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The New Style Merchants

Small boutiques run by young women with very decided tastes are guiding the look of the city.

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From left: Jennifer Mankins (Bird), Kerrilynn Pamer (Castor & Pollux), and Fetije Madzuric (Ylli).
Photomontages by Caroline Shepard  

Sometimes it feels like all the shopping excitement in New York takes place either at H&M (Stella McCartney! Karl Lagerfeld!) or in the Über-luxury realm, where Tom Ford charges the price of a small car for custom socks. But in a city where we’ll pay a premium for a tomato that was grown 50 miles away, both options seem removed from our increasingly community-oriented selves.

In the past year, a quietly influential set of young, entrepreneurial women has proven that fashion can be inventive, affordable, well-made, and—like that tomato—cultivated locally. “Large retail chains are owned by men, managed by men, designed by men,” says Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy. “You have these women who are responding to their customers and driving the design of their own businesses. It’s not rocket science why they’re succeeding.”

With no bureaucracy to satisfy, they can scout and nurture new talent on a small scale. They take risks on lesser-known cult European designers like Vanessa Bruno or Rodebjer, and make dusty lines like Sonia Rykiel and Cacharel cool again. They share a certain vintage-loving girlishness and a penchant for unusual fabrics, handcraft, and names that sound like obscure rock bands. But the owners insist they’re worlds apart, each curating fashion for her particular customer in her neighborhood. Here, six stores putting the thrill back in local shopping—and worth going out of your way for.

STORE: Bird
220 Smith St., Cobble Hill, Brooklyn; 718-797-3774; and 430 Seventh Ave., Park Slope, Brooklyn; 718-768-4940
OWNER: Jennifer Mankins
Ever since Mankins, 31, took over the original Bird in Park Slope four years ago, she’s been on a nonstop buying spree. First she doubled the store’s inventory. Then she renovated. Then she expanded the adjacent children’s boutique, Baby Bird (it closed in May but will relocate shortly), and last month she launched an e-commerce site, Shopbird.com. Last spring, Mankins opened a second brick-and-mortar Bird in Cobble Hill, geared toward a slightly younger demo (sixties minidresses and skinny jeans). When she worked as a buyer, for Barneys New York and then Steven Alan (all the while playing drums in her band, Adult Rodeo), Mankins fell in love with labels like APC and Vanessa Bruno, which she now carries. But many of the 100 designers that collectively represent her colorful rocker-romantic aesthetic are discoveries from her own exhaustive travels. “Tsumori Chisato shows out of Paris and makes wild clothes,” says Mankins of one favorite designer. A recent trip to Buenos Aires turned up Pesqueira, “a fun knitwear line at a great price,” and Sibilia, a silver-jewelry line. Once Mankins falls in love with a line, “I’ll be extremely committed,” she says, which means not just putting it on mannequins in the window but telling its story to every customer. This spring, she added about a dozen new shoe labels, including Worishofers, which look like they belong on nursing-home attendants.“They’re German comfort shoes,” she explains, in her Texarkana accent, “and they’re $55! We sell ten pairs a day.” Up next—because there’s always something up next—is a private-label organic knitwear line produced in Queens, and a men’s store. “I have 27 names in my head,” says Mankins. “Bird Dog, Bird House, Bird Bath. So I have to use them.”

STORE: Castor & Pollux
238 W. 10th St.; 212-645-6572
OWNER: Kerrilynn Pamer
It’s almost impossible to imagine that Pamer’s sleek space (rosy-brown wall-to-wall, grass-cloth wallpaper) was lime green with spongy ceiling tiles when she signed the lease. But Pamer, 36, had interior-design experience from her days working at Aero Studios and Martha Stewart—her pre-retail career—before she and a partner opened the original Castor & Pollux in Prospect Heights (now closed). Besides, Pamer is comfortable with a certain amount of risk. Every new order, new name, new line, is a wager. So far, Pamer’s got a good record. She was among the first to champion Phillip Lim, now a CFDA Award winner. Lately, she’s in a Scandinavian mood, having just placed a big order for fall coats and sweaters from Whyred, Hope, and Acne (all Swedish). Her customers—a mix of neighborhood teenagers, West Coast stylists trolling for inspiration, and hard-bodied yoga-mamas—are intensely loyal, stopping in weekly to see what Pamer’s picked. Sometimes they just come to hang out; on a recent afternoon, the local window washer was telling a story to Pamer and a neighbor who’d come by for lunch, while a stick-skinny brunette tested a thigh-high, cobalt-blue Mina Stone minidress. (Stone, one of Pamer’s new finds, is a recent Pratt grad who also cooks for gallerist Gavin Brown’s events.) Pamer also has a thing for jewelry; her current enthusiasms are Luc Kieffer and Helene Zubeldia, who used to design for Chloé. She’s experimenting with a perfume and even a “friends of Castor & Pollux” cookbook. “I’m going to start tasting recipes,” she says. “Remember, shopkeepers are gamblers.”


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