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“Risk-Taking Is In My Blood”

What it takes to open a huge new store in this environment.

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This week, Jennifer Mankins, 32, opens a 2,500-square-foot clothing store on Grand Street in Williamsburg. When she signed the lease last February, the world looked a lot different. This is the third and largest shop in her Brooklyn-based mini-chain, called Bird. The timing would make even the most seasoned shopkeeper sick to her stomach. But Mankins, who came up as an assistant buyer at Barneys and Steven Alan, refuses to panic. “Risk-taking is in my blood,” she says.

Bird is known for a well-edited selection of edgy and emerging women’s designers, like Tsumori Chisato and Isabel Marant, and along with all retailers, her stores suffered a serious dip in the fall. “November was awful,” she says. Then something happened. Sales in December and January were up 20 percent from the year before. Online doubled. Two weeks ago, she had her largest volume of sales in a single day. “I think everyone realized they were still living the same life,” she says.

Mankins financed the new store with profits from her first two, as well as a $500,000 family loan. The renovation was extensive. She hired architect Ole Sondresen for his impressive sourcing of green materials and is on track to have the first fully leed-certified store in the city, full of reclaimed pine that makes the airy space smell like a fresh forest.

She plans on carrying lower-priced gift items (artisanal flower soaps, books) and more jewelry, which take up the least amount of space and provide the widest profit margins. She has also, counterintuitively, decided to expand into higher-end designers like Thakoon, Yigal Azrouël, Paul Smith, and Stella McCartney—labels with price points above $1,000 that aren’t usually carried outside of the meatpacking district, let alone in Brooklyn. Even if she doesn’t sell the pieces for full price at first, Mankins figures catching the eye of a new customer is worth it.

Mankins has reduced her inventory for spring by 30 percent, though there are exceptions. She ordered Thakoon’s stunning $1,400 white bandage dress with black ribbons in every size. That’s what her customers have been signaling they want. Denim, for example, has slowed to a halt. “People want things that make them feel really good,” she says. “No one wants anything super-basic.”

Mankins keeps her operations lean, asking her small staff to double up on duties to avoid layoffs, and her personal expenses low. She has always taken “the bare minimum” salary, and she and her husband have lived in the same one-bedroom rental for ten years. “We don’t have a mortgage, we don’t have children.” Mankins sees opportunities even in the downturn. For the five positions at the new store, she had her pick of highly qualified salespeople. Designers who declined to sell to her during the boom years have a dffierent attitude. “Now when I call them up,” she says, “they’re just as excited as I am.”


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