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How Cloak & Dagger's Brookelynn Starnes Started Her Own Line

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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

Brookelynn Starnes is one of the fortunate few lucky enough to land a dream fashion job while still in college. But after years of working as a successful stylist to high-end brands and celebrities alike, Starnes felt that something was missing. To fill that void, she started her own clothing line, Cloak & Dagger, in 2006. Since then, she's opened two boutiques—one in the East Village and another in Boerum Hill—where she sells brands like Karen Walker, Lauren Moffatt, and Rebecca Minkoff alongside her own collections. We spoke with Starnes about the hiccups she encountered in the beginning of her wholesale business, and what it's really like manning your own store.

You have a background in styling. When you were doing that, did you ever think you'd someday open a store?

Brookelynn: It's funny because when I was in college, one of my best friends and I started this little notebook where we wrote down all of our ideas and all of our dreams. We created this idea for a retail store, and we had this whole vision for it. I thought it would be so great to create a store—it's almost like an installation in a way. It's an experience for people, and you get to curate it with all these beautiful, wonderful things.

I was really lucky to get in the styling industry so early. I was actually doing that while I was still in school. I just sort of lucked out and met somebody that hooked me up and got me in the industry. It's a very small, niche field, so I felt very fortunate that I had high-end fashion clients and celebrities. It was a great experience, especially fresh out of college and while in college, and I made great money and met awesome people.

But now, I feel a lot more fulfilled. I knew I wanted to do my own line, so I started that. I also left and went to Europe for a year and studied French and Italian, because that was a major part of what I wanted to do. I sort of had this life plan, and I feel like I've been really blessed to have the clarity of knowing myself, and knowing what I want.

Which came first, your line, or the store?

Brookelynn: The line came first. When I came back from Europe, I decided I wanted to use my degree, so I got some jobs designing in Illustrator all day long, and then I started working freelance again. My now husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, was like, "I know this girl, and something tells me this is going to be really good between you guys, and she's looking for a new assistant." And this was for Libertine. So I met her, and we really hit it off. I felt like it would be a great stepping stone for me because I wanted to do my own line. It was a small company, rather than a huge corporation, and I felt like I'd get more of a hands-on feel for how to do it. Like, how to really create these relationships with retailers, and do the production, and all that jazz.

While I was at Libertine I started Cloak & Dagger I was totally open about it, and they were really supportive of me. But it's really difficult doing wholesale. I started selling to other retailers—I got into Barneys my second season. I had great press, and some of the best stores worldwide. My stuff was more contemporary, and it had a very vintage feel but with a modern aesthetic. So old world construction was really important to me, and quality was also really important. I would always try to use natural based fibers with my fabrics, so prices weren't cheap. And it was just always a challenge trying to get enough of a profit margin in my wholesale prices. That was always the struggle, every season.

I started with my line and I opened the store only selling Cloak & Dagger. I had reached a point where I really wanted a store—I went back to that dream, and to that notebook—and I just started looking, and I found a great space on a street that I always loved, and I just opened it up. But I soon began to realize the customers wanted new stuff often. Creating, designing, producing, and sampling new stuff and running a store became really difficult. I also realized that I couldn't fill every category. I don't make T-shirts, I don't make accessories. I needed to start bringing in other lines as well. And I had a lot of fun with that.

How long had you been opened before you started incorporating other designers?

Brookelynn: I opened in 2009, and I would say within that first year it became clear to me that I was going to have to. I wanted to fill the space more. The store when I first opened was sparse. That's when I was like, "You know what, I need to find new stuff. This is great, but I need to shift my focus."

Tell me a little bit about your buying process. Are you often looking to incorporate new designers, and is there something in particular you're looking for ever season—like a really good jacket, or a great line of accessories?

Brookelynn: The way that I buy is that if I wouldn't wear it, I wouldn't want it in my store. That's my one thing that I hold true to. If I ask one of my assistants if they like something, and they hesitate, I'm like, "Okay, no." Unless you're dying over it, then we don't want it.

With that said, there are always core pieces that I have fun with. I have a sunglasses obsession myself, and I have an outerwear obsession. These are things I love to buy personally, and I think that sort of shows with our buys. But, with that said, I scan all the shows, and I scan all the blogs that are hot. I'm also always asking customers, if they come in and they're wearing something really great, who makes it. I feel like our customer is a unique individual.

Right now, we've been looking for a great bag line. I started carrying Rebecca Minkoff, because I know that I like their bags. I've sort of been coveting them myself. I'm not so brand-driven, necessarily, or even collection-driven. I'm more piece-driven. It's all about the style, and the quality, and things that are classic but different, and things that aren't necessarily too trendy.

What made you decide to expand to Brooklyn?

Brookelynn: Well, I live in Brooklyn [laughs]. Like I said, I do this all based on my experience, of what I want and what I feel is right. Whether that's the right business model or not, I'm not sure. But I feel like Brooklyn is becoming the new Manhattan: There's so much development, so many people are moving there. I think it's a great place to live, and I just really believe in it.

I find in the store that we get tourists from all over the world, and we get people who live in all different neighborhoods of Brooklyn. For me, on weekends, I like to just hop on my bike and ride to my favorite stores. I don't necessarily want to go into the city. Fifty percent of the decision, though, was I ride my bike to work from time to time, and the store in Brooklyn is on my bike path. That's how I found it. It's totally Cloak & Dagger—the old, giant windowpane storefront, the tree-lined, quaint, cute, charming block it's on, the interior of the store that's got these old stained glass windows from the turn of the century.

Can you think of any Holy Grail item that you'd like to have in the store?

Brookelynn: I've tried to get the Proenza Schouler PS1 bag.

Was it impossible?

Brookelynn: Well, I was like, Bird carries them. And I feel like we have great lines like Opening Ceremony and higher-end stuff as well that isn't necessarily mainstream. But they're apparently not selling to small boutiques anymore. So that's the deal with that.

But I feel pretty satisfied with what we have. That was really the only thing I was disappointed with. I feel honestly, with the exception of the Proenza bags, we've been really lucky. People haven't turned us down. I feel really fortunate to have the access to the lines that we do have.

If you could think of one piece of advice to give to someone who was looking to open their own store, could you think of what that might be?

Brookelynn: Well, this is kind of general, but I think it covers all the bases. I would say, don't do it for the money, do it for the love of it. If you're not really enjoying doing it, I would maybe think twice about it. Because it's a lot of work. It's not just the fun, "Oh, we get to shop and play." It's a lot of work. Finding great people to work with you, general day-to-day stuff, keeping it running smoothly. I think that's the one piece of advice that I would give.

Time for the lightening round. 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s?

Brookelynn: 1970s. Wait a minute, though. Hold on. I have to say I do love the 1990s. I'm totally a grunge rock kinda girl. So it might be a tie.

Beach or mountains?

Brookelynn: Beach, hands down.

Tumblr, Pintrest, or Instagram?

Brookelynn: Pinterest!

Jay-Z or Kanye West?

Brookelynn: Neither.

Anyone you'd like to substitute?

Brookelynn: Hmm. Kurt Cobain.

· Cloak & Dagger [Official Site]
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