The New Style Merchants

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.

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, 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.”

From left: Lara Fieldbinder (Dear Fieldbinder), Candice Waldron (Jumelle), and Kyung Lee (Albertine, Claudine, Leontine).
Photo: Courtesy of Ylli

482 Driggs Ave., Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 718-302-3555
OWNER: Fetije Madzuric
Often, Madzuric is barely into her first coffee when a local designer drops in with samples. One morning it was Samantha Pleet with drop-waisted jumpers; another time, Kate Linstrom came by with hand-printed dresses she produces under the label Objets Trouvés. “I just said, ‘Okay, I’ll try it,’ ’’ says Madzuric, 29. “It’s not that much for me to order four pieces and see how it goes.” Madzuric’s first job was as a sales associate at Bloomingdale’s. Stints at Stila and Bergdorf followed; then she found herself back at Bloomingdale’s, in the men’s-fashion department, writing trend reports for buyers. She always wanted to open her own shop. Last year, her husband, a real-estate investor, convinced her to go through with it. She looked only at spaces in Williamsburg, where she grew up, figuring she’d start in the neighborhood she knew best. “Plus,” she says, “nobody needs me in the city.” She found a 5,100-square-foot space in a renovated factory with two walls of windows. Her customers (the hipsters and young moms who now make up most of Williamsburg’s population) look to her for originality more than luxury, which means her shop is heavy on unusual rising talents like Besoni, which makes origami-pleated baby-doll dresses. Still, landing headliners is essential. Trovata, the West Coast luxury designer line, wasn’t yet distributed in the neighborhood when Madzuric called; she got it. The high-end knitwear line Vince wasn’t as easy. “They hadn’t worked in Williamsburg before. But I told them, ‘Baby-doll tees for $68 will work. Trust me! We’ve got 30-story condos going up by the waterfront.’ ”

STORE: Dear Fieldbinder
198 Smith St., Cobble Hill, Brooklyn; 718-852-3620
OWNER: Lara Fieldbinder
When she first opened, Fieldbinder, 34, carried a mere ten lines, which she’d had to beg showrooms to let her buy. Now reps for designers like Ted Baker and Cynthia Rowley seek her out. “We just picked up Joseph,” she says, referring to the British label famous ten years ago for its slimming pants. “He’s trying to make a comeback.” Six months before she opened, when she was still working at the Guggenheim producing art books, Fieldbinder snuck into the Coterie trade show using fake business cards and invoices to scope out the lines and looks she’d sell. Her mission is to offer wearable, affordable fashion; no $1,000 silver-lamé Stella McCartney party dresses here. “My girl wants to get a lot of use out of an item,” says Fieldbinder. “I didn’t have a lot of money growing up in Texas, so I know what it means to buy a $150 shirt. Can you wear it once a week? Can you layer it?” At Designers & Agents, a trade show for funkier, smaller labels, she fell in love with Deener’s high-waisted jeans. She started selling Rachel Nasvik handbags after Nasvik walked into the store wearing one. “Madison Marcus is really hot right now,” she says of the label started by two twentysomething New York locals. “Someone came in and bought a super-short white eyelet dress of theirs for her wedding. But it’s a hard shape. You can’t have boobs.” Right now, her focus is making her white-on-white store all the more user-friendly. “I read this book that said what you want a customer to do is circle around the store. So my husband and I designed a structure in the middle of the store with a rack on one side and shelves on the other,” she says, proudly. “Now they circle.”

STORE: Jumelle
148 Bedford Ave., Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 718-388-9525
OWNER:Candice Waldron
Waldron, 34, never thought of herself as the type to own her own business. But after eleven years in TV production, most recently at PBS, she put her research skills to work and set about “producing” Jumelle. She sought advice from the Pace University business center when drafting her business plan. When she was deciding between opening in Fort Greene, where she lives, or Williamsburg, she simply called up indie-boutique guru Steven Alan for his opinion. He said Williamsburg. In a matter of weeks, she was stripping layers of linoleum and newspaper from the floor of a quaint but decrepit space on Bedford. She added some vintage floral wallpaper from Second Hand Rose in Tribeca and a black-glass chandelier. For her first season, the designers she carried were a representation of her own closet—edgy but pretty clothes from labels like Karen Walker, Grey Ant, and Alexander Herchcovitch. Then she went to Paris with her twin sister, Carla (jumelle is twin in French), and found Danish designer Camilla Staerk. In London she spotted Nelli Turner’s label Bi La Li, a line of well-tailored dresses with very sexy backs. “One of her former assistants is friends with my boyfriend,” says Waldron, “so she e-mailed me images of her collection. I ordered it without even seeing the samples.” Waldron’s biggest challenge now is offering unique pieces that hit the right notes for the neighborhood’s rapidly shifting, quirky clientele, which can run from the few remaining pioneering artists to Manhattan teenagers shopping with their moms. So far she’s doing something right. When she asked designer Caitlin Mociun to customize pieces exclusively for Jumelle, “Caitlin called and said she’d found a big, colorful wool plaid. I said, ‘Buy as much as you can and make me a muumuu.’ She made four,” says Waldron, “and they all sold out.”

STORES: Albertine, 13 Christopher St.; 212-924-8515; Claudine, 19 Christopher St.; 212-414-4234; and Leontine, 226 Front St.; 212-766-1066
OWNER: Kyung Lee
If Lee is on-site when you walk into one of her three stores (all named after characters in Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse), she’ll take one look at you, pluck something from the racks, and say, “Go try this on.” Chances are it will fit perfectly. Chances are it will also be something you’d never have picked yourself. About half of the clothing and accessories (and, at Leontine, a smattering of housewares) are limited editions, made by Lee’s cadre of local designers; there’s Joanna Baum’s line, called Sir, and Kathy Kemp, who sells to Lee even though she has her own store, Anna, on 3rd Street. Lee dug up Nadia Tarr’s cotton-jersey wrap dresses at “some weird trunk show,” and she carries the Los Angeles line Show Pony because the singer Sarah Sophie Flicker “came in one day and told me I had to carry her friend Kime Buzzelli,” says Lee. “So I called and left a message. A few days later, two huge boxes of Show Pony clothes arrived.” She half-encourages, half-bullies her employees to ply their creativity for the stores, and since about half the pieces are sold on consignment there’s little financial risk in giving a new project shelf space. Her manager and co-buyer Philippa Content’s family collection of ancient Greek and Roman intaglios is now a jewelry line called Delphine. “I have to stop with the rhyme, I know,” says Lee.

Lee herself designs a line of shoes and boots made “by these old guys in Korea” that start at $248. Next up is a line of basics that may be produced in Vietnam—she’d like to keep those prices under $200. To finance it, she’s thinking of parceling out ownership to designer friends and staff members. “Nobody wants to be a salesperson forever,” she says. “And I’m always looking for a crew.”

AND ALSO Stuart & Wright, 85 Lafayette Ave., Fort Greene, Brooklyn; 718-797-0011
Hip men’s and women’s from two Steven Alan alumni.

Suite Orchard, 145A Orchard St.; 212-533-4115
Girl-meets-rock style by Sonia and Cindy Huang.

Pixie Market, 100 Stanton St.; 212-253-0953
Reasonably priced lines for shaggy-haired Lower East Siders. The house label is Maud.

The New Style Merchants