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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 Rebecca Dale
The story of Williamsburg changing is nothing new, since now more than ever national chains are flocking to the neighborhood to capitalize on new money, luxury apartment buildings, and an insatiable appetite for consumption. In contrast, boutiques like Swords-Smith, a tremendously spacious shop located on South 4th Street between Bedford and Berry, are authentically serving a community that has the drive, income, and ambition to support local and independent designers.
Run by Briana Swords and R. Smith, the store carries men's and women's clothing and accessories, from brands like Degen, Feral Childe, Upstate, Lucio Castro, Soulland, and K/LLER, as well as its own in-house line. Both Briana and Smith have creative backgrounds—she in fashion design, he in graphic design—so it's not surprising that so much of what's important to them revolves around the physicality of the store and the ways that serves as a creative hub for designers, friends, artists, and collaborators.
Let's start with your backgrounds. Was opening a store something that you guys always wanted to do?
Briana: Opening a store was never something that we specifically set out to do. We just got to this point in our lives where we had worked a decade in our respective careers, and really just wanted to do something bigger and more our own. Specifically, my background is fashion. I worked as a womenswear designer for the last ten years, and I realized I didn't want to leave fashion, but launching my own collection wasn't enough—I didn't want to just do that.
I have a lot of friends who have done it, and I watched them struggle with financing and everything else. We sat down and talked about what we could do, and a store kind of organically came into the mix.
Smith: I think the idea of space, too, played into that. My background is in graphic design, specifically digital design, so I've just been working online in this little virtual world and I think we liked the idea of doing something bigger than ourselves; just having a place that we could share what we create.
Briana: We really didn't just want to open a store, like just opening a boutique was never sort of the draw. We wanted to make sure that we made it a creative space where we could do our own work and host creative projects where other people—friends and artists that we know—could collaborate. So the studio was just as much a part of the plan as the store.
Smith: We like the idea of a project that has a lot of legs. It can evolve over time.
The store is really big—I feel like a space this size probably isn't super easy to come by in such a great location. Did you guys look at other locations before you decided on this one?
Briana: Yeah, for sure, [but when] we found this space the timing worked out great. It needed so much work because it was basically an empty hole.
Smith: We looked at a lot of spaces in the neighborhood, and a lot of the stuff here right now has all this new construction. It all felt a little bit stale, and not in line with the authentic thing that we wanted to do. I think when we saw the space, even though it was just a cement rectangle—you know, just the bones of the building, the steel beam ceiling, and brickwork—it just felt good.
Briana: What we really love is the juxtaposition between all of the natural and older elements with the modernity that we brought into it. The steel beams have been here, and the brick since the original iteration of the building. It used to be an old glue factory. As we were doing renovations, we really wanted to maintain certain elements as opposed to covering them up. It's a balance.
So Williamsburg was always the game plan then?
Smith: Yes. The store came out of us and us living here, as opposed to us saying we wanted to go open a store and then go look for where we wanted to do it. We've lived in our apartment for seven years, and we've lived in Brooklyn for more than ten years. So it wasn't like we were living in Manhattan and saw this opportunity to come here. We saw things changing and we thought that there's a lot of stuff that's not our favorite, and thought we could do a good job.
Briana: We realized that we were our target customer. We specifically sought out a certain kind of fashion, a certain kind of food or whatever in everything that we did. So we went out of our way, and all the people we knew who worked as creative professionals and friends did the same thing. There was this gap in the market for unique, independent designers as well as just stores that take risks. We really wanted to come in and feel like that. But yeah, I mean it wasn't us being like, "Let's capitalize on Williamsburg," you know? I feel like we are a little more authentic, and I hope that comes across.
Smith: [Williamsburg] is changing, and it's going to be good or bad. I think we can make it good.
Briana: I think there are so many great businesses here that do it right. And then to see some of the businesses coming in—it's fine, and that's just the way things are developing, but I think that there's always room for people like us who aren't a chain. We're young entrepreneurs getting ready to go. We're not like, "Let's just throw money at Williamsburg and see what comes out of it."
What was your first buy like? Were there brands off the bat that you knew you wanted to carry, and was it a struggle getting any of them because you were a new store?
Briana: We carried between 50 and 60 brands for our very first season, which was spring 2013—so it was a lot. I knew some of the designers personally from having worked in fashion for so long. I knew a lot of the designers I wanted to bring in, but I also did my due diligence and did research and went to trade shows and sought out designers that I admired and really wanted to carry.
We definitely did have some people who wanted to wait, but for the most part, every brand that we brought into the store, we didn't encounter resistance. We're not working with huge designers either, so that made it a little different.
What's the ratio of menswear to womenswear?
Briana: It's about 60% women's and 40% men's.
Do you think you'll build out men's merchandise more? I know you recently hosted your first menswear event.
Briana: We'll probably maintain the ratio, and I would like to grow them both together. We have a really strong menswear selection with a lot of great designers, and I think for the most part we're really coming into our own in terms of menswear. We've got a lot of great press on it, and we're developing a great customer who comes in for specific brands.
I feel super strongly about our menswear and I want to grow it, but I don't think it's mens over women's, or mens over jewelry, or mens over accessories. I want to grow everything. But yes, we did just have our first menswear event with Lucio Castro, who's a great NYC-based designer.
What's the reaction been like to the in-house line?
Briana: It's been great. I mean, honestly, we have been super lucky in terms of the press and feedback we received, and the reaction we get to not only our collection, but the store and the pieces and brands we carry.
Smith: We're going all in. This was always part of the plan: get back to the incubator and having our own creative space. Having an in-house line is something that we wanted to do.
Briana: The development of the line was actually done prior to us opening, so it's always been a big part of our plans. It wasn't like, "We're going to open a store and then capitalize and do our in-house line." It was always: this is my background, this is important to me, it's a really important part of our offering.
Are there any categories that you want to dive into with the line that you haven't done yet?
Briana: Everything—accessories, all of it. Not even in a sense where we could be doing everything; it's more like, we want to do great things and we want to work with people that we believe in. Whether that be the people we have producing the line, or the people we'll collaborate with on certain things.
I can't believe you guys are doing everything, from e-commerce to buying for the floor to the in-house line and all of that.
Smith: Well someone's gotta do it.
Briana: And we signed up for it, so no complaints.
It sounds like what's important to you involves doing everything.
Briana: Yeah, I mean we do have the experience. We don't necessarily have strong retail experience, and that's definitely been a learning process. But at the same time, we have a very specific vision for how it should be, and therefore it needs to be done by us. We need to be sort of there, pulling the strings.
Alright, time for the lightening round. Beer or wine?
8am or 8pm?
Beach or mountains?
Dream travel destination?
Smith: Africa and India.
Do you have Halloween costumes?
Briana: We had a nail art event this past Sunday, so we may not be making costumes for ourselves, but I did make heads for the mannequins.
· Swords-Smith [Official Site]
· The 38 Essential NYC Shopping Experiences, Fall 2013 [Racked NY]
· All Better Know a Store Owner Posts [Racked NY]