Mogul approaches economy with optimism

Although most Americans might view Wall Street as the symbolic villain that brought the economy to its knees, enterprising New Yorkers still view themselves as a breed apart when it comes to maintaining a stiff upper-crust lip. Everybody in Manhattan is feeling the recession’s pinch though few are willing to admit it. Martha Stewart, however, has found a way of turning financial lemons into fiscal lemonade and she’s willing to share her recipe.

“I talk about the economy on my TV show every day because that’s what my viewers are concerned about,” says Stewart. “Yet the reality is, this economy has taken a toll right here on the Upper East Side. Just look at Madison Avenue. It’s very quiet. We have to admit that it’s a different world right now if we’re going to adapt.”

Stewart, who frequently entertains business associates in her home was reminded just recently that the poor economy has penetrated even the loftiest circles. “I was entertaining a group of advertising clients, all successful people, not necessarily in the habit of economizing,” she tells Variety. “We got into this really interesting conversation about how this economy has changed not just the way we act but the way we think. What was so eye-opening for all of us is that we are doing just fine living with less. You can get along without buying what six months ago you thought you couldn’t live without.”

J. Crew has become the darling where haute couture once ruled. “Three of us at the table, including myself, were wearing J. Crew cardigans,” adds Stewart. “If our first lady wears J. Crew to greet the queen of England, no reason I can’t wear J. Crew to a business dinner. The great thing about this is it’s so freeing. It really takes a lot of pressure off to not have to be wearing the latest designer fashions all the time.”

In a city where “for rent” signs now occupy the windows of once top-shop boutiques, Stewart is remarkably optimistic despite the very tangible gloom. “I hear from (high-end chefs) about how dining out with expense accounts is way, way down,” she says. “Across the board, people have cut way back on dining out. My friend Daniel Boulud has a great solution to this — the hot dog!” Boulud’s newest eatery, DBGB Kitchen and Bar, will open at Houston and Bowery in May. In addition to 24 beers on tap, the new downtown digs will indeed feature house-made hot dogs. “Daniel’s taking a practical, very creative look at where we are and coming up with something wonderfully unexpected. And what’s more comforting than a hot dog? I love that!”

Stewart, a self-proclaimed movie buff, applauds Gotham PR doyenne Peggy Siegal as another “creative genius” who has used the current economic realities as a source of inspiration rather than a handicap. “Peggy is having screenings midday and serving lunch, not some elaborate dinner,” Stewart says. “She’s hosting the premiere of ‘Grey Gardens’ at a private home in the Hamptons followed by dinner at Grey Gardens (the original East Hamptons mansion depicted in the film). It’s a much smaller venue, it’s affordable and so clever!”

Pausing for a moment, she is suddenly serious. “I go to about a premiere a week. You just never see those big blowouts anymore. What I see is low-key and cozy, and you know what? The press is still there taking pictures and the guests are still having fun.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more