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How Pinkyotto Went from One Flea Market Stall to Five Boutiques

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Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a weekly Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.

Photos by William Chan

These days, Pinkyotto has five locations: one in the East Village, one in the the West Village, one in Nolita, one in Williamsburg, and one on Newbury Street in Boston. The label wholesales to around 150 stores, and its girly, affordable, one-size-fits-all dresses can be found on ladies around the city.

It's a far cry from the summer of 2005, when Pinkyotto launched as a booth at TheMarketNYC, a bazaar for up-and-coming designers that used to operate out of a church on Mulberry Street. After the jump, co-founder Ryo Liu talks about how she and business partner Peter Hsia got their start, why the brand eschews traditional sizing, and what she's learned from her successes and failures over the past seven years.

How did Pinkyotto get its start?

Peter and I met one night on his birthday. I wanted to quit my job and moved back to Taiwan, where I was born. Peter didn't like his job either, so we both moved to Asia for like six months, and then we just decided, "This is not for me, I need to move back to New York."

I had been working at an ad agency as an art director, and I hated my job so much. It was so stressful, and I got an eye infection from staring at the computer for over 12 hours a day. I was like, "OK, I have to do something else." When we were in Asia, we were just traveling around, and we got some connections from friends who know manufacturers and stuff, so we were like "Why not design something?" So I started designing tank tops and stuff like that.

We started Pinkyotto back in the summer of 2005, in a designers' market on Mulberry Street, in the church. We began there on the weekends, just two days a week, with like two rolling racks. We were doing very well there, so we decided to open up the store. That's how we opened up our 9th Street store in the East Village. That was September 2005.

That was doing well, so we decided to expand and opened our Prince Street location two years later, in 2007. The same year we opened the Williamsburg store on Bedford, and then 2008 we did Boston and LA. LA didn't do well, so we closed it.

Why do you think LA didn't do well?

I think we made a mistake with the location. We opened on W. 3rd Street, and I didn't know LA well, so I didn't understand that people drive to certain stores, shop, and then leave. They don't walk around. It's really different from New York. And the economy was really bad. It's tough to do a business when all the stores on the block are closing. But it was a good learning experience.

What came next?

Then we did Bleecker Street. And now we're looking for places to expand.

In New York, or outside of the city?

We're open to other cities, but in New York, all the stores we have are downtown, so we really want Upper East Side or Upper West Side.

Do you still design everything in the store?

I don't design every piece. The wholesale collection, I design all of that. But retail, we have hundreds of pieces every month, so I have a team of designers. They provide us samples, and I'll consult on colors and fabrics to go with the whole collection. But everything is Pinkyotto—we don't carry any other lines.

How many people are currently working for you?

Between full time and part time, probably about 30. Boston is different, since they have their own team there.

In terms of your design philosophy, how would you describe the Pinkyotto look?

Unique and trendy but affordable. When I was a graduate school student, I used to window shop a lot, but I couldn't afford to buy anything. I'd go to boutiques on the LES, Soho, even Barneys, and everything was so expensive. I felt like the salespeople would look at me and go, "OK, you can't afford this." So when I started Pinkyotto, I had this concept that we wanted something trendy that every girl could buy. and we wanted to provide great customer service.

Your staffers are always so friendly.

That's from my student experience. Whether they buy or don't buy, we want the girls to try on everything. Our concept was that the store was my closet, because I lived next door to the 9th Street store in a tiny little studio, and I literally didn't have a closet, so every morning I'd just go next door to the store and take something. And I was working there, so when people came in, I was so excited to show them everything and have them try things on.

After we expanded to all the other store locations, when we were looking for people to join our team, we wanted people who were really nice and friendly, who could really carry on this Pinkyotto philosophy.

Do you work in the stores at all now, or are you almost entirely behind the scenes?

We started wholesale last year, so now we spend a lot of time on our office in Soho. We're actually moving; we just found a new office two blocks away. But I also try to spend a lot of time at the store. I moved back to the East Village last year, so I try to stop by that store with my dog Teddy. I think it's important to know what the market wants.

Your sizing is unusual in that it's often one size fits all. What's the philosophy there?

When we started the 9th Street store, it was really small. I think it was 190 square feet. W didn't have a back room, we didn't have a stock room, we didn't have a basement. It was tiny, but I thought we could do it. Peter didn't believe me. We actually had a huge fight because he found a huge location on the Lower East Side and I didn't want to go there because I wanted the East Village.

Anyway, the space was so small that instead of providing the whole range of sizes from 0 to 10, I thought I'd rather have more styles. So when I was coming up with measurements, I wanted to have something that fits most of the people. Most of the styles will fit a small or medium, probably not a large (though some sizes do fit a large). It's the East Village; probably most girls are the same size. And the concept worked really well. It's like a vintage concept, like it was my closet, and I have found so many things in the closet and I want to show all my friends who come in. Even if people don't fit into our sizing, I can recommend a sweater or a scarf.

Our second store was literally the same size, like 200 square feet, though it looks bigger from the storefront. So we put out the same amount of merchandise. Over the years we started carrying sizing for fitted items like shirts, blazers, and fitted dresses. Some popular styles that sell really well become large as well. I wanted to fit most girls, so you'll find that many items are quite loose. We have a lot of pregnant women who come in to shop, because they say they can find clothing here and then wear it after they have the baby.

Do you have any advice for someone who's starting out now?

I think we were just very lucky. I went to fashion design school when I was in Taiwan, and then I went to school for communication/design here at Pratt, so me and Peter work together because he has the business side that I don't have—that most designers don't have.

It's important to know what the market wants. We started at the designers' market to test our products, to see what tests well and what doesn't. My personal style was very different from Pinkyotto. What I learned was very interesting. It wasn't just stuff I liked that would sell. So it's important to know what most girls like.

And then from Peter's business perspective, he went to NYU/Stern business school, so he really knows how to run the business part. You need to know what the market wants, but you also need to know how to run the business.

Time for the lightning round! 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s?

70s.

Mountains or beach?

Definitely the beach.

Tumblr, Pinterest, or Instagram?

I just started Instagram the last couple weeks because Peter told me I had to represent Pinkyotto. Instagram is different because it's more fun, it's more of a lifestyle. So I started to do that, but I had to ask all my young employees how to do it. I'm like, "You guys are the kids, how do you do this?" But I'm having fun.

· All Better Know a Store Owner posts [Racked NY]
· All Pinkyotto posts [Racked NY]
· Pinkyotto [Official Site]