to preserve this dying art,” she says.
A recent trip to Nairobi, the Masai Mara and Lamu in Kenya will serve as inspiration for von Watzdorf's spring 2015 collection, but she says she doesn't rely solely on travel to inform her point of view; her family's own bohemian history is equally influential. A look inside her downtown studio reveals walls of family memorabilia: a portrait of Massine by Picasso and a letter to Massine from Matisse; Léon Bakst sketches of ballet costumes; and Slim Aarons snapshots of her father's family in their Porto Ercole summer home. In fact, her father's uniform of old tuxedo shirts inspired the beaded versions that are mainstays of her collection. “They were frayed at the collar, elegant in a relaxed way,” she says. “It's about an innate, easy style.” At 268 Elizabeth St.; figue.com.