In November of last year, amid the aggressive grey that is winter in New York City, Christopher Street was overrun with color. From Hudson to Bleecker, someone had swaddled the trees in different shades of crochet. Nearly 1,500 squares of lavender, mint green, cobalt, powdered pink, and egg-yolk yellow lined the sidewalks. Passerby began posing with them, Instagramming them, calling them “tree cozies.” Parents admired the eight-foot-tall sweaters with their children, asking aloud which ones were medium, which ones were large. As it turns out, the trees of Christopher Street were clothed by Holly and her aunt Polly.
Holly Boardman, owner of local lingerie store Musèe Lingerie, has one of those half smiles; a smile that pulls one corner all the way to her cheek bone while leaving the other undisturbed. There’s an edgy charm to her; like the Mona Lisa meets CBGB. After studying graphic design at Pratt, Holly seems to have expanded her skillset to include nearly everything. “I’ve done interior design, set design for commercials; you name it, I’ve done it,” she says. “I do electricity and plumbing as well.” She rubs her fingers together and smiles. “My hands are tools. I can do anything with them.”
Originally from Vermont, Holly has always had a passion for lingerie. “When I was a little girl I used to go into my mom’s drawers and dress up in her negligees,” she says. “I feel like women really become art when they wear it.” So, when Holly moved to New York in the summer of 2016 and opened Musée Lingerie at 114 Christopher Street, she made sure that art had a constant presence. Today, all along the exposed brick walls, above racks and shelves of silk and lace, there are nude portraits of women. Women draped over sofas and chairs, reclining to the sound of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” Holly regularly rotates the artists that are featured in her store. In the back are two large grey-blue curtains that act as changing rooms, while the two large, full-length mirrors within give the illusion that the space, the art, continues. “I wanted to curate art and lingerie together,” says Holly. “That’s where the name Musèe came from, because it is kind of a museum of art and lingerie.”
When Holly moved in, the sidewalk of Musèe, compared to the store itself, seemed a bit bland. “This used to be such a creative place,” she says. “I mean, when I would come here in the ’80s and ’90s it was so bohemian. Now it’s really changed.” The dreary days of winter had only made things worse. But Holly had an idea. A few years prior, she had seen a yarn bomb – knitting, but graffiti-style – in Soho; someone had covered an entire bike, wheels and all, in yarn. Holly thought of this while looking at the bare, skinny tree outside the window of Musèe, and she decided she wanted to do something similar. As it turned out, Holly’s aunt had just yarn-bombed a tree outside of her own house.
When I call Polly Larkin the first thing I notice is that even a cell phone can’t diminish her smooth, gentle cadence. At 77, she speaks as if every minute is a Sunday morning. Her tone is warm and matter-of-fact. “Everything Holly is, I’m the opposite,” she laughs. “She’s tall and willowy and beautiful, and I’m short and, you know, white haired and not beautiful at all.” A Vermonter born and bred, she graduated from the University of Vermont. But finding a job proved difficult when, as she puts it, “no one valued my deep experience with 16th century French literature.” She eventually found both work and a husband at a travel agency in Burlington. She and her husband have since retired, and they’ve spent hundreds of hours on various cruises, taking in sites around the world.
“I don’t have an artistic bone in my body,” says Polly. After some pushback, she adds a little caveat. “Well, that stuff was never thought of as artistic when I was young. I learned to crochet when I was six or seven years old because that’s just what little girls did.” As Polly grew, so did her projects. She would make immense dining-room-table-sized doilies with repeating patters out of white thread. “They were kind of like kaleidoscopes,” she says. But between raising kids, having a job, and having a generally active lifestyle, there wasn’t a lot of time to crochet. It was only after she and her husband retired, and on those relaxing cruises, that Polly was able to dedicate more time to it. One of her most exciting projects was when she made a wrapping for the tree outside her house, a tree that’s about 10 to 12 feet around. So when her niece called and asked if she’d like to do something similar for a much smaller tree in New York, Polly happily agreed.
Early one morning, in January of 2017, Polly’s creations adorned Musèe’s tree. She had crocheted hundreds of palm-sized roses in varying shades of pink and red. People started raving about the yarn blossoms instantly. Holly watched from her desk as countless strangers stopped to study, touch, or photograph her tree. Neighborhood shop owners would walk in and praise the new burst of color on their block. So when, months later, three stores went out of business across the street, Holly figured she knew a great way to raise the community’s morale. She asked Polly if she’d be willing to make three more wrappings. Soon after they arrived, Holly made a plan to wake up before dawn and lace them up. A certain level of secrecy was needed, since, as Polly says, “It does involve a wee bit of civil disobedience.”
The community’s reaction was remarkable. Neighborhood residents and shop owners alike thanked Holly for what she’d done. Some sent thank you cards, some came into the store personally, some smiled extra wide while walking by her window. If just three trees could do this, Holly thought, why not do the whole damn street. Polly had never done something of this scale before, but, of course, she agreed. It took most of the year to make everything. Polly would crochet almost every evening for two or three hours. Two or three hours, every night, for almost seven months. In November of last year, the supplies were in, and Holly was ready for a wee bit of civil disobedience.
Within a week, Holly and her partner wrapped nearly every tree on their block. Around the eighth or ninth wrapping, they hit a snag. “Oh, yeah, the police came once,” says Holly. “It was like 6:30 in the morning near the Maison Kaiser. A cop car pulls up and he rolls the window down and goes, ‘Aha! Busted! So you’re the culprits!’ We were so scared. And he goes, ‘I wanted to thank you. You have made such a difference in this neighborhood.’ And here we thought we were going to be arrested.” But that doesn’t mean everyone was happy with the project. One building in particular requested that their trees be kept bare. Someone even went so far as to cut one wrapping off with a pair of scissors. The next day, a neighbor walked into Musèe with the discarded tree cozy draped over his outstretched arms, like a beloved pet that had just been hit by a car. They apologized profusely and wondered aloud how someone could do such a thing. In the end, Holly decided to leave certain trees alone, while the others continued to attract and amuse neighbors and strangers alike.
The trees of Christopher Street stayed warm and colorful throughout the winter. But now as Spring draws near, both Holly and the city have decided it’s time the tree cozies came down. “A guy from the parks and recreation department came and said they need to come off,” says Holly. Supposedly they could be harmful to the trees, though this point seems to be contested. Some say that the trees need to breath and that the moisture accumulating in the yarn isn’t good for them. Others say that the winter season is harsher than yarn and there’s nothing growing to harm in the first place. Holly, meanwhile, has her own reasons. “I already knew I would take them down by April. By then it’ll be warm and sunny and the sweaters won’t make sense.”
So where will the nearly $600 worth of yarn go? Some will be donated to PS 3, the elementary school around the corner on Hudson. Some will be recycled. Holly will take the rest up to a plot of land she owns in Grandville, where they’ll be used during walks in the woods and warming up indoors. But this doesn’t mean that Holly and Polly are finished. It seems that something equally artistic and public will be revealed in the near future. “I can’t tell you what it is yet,” says Holly, “but we are definitely brainstorming something.”