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Why Erica Kiang Opened Babel Fair During a Recession

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Photos by Driely S.

For New Jersey native Erica Kiang, it wasn't always the dream to open an independent boutique. During college at Barnard, she was figuring out what she wanted to do in fashion. Following an editorial internship at Vogue, a merchandising internship at Gucci, and a PR internship with BPMW, she landed in the corporate offices at Ann Taylor Loft. "I loved the experience at Loft, but I've always had more of an entrepreneurial spirit, so I knew that I wanted to do my own thing. And aesthetically, I've always had a totally different taste than the places that I've been at."

That taste includes stocking her Nolita boutique, Babel Fair, solely with international brands—most of which you've probably never heard of. Things serendipitously fell into place in November 2009, when she opened on Elizabeth Street. Read on to find out why the recession was the best time to make retail moves and how Kiang finds her unique offerings.

Was there any hesitation about opening a store in the middle of a recession?

Of course there was. But it was the best time to negotiate prices, when people are scared to make those moves. I really wanted to be in Nolita—I actually really wanted to be on Elizabeth Street. There were like five or six open spots then, which is insane because now Alex Mill is here, and Anthropologie was trying to move into Bowery, and it's becoming way, way more expensive. Now, we could never get into this space, because we're on a very long commercial lease. In hindsight, it worked out for the best because we got the best deal on the lease that I possibly could have gotten.

Why were you in a good position to open a boutique in 2009 when others weren't?

It was a chain of events that happened in my favor. I was at the end of my job working in corporate, and it was honestly going to be business school or this. If you're an entrepreneur paying for business school, it's an interesting concept—it doesn't always come out to your benefit. For me, I just thought I'll try the store and see what happens. It's like its own business school. It was really the best way to get started.

Why did you want to be on Elizabeth Street specifically? It looked a lot different back then than it does now.

The best way to get a real estate space is to walk around, because you just need to see. So I just kept walking and walking, and I just felt like it was going to be Elizabeth Street because Soho had already become kind of a commercial mall, and the real estate in Soho is like five times more expensive than the real estate on the other side of Broadway. I just knew on a purely logistic, financial level that there was no way I could afford that.

Nolita just felt like more of the atmosphere that I was looking for. It's more independent, but higher-end, and the streets are really nice and taken care of. And Elizabeth Street, it just felt like there was something happening here in terms of retail and fashion.

And what about the space itself? What is the feeling you want people to get while they're in here?

I loved this space because my grandfather—he's also an entrepreneur—said you need a space with a lot of frontage. You want it to be wider than it is shallow, which it almost is. And in Chinese culture, that's good luck because it's draws in money. You never want to be narrow and deep—whenever you shop those stores, it's very uncomfortable.

We had this one customer come in, and she was like, "This is the most friendly environment I've ever been into." And that's exactly what we want. I didn't want an intimidating boutique at all. I always feel like it's really important to talk to customers and be friendly, and not to look down and stare at them. We have such an eclectic crowd, so it's really important to me that people feel welcome when they come in here.

So how does that translate to Babel Fair's design aspect?

Yuyu Chen, my friend who's an artist, helped me design the entire space. We wanted to make it really warm and inviting. I didn't want a lot of black, because the store's small. The middle table is supposed to have a sense of discovery with the boxes, like finding new things. People like that, and they're always taking pictures of that kind of stuff.

A lot of times, the middle of the store is hard to deal with. You can put another rack, or you put a mannequin, but it's kind of a dead space in this type of layout. So the table has been really great. When boyfriends have nothing to do, they just stand there and look at stuff!

Yuyu just helped redo our windows. We have a sheep ball over there—she actually made those sheep with a sewing machine and sewed them all together. She's insane. And she did our mural.

What does Babel Fair mean?

I just made it up. The Tower of Babel is a biblical story, when the world spoke one language. And "fair," I just kind of liked because it's the atmosphere of the store. But I wonder sometimes, is this just a really hard name to remember? I can't tell because I'm so used to it.

How do you find what you carry?

I did a lot of very casual traveling, backpacking and stuff like that, when I was younger. I used to see a lot of different brands that I liked, but it's harder to find the more affordable labels in the U.S. So I started with some of the brands that I knew that I liked.

And then I actually emailed a few of my friends at Loft—a lot of them are from different countries, or just randomly travel, and I asked them kind of what brands that they liked and couldn't find here.

And then it's kind of always just keeping your ear to the ground. I read fashion blogs and magazines, international blogs obviously, and talk to people. When you travel, a lot of people will be like, "Have you heard of this brand?" So it's a constant process.

Because these are all international brands, are you ever pushed to support local business, like the Made in NY or Made in USA movement? And how do you feel about that?

That's an interesting question. We haven't ever gotten backlash, but I've noticed that there definitely is a movement. There's no political statement here—it was just my own passion. So in that sense, I feel like we're just doing something completely different. There's a lot of stores that specialize in New York designers, or they want stuff that's made in the US, and we source things from so many different countries.

A lot of times, we work with countries that basically never sell to the U.S., like Brazil. Their fashion presence here is so small, so they're so excited to get something in the U.S. And they produced in Brazil, which is actually more expensive to produce there than it is to produce here. So I guess we just support different international markets rather than just the U.S.

Do you lean toward younger, international designers as opposed to bigger brands that aren't around in the U.S.?

It's been both. I actually get sponsored, as a buyer, by a lot of these countries to go to their fashion weeks, which means they'll pay for me to go out there and meet their designers, both big brands and small brands. Of course, France won't sponsor me, because they do enough trade with the U.S. But I've been sponsored by Korea, Brazil, Germany, and Portugal.

When I go there, it's definitely a mixture. There's some really great smaller artisans that sell handmade jewelry, but you can only import five pieces of each thing, because they're hand-making this stuff. A lot of times, we'll bring in bigger brands. There's a lot of challenges when you work with someone who can't produce even 100 pieces of a dress.

We're always looking, and we're always trying new brands. We're always open to working with different countries. We hit different hurdles—it's not always financially feasible for us to bring something in if it has to be so, so extremely expensive, but we're always trying.

Who are some of your favorite designers and pieces in the store right now?

Gat Rimon from France is one of my favorites. Another brand that we have is Bonsui from the UK. It definitely has an English sense of style, a little more feminine. We have a lot of Australian brands in right now. One of my favorite pieces is this chambray shirt with neon detail.

For gifts, we got some really fun things in recently, like a French hand sanitizer that smells really nice. It's a really good gift because people are so into hand sanitizers, but they usually smell really bad. There's a Portuguese toothpaste that we just got in, which is funny. We just got all these bags in from Mexico—I like that they're from less traditional Mexican fabric. And these really cute gold charms from Chain Gang we brought in from Berlin. They've been really great for the holidays.

So between your location and the brands you carry, what kind of customers do you draw in here?

Being in Nolita, we unintentionally draw a very big tourist crowd, which is great for us because then we can always tell what economy is doing well based on who comes in. And then, of course, we have our core customers, and Nolita is interesting because it's a very specific environment. The people who live here are usually creative and young and have a lot of disposable income. One of our best clients is a music lawyer. There's a lot of models that shop here, but we also get moms. Another one of our best clients is in her 80s. She lived on Bowery for 30 years, and she just left with her boyfriend for Argentina!

What is the price point you aim for?

We're on the same street as Rag + Bone. Their boots are like $600, and our boots are under $100. And that's really important to me because I don't spend that much money on stuff. Our price point is under $300 retail, which in this neighborhood is not that common. I know that other people in the country are like, "That's expensive!" And yeah, it is, but in this neighborhood, we're 40% less.

Would you ever want to open another boutique?

Yeah. It's always something that I've kept my eye out for. It's just totally opportunistic—in New York City, it's all about the location and the space. If there's nothing good available, then you're just going to shoot yourself in the foot. Recently, I've been looking at Williamsburg. I wish I had gotten in it a little bit earlier, because right now it's hitting the ceiling. The last time I looked was 2009, and now it's just ridiculous compared to what I pay here. So we won't be on Bedford anytime soon.

But there will be another Babel Fair. It's just something that depends on the timing and the space and what comes up. I wish there was another recession … just kidding!

And you would definitely keep this space?

I'll keep this space forever, until I die.

Okay, time for the lightning round: 8am or 8pm?

8pm.

Beer or wine?

Wine.

Whiskey or tequila?

Whiskey.

Beach or mountains?

Beach.

Cats or dogs?

Neither! I'm not really a pet person.

Favorite vacation destination?

Berlin.

Favorite neighborhood lunchtime spot?

Tacombi.

Favorite happy hour spot?

I don't think I have anything for that! I haven't been to a happy hour in literally five years [because I'm always working].

Rap or country?

Country.

Scandal or Homeland?

Are those shows? I haven't watched either. Honestly, I watch Shark Tank!
· Babel Fair [Official Site]
· All Better Know a Store Owner Posts [Racked NY]